Afterschool’s Exclusive Interview with Malaysian Who Obtained World’s Most Prestigious Scholarship to University of Oxford

Published by Afterschool.my on Jan 09, 2020, 11:04 am

It seems that 2019 has truly been the year of some of the proudest achievements in education for Malaysia. With the news in May about the JPA scholar who received the highest engineering honour at the Pennsylvania State University, there’s another Malaysian who has lifted the country’s name to international success.

If you haven’t heard it just yet, earlier last month Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah, a 23-year-old student from Selangor, Malaysia, has won the reputable 2020 Rhodes Scholarship to continue her studies at the University of Oxford in the UK. The Rhodes Scholarship was established in 1902, making it the world’s oldest international scholarship and the most prestigious scholarship programme in the world. Only five Malaysians have ever received the scholarship, so this is definitely a huge deal!

Image via Penn Today

In an exclusive interview with Afterschool.my, Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah gives us insight into her life and what it takes to achieve what she has.

AS: Can you share your education background starting from secondary school until now?

I grew up in Selangor, Malaysia. When I was in primary school, I went to an Integrated Islamic School near my house where I grew up in Kota Damansara. Then after my UPSR exams in Standard 6, I went to a local secondary school (SMK) from Form 1 to Form 3.

After my Form 5, I obtained the Khazanah Scholarship, so they covered the cost of my A-Levels at Kolej Yayasan UEM (KYUEM). Then with the scholarship, I also applied for universities in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) at the same time and received both the offers. I chose to continue with my degree at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

AS: What are some of the struggles and/or challenges you faced during this journey, and how did you overcome them?

I was severely bullied growing up. I had trouble making friends since primary school. I wouldn’t say I was an introvert. I was outspoken, but I think the fact that I was outspoken rubbed people wrong way. I was very active, treated everyone as equals, but I don’t know. I was just such a go-getter and I liked putting my name to things, so I guess it rubbed people the wrong way. I did struggle with that for a bit.

I tried to overcome it by investing all of my energy into my studies and extracurricular activities. I channelled it all towards doing well in school and basically everything else. I joined debates, sports and other activities. I tried my best to channel all the energy positively because I knew then that there was no way I could’ve pleased everyone. I also knew that I would gain nothing from pleasing them because all they wanted to do was complain about the fact that I was trying too hard. What does that even mean? Should I not try so hard, then? So, I told myself that instead of worrying about that, I would use my time for my own personal growth.

AS: Did you have anyone to support you this time? Who would you say is your role model in learning to overcome your challenges?

When I was struggling in primary school, I never really disclosed the issue of mental health with anyone. I know it wasn’t the healthiest thing to do, but I didn’t even mention it to my parents when I was going through it. I just feel like it wasn’t something people generally talk about. I assumed that it was normal; that everyone went through this. I told myself, ‘It’s fine, just be yourself. You’ll be fine; study hard, focus on your curriculum.’ I realise it’s not the healthiest thing to do, in retrospect. So, my advice for anyone who’s struggling—please reach out for help from people whom you trust.

AS: It’s great that you managed to overcome it all by yourself. You had the determination, which is really good.

I think the one thing that I faced, and I still do even more so now is the ‘impostor’ syndrome or the feeling of unsureness. It’s something I learned about how people feel nowadays, especially those who don’t really like to toot their own horn if you know what I mean. The culture that I was exposed to taught me to downgrade myself, sometimes a bit too much. So, I had to do a lot of unlearning of that behaviour. It is good to be humble, but it’s also good to recognise your achievements and accomplishments.

AS: For students who really want to obtain a scholarship for their studies such as yourself, what would be your advice to them?

I think the most important thing you must do is to realise that you are capable, and you are worthy. I think a lot of us are weighed down by thoughts that stop us from achieving great things. But you must believe that you are capable of change, of success and achievement. You need to believe it yourself, even if others don’t. That’s the only way you’ll be able to reach the things that you’ve always dreamed of. Push yourself into situations where you don’t feel comfortable. Oftentimes it’s the moments of discomfort that you will need to grow as a person.

Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah in Poland volunteering in 'Let’s Bring Back The Smile 2.0', giving aid to Chechen refugees.

AS: True, so very true. So, confidence is one of the most important traits a student should have. What else would you say is important to achieve what you have achieved?

Speaking from my experience, I think it’s important to have grit—basically, perseverance and effort combined with a passion and a long-term goal or end goal. This end goal can change as you grow. For example, when I was in primary school, my end goal was to enter boarding school; then when I did, my goal was to obtain a scholarship; and after that, my goal was to get an offer into a university. It’s okay for your end goal to change, but you have to have grit—perseverance towards a goal.

AS: So, you’ve always had this goal in your mind, then, to get ahead?

Yes and no. People say that you must have this big goal in life to achieve great things. But sometimes you don’t know just yet, and it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to take small steps towards your goal. You don’t need to be Greta Thunberg, the girl who’s fighting for climate change around the world. That is an amazing feat, but what I mean is that you don’t need to have a huge dream to succeed. You just need to believe in yourself.

Sometimes, I think grit is really more important than naked talent or ability. Someone who’s talented but doesn’t persevere or work hard can only go so far. It’s something that I realised as well. I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I can say that I worked very hard to get where I am.

AS: You’ve done a lot of work towards education equality in Malaysia. What prompted you to start thinking about this?

