Q&A: Connie & Ida from Closing the Gap discuss pre-university education

Connie Foong and Ida Thien are two of the four co-founders of Closing the Gap, a programme that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education. Connie led the programme since it started in late 2016, and recently stepped down. Ida has taken over as Lead.

In this post, they share some reflections about this month’s Dialog Pendidikan topic: What (and whom) is pre-university education for?”

Tell us a bit about your work at Closing the Gap.

Connie: Our experience with Soon Teck, our fellow co-founder’s ex-student (you can read more about his story here), was the catalyst for Closing The Gap. After seeing Soon Teck successfully get into university on a full scholarship, we knew we wanted to do more to help bright, deserving students like him navigate the post-secondary schooling landscape. We were also inspired by the Futures programme at Teach First UK.

Ida: At Closing The Gap, we work with bright, under-represented students to enter quality universities. Selected students – we call them Scholars on the programme – undergo a 3-year development programme that combines personalised mentoring, enrichment workshops and a full university residential camp to equip them with the skills and knowledge necessary for effective university planning. Our Mentors are volunteer young professionals from various industry sectors who commit to mentoring our Scholars for 2 years. Our Scholars are Form 5 and, since 2019, Upper Form 6 students. So far, we have worked with 3 Cohorts of students – about 105 in total. We are aiming to recruit 70 more for next year!

How much does family money affect people’s choices of pre-u programmes and their experiences in pre-u?

Connie: Socioeconomic background plays such an influential role – the types of opportunities that are available to a privileged kid growing up in Mont Kiara would look very different compared to a low-income kid living just next door in Setapak.

Ida: I think it goes without saying that family money widens the choices available to a student. It provides a student with the safety net to try new experiences, which includes taking on private pre-university options beyond Matrikulasi and STPM, the latter 2 of which are virtually free. However, due to STPM being perceived as a longer and more difficult programme, it is no surprise that Matrikulasi is the top pre-university choice for the average Malaysian – perhaps also why the issue of quotas in Matrikulasi is such a sore point for many. But this is a longer, separate discussion to be had!

Beyond the ability to fork out the money for pre-university programmes, we also notice a correlation between the socioeconomic background a student comes from and her awareness of the options available to her. In Closing The Gap, we work with lower-middle to low income youths who, prior to the programme, have never heard of programmes such as the International Baccalaureate, Australian Matriculation or SATs/American Degree Transfer Programmes. Tertiary education attainment is typically low in their community and university planning is not something that is often discussed with them in school as well. So for such students, it is not only the case that they can’t afford to go for private pre-u programmes, but also that they cannot imagine being in them. And this ability to imagine is instrumental in getting them to believe that they should give different programmes a shot, both at the pre-university and university level.

Connie: There’s a lot more at stake for a lower-income student: if they’re on scholarships, they have to make sure they do well so they don’t lose the aid, or they might need to work part-time to continue supporting their families. If you talk about experiences at pre-university, then there are also social and cultural barriers that a lower-income student might need to adjust to. To illustrate: one of our scholars obtained a full scholarship for A levels at a private college in KL in 2017, but she struggled in her first semester to overcome culture shock, adjust to the rigour and workload of the programme, and juggle a part-time job on top of it all. Her grades suffered, which was a shock as she had always been a straight-A student. She lost her scholarship in the second semester, and had to make the difficult decision to not work so she could focus on pulling her grades back up.

In an ideal world, how would we address these inequities?

Ida: Any discussions about inequities are sure to be inadequate because the problem is very complex! But if there are two things present in my ideal world, they would be: One, holistic post-secondary planning support for students as part of their overall education experience.

Connie: Future planning needs to start a lot earlier in school, and these skills and knowledge incorporated into the schooling experience and curriculum. I really like what the Singapore Education Ministry has done.

Ida: Singapore has an end-to-end Education and Career Guidance as part of their school curriculum from primary school up to pre-university that supports students in their future planning journey.

Connie: By the end of secondary school, their students know exactly what their options are and where they can go.

