ExCat: “Kuching lang” in Harvard

“I’M A KUCHING GIRL, a ‘Kuching lang’,” I thought to myself. I’m quite ordinary, not some fancy person with some fancy accent or credentials. I’m that person who walks around Kuching casually in t-shirt and shorts. I was not sure if I would fit in.

I was heading to my first day of class, with butterflies in my stomach. The walk from my apartment to the Harvard Kennedy School is along the beautiful, iconic Charles River – but that day I was so nervous and out of place – I imagined myself walking along Kuching Waterfront, seeing the sampans going across the Sarawak River – instead of the row boats that dotted the Charles.

Being here now, is still as surreal, though less intimidating, as it was that day in late August 2015. I could have never imagined myself studying Public Policy (learning how governments work, how policies are made and implemented) and much less so – studying at Harvard.

The Loker Reading Room in Widener Library, Harvard University

It’s been a dream come true and a privilege to be here. I study alongside classmates who are incredibly passionate about public service, many of them much younger than I am and have already started their own NGO’s to champion for women’s rights, equity in education or have worked in political campaigns for current world leaders. Every day, I am inspired and humbled by the school’s aspiration of making the world a better place – echoing the words of President John F. Kennedy “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Even though I am here in the US – in Boston’s hot summer days or freezing snowstorms (the lowest temperature last winter was -35° Celcius) – I am constantly thinking about home. About Kuching mostly – the hustle and bustle of Gambier Road, the chatter of Bahasa Sarawak and Hokkien in kopitiams and let’s not forget all the amazing food – kolo mee, laksa, lui cha, manok pansoh and “White Lady”. More seriously, I am also constantly thinking about Malaysia – what can be done to improve our Malaysian education system – how to bring greater access to quality education for children in rural areas, how to attract and retain high performing teachers in our classrooms.

This summer, I’m spending time in Boston – not only getting to know the city better (visiting art museums, attending concerts, visiting farmer’s markets), but also working for the district’s public education office. Boston has the oldest public education system in the US (established in 1647) and I have the opportunity to work with some of the best educators and administrators in the country. I hope to gain insight into more efficient and effective policy making, and ultimately bring the skills I gain back to Malaysia.

As much as I’ve enjoyed being in Harvard and Boston, I am looking forward to go home after my graduation next year. Home is where my heart is – and I’ll always be a Kuching girl.

Mildred Voon is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University. She previously worked in the Ministry of Education in Putrajaya.

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