A young man secured a full scholarship for his tertiary education recently but he certainly didn't think he would have a future when he was a little kid
Shawn grew up in a small town called Kapar in Klang, Selangor, and watched how his mother struggled to put food on the table.
"My mum took up multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet. It made me sad to see how hard my mum worked to save money for the family," he said.
His peers would have toys to play with while Shawn did not have any. When his neighbours watched television for entertainment in their free time, little Shawn would sit outside on his house's porch and peek through his neighbour's house, joining them secretly.
Shawn couldn't even afford lunch at school but he had always wanted to be independent and ease his mother's burdens. At 13, he worked as a waiter to earn a measly pay of RM5 a day.
His determination and love for his mother gave him the strength to do that one thing very few people could - to earn his own living as a school-going teenager.
"My school gave free food to students who are poor. I signed up for it and from then on, I never took any pocket money from my mum again since my school gave me food for recess."
In secondary school, Shawn received a yearly scholarship worth RM900, and he would give all of it to his mother even when he needed it to buy certain essential things.
Things took an interesting turn when he was 16. He met Mr. Brian, a teacher in his secondary school.
"In Form 4, I met Mr. Brian who was a Teach For Malaysia (TFM) Fellow who taught in my school. He saw that I was good at maths and had the potential to grow even more in this area."
Mr. Brian taught at Shawn's school while doing the two-year Teach For Malaysia Fellowship, a leadership development programme where promising fresh graduates and young professionals are trained and placed in high-need schools to generate impact through teaching.
Mr. Brian instantly recognised Shawn's potential and chose him as one of the team members to represent the school in the Malaysian Math Olympiad competition.
"This experience was life-changing as it made me feel special and unique," Shawn said.
But one challenge kept coming after another. While Shawn was inspired to further his studies by continuing with Form 6, he was still facing a lot of financial difficulties
"I needed money to pay for tuition, food, my bus fares, and textbooks."
"Unlike primary and secondary school, there weren't textbooks for Form 6 students to borrow. We have to buy our own."
While he was still studying, Shawn took up a job as a waiter during the weekends, taught tuition classes five days a week, and became a yo-yo coach to earn extra money.
Despite his adversities, he overcame his challenges and scored 3.75 CGPA for his STPM examinations.
After finishing his STPM examinations last year, Shawn needed a scholarship to further his studies. Mr. Brian was not teaching Shawn anymore, but that didn't stop him from helping his former student beat the odds in life.
Shawn was aiming to secure a Jeffrey Cheah Scholarship but it proved to be challenging with the tight deadlines and his level of English proficiency. He also needed a continuous source of income to support his family.
"I think it would be fair to say that we approached it with some trepidation, as there was an earlier attempt to get him a scholarship after he had finished his SPM two years before, which didn't work out and left me quite frustrated," Mr. Brian said.
"Thankfully, I had some leftover funds from a grant we had obtained two years prior which was repurposed as his 'salary'. With those funds, we took him in and he spent his weekdays at the Teach For Malaysia office, where my colleagues very graciously spent time with him to help him improve his English quickly."
In May 2016, Shawn took the IELTS examination but he scored just below the passing mark. Mr. Brian said the result left them "feeling deflated", as they'd put in a lot of effort, time, and money into it.
But they didn’t give up. Mr. Brian spent another six months with Shawn - fighting all the challenges together, every step of the way, just so that Shawn would have access to the education that he deserves.
Although they had many fears and worries, Mr. Brian and Shawn shared the same desire - to reach their ambitions to secure that scholarship. So, they did everything they could and got things done.
"Shawn managed to sort out an arrangement with his family where he didn't need to earn an income, and what we would do instead would be to house him and ensure his food, lodgings, and transportation expenses were covered, which we achieved by housing him with us and a few others," Mr. Brian explained.
"With this, he spent a further four months in the Teach For Malaysia office, after which he retook his IELTS examination, hitting the passing mark."
By December 2016, the duo received the good news they've been waiting for - Shawn is one of the esteemed recipients of the coveted scholarship. They did it.
The journey proved to be worthwhile and it was a valuable experience for both individuals
"The six months were stressful and eventful, and the main thing I learnt from that whole episode is that how poverty distorts your choices significantly, forcing you to make choices that support you in the short-term, even when you know that it will lead to a less-ideal outcome in the longer term (as you can see with his salary, public university, or scholarship deadline issues above)," Mr. Brian said.
"Due to his circumstances, and without the guidance, push, and support that we gave, it would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible for him to achieve this outcome, and I think seeing it firsthand was extremely eye opening for me."
And to think that all this wouldn't have happened if Mr. Brian did not get to know Shawn as they met "almost by accident".
"I only really got to know him when I started a Math Olympiad team in the school and he decided to try it out after hearing of it from his friends (who I recruited)," Mr. Brian explained.
"The other students in the team were all from the top class, and he was this student from the second class who could barely speak English. I think I only really realised how good he was when we started going through the problems in the Math Olympiad - and watching him catch on to concepts, and solving problems much faster than his peers in the better class could."
"I think helping these students is what all teachers do day in and day out, and in that sense what I did wasn't any different from what teachers do."
"On a more personal level, I've always believed that you should help others to fulfil their potential, and that was what I tried to do with Shawn (and more generally why I and many others became teachers in the first place)," Mr. Brian added.
Shawn is now a student studying on a scholarship in Sunway University while Mr. Brian is helping to run Closing The Gap, an initiative he co-founded with his Teach For Malaysia colleagues, which is dedicated to supporting students like Shawn beat the odds.
Watch Shawn talk and illustrate how Mr. Brian journeyed with him in his challenging path to success:
You can help Teach For Malaysia (TFM) empower more students like Shawn. RM50 a month empowers a Fellow to impact two students.
Learn more about Teach For Malaysia's #EmpoweredTo Unlock MY Potential campaign on their website.