EDUCATION is key to realising one's full potential and securing a better future.
But for underprivileged students, who come from a low-income family or are challenged by disabilities, grit and hard work may get them through their primary and secondary schooling. However, access to tertiary education may prove harder to come by.
Naren Kumar Surendra, 32, was born with macular dystrophy, a rare, genetic eye disorder that causes loss of vision. But, it was when he was a working adult that he only knew the reason for his poor vision.
From birth, it was noted that he couldn’t see well and his schoolteacher father tried to make the situation better by getting him glasses from the local optometrist shop in Gua Musang, Kelantan.
Always an eager student, Naren made sure he sat right in front of the blackboard so that he could see and listen to his teachers properly. And if he couldn’t catch what was written on the board, he made sure he borrowed his friend's notes to copy them later.
“When I was in primary school, my Math was okay. But when I was in Form Six, my Math exam results were not that good.
“I couldn’t see the steps shown on the blackboard. The irony is that now I’m doing statistics.
“Now, I can keep up because everything is computerised and I work very well with computers,” said the clinical registry manager at the National Renal Registry, which collects information on patients on renal replacement therapy, such as dialysis and kidney transplantation, throughout the country.
After sitting Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM), Naren did a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Biology at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia despite his interest in Math. He graduated with a first class honours.
“When I graduated, I knew that I couldn’t cope with the laboratory work that my training prepared me for due to my impaired sight. I even applied to join the teaching profession through Kursus Perguruan Lepasan Ijazah, but was offered a music course. Then I found employment at the registry,” he said.
Surrounded by healthcare providers in his new workplace, Naren’s interest quickly shifted to public health management and it was also through his interaction with medical experts that he took the step towards having his impairment properly diagnosed.
It was also during this period he received a Yayasan Sime Darby Scholarship (YSD Special Needs Bursary Batch 2012) to pursue a part-time master's degree in Community Health Science (Hospital Management and Health Economy) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Naren is currently pursuing his doctorate in Community Health (Health Economy) — also on a part-time basis — which he expects to complete in November.
He is due to present his research paper that looks into haemodialysis versus continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis in treating kidney patients at the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research Europe 2018 Conference in Barcelona, Spain in November.
The YSD Inspiration Award 2018 recipient said he was lucky to have had a good support system and funding assistance for his studies.
“I have strived hard to be accountable and trustworthy in my pursuits and it’s paying off. For others who face similar predicaments, do not be discouraged by your disabilities,” he said.
For Nurul Akmar Abdul Aziz, 31, receiving a YSD Postgraduate Overseas Scholarship in 2014 to pursue Master in Education with a specialisation in Deaf Education and Reading Specialist — Dual Certification at the Teachers College, Columbia University in the United States was a step towards contributing more meaningfully in the special education sector.
In 2011, she graduated with a first-class degree in Bachelor of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) with a CGPA of 3.66 from International Languages Teacher Training Institute in Kuala Lumpur. She was awarded with the Top Student Award and Excellent Student Award at her university.
Her first posting as an English teacher was at SMK Abdullah II in Semporna, Sabah, where she taught for four years.
During her tenure at the school, she identified that most student experienced severe reading difficulties. Therefore, she enrolled in the Reading Specialist programme to help students improve their mastery of English through reading.
“I found my vocation in teaching in Semporna. I love studying, but I did not like teaching.
“I feel that education is important, but I wonder how important it is?
“We often take it for granted. For some in Semporna, they do not understand how important education is.
“The gap between rural and urban areas was more apparent in Semporna. No matter how hard they try, they can never catch up.
“The importance of schooling is not understood there, and there were lack of resources.
“Many of my students couldn’t read. That’s the reason I took the dual master’s degree programme. It is about exposure and culture,” she said.
Akmar, who is from Kuala Lumpur, struggled to gain access to education as she grew up in a low-income family.
As for her interest in deaf education, Akmar said it began in her undergraduate years.
“The deaf community is often misunderstood. People who have hearing impairments are not cognitively disabled, but are facing a language barrier.
“As we cannot understand their needs, we cannot meet their needs.”
Akmar, who received the YSD Chairman’s Award 2018, had completed her postgraduate studies in May last year, after which she attended a one-year academic training at the New York School for the Deaf to gain practical experience and exposure.
The YSD Governing Council had approved the scholarship award in view of the unavailability of special education courses at the tertiary level, specifically for the deaf and hard of hearing in Malaysia.
With this qualification, together with hands-on experiences that she had obtained from the prestigious academic institution, Akmar would be one of few individuals with the necessary skills to assist Malaysian Federation of the Deaf (MFD) in its push for national policy changes that protect the rights and promote the wellbeing of the Malaysian deaf community.
Akmar will serve her scholarship bond with MFD for about three years, which will start collaborating with local universities. Yayasan Sime Darby is to support her salary costs in full.
Naren and Akmar were presented their awards at a ceremony that celebrated 263 Malaysian students this year.