Also, I would really like to see the role of school counsellors redefined in the public school system – a lot of the work that we do in the programme can be carried out by a careers guidance counsellor, but our experience working with schools thus far has shown us that the role of the counsellor tend to be that of a disciplinarian rather than guiding students in meaningful conversations about their futures.

Ida: For instance, a lot of students we work with barely, if ever, visit their school counsellors or have the assumption that only disciplinary cases warrant a visit to the counsellor.

My second idea is for scholarship-giving bodies to take a more contextual approach to scholarship awards, particularly with more prestigious scholarships. This means taking a holistic view of an applicant’s achievements and growth in relation to his life circumstances, rather than strictly on-paper qualifications or grades. I don’t think this undermines the principles of meritocracy which understandably drive the selection process of such scholarships. Instead, I believe that it puts our definition of ‘merits’ into context – 4As on an application cannot tell the story of a student who works part-time or grows up in a family where English is not widely spoken, for instance. Perhaps such a student deserves a shot to tell his story at the interview stage.

What should a good pre-u programme teach/offer/etc in order to prepare students for university?

Ida: At the end of the day, everyone is interested in preparing students to be contributing members of society. In the most practical sense, that means employment post-university. In a higher order sense, this means Malaysians who can solve complex problems, think critically, manage diverse people, negotiate and are emotionally intelligent – some of the traits highlighted as the skills of the future by the World Economic Forum. A good pre-university programme should prime students towards these skills so that we set them up for success at university and beyond. Personally, I am generally a fan of the International Baccalaureate programme due to its emphasis on independent critical thinking and holistic learning.

I think this is also a great question considering the current discourse around pre-university in Malaysia. Without detracting from legitimate debates about quotas and fair allocations of university spots for Matrikulasi and STPM graduates, I think we are not giving due attention to the quality of pre-university programmes in Malaysia. While there is a consensus that we should shift towards inculcating critical thinking and various adaptive skills, I hesitate to say if Matrikulasi or STPM, as we know them to be, adequately prepare our students in these skillsets at all.

Connie: To answer this question adequately, we need to first consider what are universities for. This is probably simplifying it a bit, but for the purposes of this conversation, we know that universities have their origins in the desire for the advancement of knowledge for the good of society. So like Ida has said, we want to see our young people become contributing global citizens who will do amazing things to make the world a better place. I imagine a good pre-u programme would be values-driven, encourage a love of learning, cultivate intellectual curiosity, and equip them with the soft skills to work with others.

Can you tell us a story about someone whose life was changed by a good pre-u programme?

Ida: In 2018, two students in Closing The Gap secured scholarships to pursue A-Levels in a prestigious international school. This is an amazing feat considering that they never knew that such opportunities exist prior to the programme. It is still early days, as they are in year 1 of their programme. But already we are witnessing them flourish, both in their future planning and their confidence to take on new opportunities and challenges. We are hopeful of the future ahead of them, not only because of the high level of support that the school provides, but also in our students’ determination and ability to adapt, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds as their peers in school.

This is not to say that pursuing a private qualification in an international school is the be-all and end-all to a successful future. Rather, it is an illustration of what our students can achieve if they are given the belief, resources and support to courageously aim high, challenge themselves, and maximise their potential, wherever they may be.

Any other thoughts?

Ida: We are recruiting new Mentors for our 2020 Cohort very soon! So do ‘like’ our page to find out more about how you can empower a student in his/her education journey.

If someone asked you those questions, how would you answer? Share your thoughts below, and please remember to follow our comments policy. (It is not compulsory to include your name, email, and website in order to comment.)

For more discussion about pre-university, see our Pengenalan post, What (and whom) is pre-university education for?”, and for a selection of comments from our readers, see our Apa Kata post. For even more comments, visit our Facebook page.

And look out for our synopsis post about pre-university education on 22 July, and some tips about pre-university education (including some tips from Connie and Ida!) on 29 July. Thank you!

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