It started with my involvement in The Kalsom Movement, the organisation that I have been volunteering with for the past two years. I knew about the organisation from one of my friends who was a volunteer before, and I thought it would be a good way to spend my summer. The Kalsom Movement is a youth organisation that encourages university students to share their knowledge and skills to help younger economically-disadvantaged Malaysian students achieve their ambitions.

Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah with fellow volunteers and beneficiary at The Kalsom Movement.

As a volunteer, I was confronted with the reality of the world and saw the difference from my own life and this bubble that I have been living in. There are many others out there who do not have that same kind of privilege. It made me realize that there are a lot of incredible people with incredible potential, yet they are not realised due to life circumstances. It was truly eye-opening and pushed me to do more in this field.

AS: So, from then onwards, you thought of working towards it?

Definitely. From then on, I become more involved in education volunteering. I was also involved in another organisation, The Charisma Movement. I was able to stay in a school in Sabah and tutor 12-year-old kids in Maths and English for two weeks. It is an amazing experience, getting more socially involved in other forms of volunteering. I’ve also gotten involved in refugee crisis movements in Warsaw. I pushed myself to be in situations where I can interact with people outside of my own bubble. I got to see what it’s really like for people out there in the world, and it motivated my passion to do something about it.

Image via Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah on Instagram

AS: As you’ve mentioned, you have been involved a lot of extracurricular activities from primary to middle school. Based on your experience, what would you say are some of the benefits of being involved in extracurricular activities during university?

Extracurricular activities not only taught me how to think and act, but it also taught me how to solve problems, how to engage with and influence others, and it also taught me that as a person, I have the ability to make an impact. I remember back when I was in debate in middle school, I was initially so nervous, but once I got into it, it taught me all kinds of skills like how to present and research, and ultimately, I won ‘best speaker’.

AS: They also help with your scholarship applications, don’t they?

Yes, definitely. It’s great if you’re a straight-A(+) student, but what really makes you stand out among others are your accomplishments outside of studying. Even during your interviews for scholarships or for work, you should definitely talk about what you’ve done outside of your studies.

Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah with fellow volunteers in Guatemala as part of a Global Health volunteering and class trip, helping with diabetes research and outreach in the surrounding villages.

AS: Many students are often confused with choosing the right course of study to pursue. What would be your advice to them?

I think the most important thing is to do proper research. You should really spend time to research on all the options out there. Don’t just go for what you think your parents want you to do, or what your friends are doing. Sit down and ask yourself, what do you want to do? What do you want to dedicate 3 to 4, or even 5 years of your life doing?

I know that there’s a need to balance your passion with the job market as well, but ultimately, you should be interested enough in the field to be able to do well in it. There’s no point in taking a course that you think is going to be popular in the job market, but you might do poorly in because you don’t like it. So, you need to do the research to find a balance between your passion and what is needed in the job market.

AS: You chose to pursue a Master’s course in Social Data Science and one in Public Policy. Why did you choose these courses?

The Rhodes Scholarship will be funding two years of my studies at the University of Oxford. So, I think it would be the best use of my time there by doing two Master’s courses in Social Data Science and Public Policy respectively.

I believe that these two courses will equip me with the necessary skills for me to realise my ambition, which is to improve the mechanisms of public policy in Malaysia. I want to create policies through the use of data, specifically qualitative and quantitative data. After doing a lot of research, I found that these are the two forces that give me both the hard and soft skills needed to realise this ambition.

AS: What will you be doing after graduating from university? Are you planning to come back to Malaysia and work here?

Definitely. I hope to come back to Malaysia and become a state representative or ‘Wakil Rakyat’, and eventually join the Cabinet of Malaysia. Honestly, I feel I have that sense of responsibility because the people of Malaysia were the ones who gave me the opportunity to pursue my undergraduate education through Yayasan Khazanah, without which, I wouldn’t even be where I am today. I don’t take this kind of responsibility lightly. So, I hope to come back and truly serve the Malaysian people.

AS: Do you have any further advice for students and readers in general?

I would like to say that as a society, we need to change the way we think about those who have ‘given up’ on education. We need to change our perception of students who are dropouts. Instead of looking at it as though they have given up on education, maybe we can try to understand what exactly are the structural issues that lead them to drop out of education. There is definitely a trend here. Kids from some of the most difficult economic backgrounds are more likely to face education hurdles; a lack of financial support or extreme economic hardships would eventually lead them to quit on education. But the question is, have they given up on education, or have we as a society, with our lack of support, given up on them? By indirectly telling them, ‘it’s all on you’, we’re not realising all the other things they have to worry about that are pushing them to quit education altogether.

On a personal level, to those who feel like the odds are against them or school doesn’t matter—I implore you to take a second to think about what you want your future to look like. Look around you right now and ask yourself, is this where you see yourself in 20 years? If not, where do you see yourself in 20 years? Because I promise you that no matter what dreams may be, education will help you get there.

I understand that it can be hard sometimes, especially when you feel like the whole world is against you and you’re not getting the support you need. But don’t ever belittle your capabilities. Reach for it. Reach out to people around you, your teachers, friends and classmates. Ask them for help. I assure you; you won’t regret it. And really, education is the most important thing for you to change your future.

Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah in Sabah, volunteering with The Charisma Movement.

We at Afterschool.my truly wish Nurul Ezzaty Hasbullah all her best in her Master’s programmes. We also do hope that her story and achievements will inspire you, fellow students, to do wonders and work hard at achieving your dreams!

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