Two Malaysian students defied the odds and made it into Harvard College, the undergraduate school of world-renowed Harvard University, this year
According to the Harvard Club of Malaysia, Muhammad Hamdi Ahmad Hakimi and Jarell Cheong Tze Wen will be joining the Ivy League school's undergraduate class of 2025.
Both the 20-year-olds were selected out of 57,435 applicants, making them part of the 3.4% (1,968 students) — the lowest admission rate Harvard College has ever seen in its 385-year history.
The Harvard alumni club also proudly announced that both students are products of the national education system
It is said that Hamdi completed high school at Sekolah Menengah Sains Alam Shah in Kuala Lumpur and A-Levels in Kolej Tuanku Ja'afar as a Bank Negara Kijang Scholar.
Meanwhile, Cheong studied at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Seri Bintang Utara in Kuala Lumpur and took A-Levels at Sunway College, Petaling Jaya.
Speaking to SAYS, Hamdi said he is extremely grateful to be studying at an Ivy League school, despite not even knowing what that meant just a few months ago
Coming from a humble background in Kuantan, Pahang, Hamdi said, "I feel very grateful to Allah to be given the opportunity to even attend university because I, like many others, come from a family that does not have the resources to send their children to university."
Hamdi, who plans to major in Economics at Harvard, has been described as driven, inspirational, and philosophical.
His interviewers revealed that he had to work several jobs to help his family make ends meet, as well as lessen their burden when he decided to attend boarding school.
However, rather than lament his fate, the student delved deep into school and became an avid reader and competitive debater. When not working or reading works of other deep thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Za'aba, he gives debate tuition to other students in need.
Hamdi told SAYS he is excited to be pursuing a Liberal Arts education, and although he plans to major in Economics, he will be no stranger to other classes
"I like the idea of freedom to study anything that I want. Be it sociology, theology, philosophy, mathematics, or computer science, I do not want to impose a constraint on myself."
Not forgetting his roots, Hamdi added, "I hope I can do this opportunity justice and later give back to the community where I come from."
Hamdi also encouraged future applicants to "be courageous and actively seek advice; not everyone wants to help you, but some do", as his own mentors and advisors have guided him in life so far.
He said that it is important to never let racial stereotypes, life circumstances, or the opinion of the public to get in their way of success, as he, too, had to encounter.
"If I had let my circumstances become my limiting factors, I will never be where I am today," he said, hoping that his story can be a testament to everyone.
Meanwhile, Cheong from Kuala Lumpur, said he hopes that Harvard will keep challenging his limits and offer him a great undergraduate experience
Cheong was described by the interviewers as a rare individual who is both a gifted student and a Malaysian dancesport athlete.
Besides scoring A+ in all nine SPM subjects and A* in all of his A-Levels exams, Cheong represented Malaysia at the 2019 SEA Games in competitive ballroom dancing.
He also competed under the Malaysian flag in the Asian Pacific Mathematical Olympiad and various international chess tournaments.
More recently, despite COVID-19 restrictions, Cheong managed to continue his passion and taught dance classes over Zoom. He also pursued his interest in Mathematics independently, going beyond the A-Levels curriculum to explore proof-based math.
"I plan to major in Mathematics, but I look forward to also taking a bunch of computer science and statistics classes. In particular, I look forward to experiencing the iconic CS50 and joining Math 55, allegedly the hardest math course in United States," he told SAYS.
Staying humble, Cheong also said getting accepted into Harvard still seems extremely bizarre and surreal to him
"I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I may end up studying where esteemed figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates once studied, and live where they once lived," he said.
"It is such an honour to be able to challenge myself in the rigorous liberal arts education offered at Harvard along with my amazingly awesome and diverse class of 2025!"
Cheong also advised potential applicants to not hesitate to apply to Harvard if they always seek excellence in everything that they do.
"My advice for applying would be to take some time to truly reflect on what unique traits you have and how to use your application to tell a story."
He added that interested students can also always reach out to him if they would like any help or advice.
The two impressive students were interviewed by Malaysian alumni, Nadiah Wan and Nick Khaw, who sang nothing but praises for them
"Super proud that these two Malaysians beat the odds. It's a testament to our public schools and commitment to education, but it also shows how two wildly different, talented kids can excel. Congratulations!" tweeted Nadiah, who is currently the group CEO of TMC Life Sciences and CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara.
Meanwhile, Khaw, who is the director of research at Khazanah Nasional Berhad, said he would like to see more Malaysian undergraduate students represented at Harvard.
"Both Jarell and Hamdi, like many Malaysian Harvard College alumni before them, went through the public education system and have demonstrated that it is indeed possible if they have the talent and the drive to achieve it."
Both of them will be joining the other two inspiring Malaysians who were accepted into Harvard College last year: