Journey to the Fellowship: Nadhirah Syalin Koh

Travel, exposure, and the opportunity to learn new things are very important to me. While studying abroad at university, my wanderlust led me to volunteer with refugees in Calais and children in Morocco. I served my Malaysian Society as president for a year, then spent the next year teaching debate to primary school kids through Debate Mate.

For my first job, I wanted something that satisfied my wanderlust, but also built up my transferable skills. I also strongly felt that if I were to commit to a job, I wanted to work for something I believed in.

HEARING ABOUT TFM

I first heard of Teach For Malaysia (TFM) during the McKinsey Youth Leadership Academy back in 2013. During the programme, I excitedly chatted with Johan Merican, then the CEO to TalentCorp, about my future plans. However, when I told him my big ideas to work for the UN and World Bank, and volunteer in India for a stint, he asked me a simple question: “What about Malaysia? Are there no poor people here?” This got me thinking hard.

I continued to see TFM’s content on social media, shared by a couple of friends who were directly involved. But my immediate reaction was that I could never do the Fellowship. Teaching in public schools? That sounded so stressful and, frankly, unglamorous. I was still set on the idea of McKinsey, of the UN, of working for these established multinational organisations.

TFM slipped under my radar for the next few years until I encountered Teach First in the UK, TFM’s sister organisation. I didn’t consider applying for Teach First, because the patriotic Malaysian kid inside me longed to return home after graduation. However, it reminded me of Johan’s words, and of this organisation called TFM.

CONSIDERING THE FELLOWSHIP

As I researched the Fellowship, I discovered that TFM is actually pretty well connected! TFM’s corporate partners aside, quite a number of their Alumni have gone on to work in McKinsey, PADU, Google or have furthered their studies at leading global universities such as Harvard. That’s when I realised that joining TFM’s network of Fellows and Alumni might actually be a smart career move.

But what most appealed to me about the Fellowship was the second year initiative, a mandatory project which Fellows envision and lead during their second year to solve a problem in their communities. It sounded like an excellent opportunity to improve my project management skills, while supported by a Leadership Development Officer and Alumni who’ve come before me.

As part of their development, Fellows are also expected to pitch their initiatives during Dragons’ Den to a panel of business leaders, who would then invest in the initiatives of their choice. Last year, over 90% of the initiatives that were pitched received their seed funding from Dragons’ Den, and many Fellows still maintain close ties with their corporate investors even post-Fellowship.

This framework devised around the Fellowship – as comprehensive as any top-notch graduate training scheme – gave me confidence that TFM is truly invested in the development of their Fellows.

This vibe has been consistent since day one. When I visited TFM’s office for my assessment centre, I was warmly welcomed and made to feel at ease, something I wasn’t expecting as a mere candidate! It’s really uncommon to find people who care so much about you before you even join their company.

OTHER OPTIONS

In fact, while I was applying for the Fellowship, I’d also applied for The Star newspaper’s graduate trainee programme. When they asked me why I’m here, I explained that I love writing, and wanted to explore working for a major newspaper. But when I shared about my other job option, the TFM Fellowship, the interviewers told me straight up that I seemed much more passionate about it, so I should just join the Fellowship instead!

To be honest, I can’t see myself staying on as a teacher for the long run. But where else would I be able to dedicate 2 years to developing myself AND get paid for it, while giving back the community at the same time? 2 years to be a superstar teacher like Jack Black in School of Rock, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society? Sign me up!

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

1. Online application

 

Fill in the form and submit your resume along with a few personal reflections. 

Because the application deadline coincided with my exams, I didn’t finish completing my initial round of applications. Thankfully, TFM followed up with a call, which reminded me to get my application sent off!

 
2. Phone interview:

 

Let us get to know you better through a conversation with one of our interviewers.

While the questions were structured, it felt more like a conversation. My interviewer, Ivan, was really nice and candid, which put me at ease to share what I wanted without feeling pressured to “say the right thing”.

 
3. Assessment Centre

 

 

Prepare and teach a sample lesson to a mock class, participate in a group discussion and attend a one-on-one interview.

The AC was fun! It was a different kind of interview, one where I felt that they wanted to get to know me as a person. It was also refreshing how upfront everyone was about the Fellowship – yes it’s going to be tough, but it’s also going to be deeply rewarding. They emphasised not just my fit with the organisation’s mission and culture, but also TFM’s fit with my own personal vision and goals.

 

4. UKCG

Conducted by the Ministry of Education. This examination includes a written component and a fitness test.

I found the running test really tough. Luckily TFM had organised exercise sessions beforehand to get our fitness up to bar in time for the real test.

ACCEPTANCE FROM PARENTS

While I had accepted the Fellowship offer, my parents had other thoughts. Both my dad and uncle work in banking, so they wished for me to enter banking as well to learn financial literacy. In their view, the Fellowship was 2 years of “volunteering”, before I went on to find an “actual job”.

I could have gone ahead without my parents’ approval, but I wanted them on my side. Yi Ling, TFM’s Selection Manager invited my parents to TFM’s office so she could answer questions and ease their worries. This visit definitely helped to boost my dad’s opinion of TFM.

Another key factor in gaining his support was my decision to join the CIMB Fusion programme. On the Fusion programme, I’d join CIMB as a senior associate in my third year – with full recognition of my 2 years on the Fellowship as relevant industry experience. As I took the time to explain all of this to my dad, he finally came round. Whew!

PAYING IT FORWARD

Education put me where I am. Within my family, I have relatives who didn’t graduate high school, or even primary school. I grew up observing how the difference in education levels have affected their life outcomes. I’m very lucky to have parents who have gifted me with an excellent education, so I want to pay it forward to those who are not so fortunate.

Nadhirah is a 2018 Teach For Malaysia Fellow, who graduated with a BA in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Birmingham. She is a member of the CIMB Fusion programme, a 2+1 combination which will see her join CIMB at a Senior Associate position after completing her two years on the Fellowship.

Everyone deserves a #fightingchance. Get in the front line in the fight against education inequity. Apply for the Fellowship today, or donate RM50 monthly to help empower one Fellow to impact two students.

Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 87,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.

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