My journey began with a letter of acceptance from Brown University.
It was exciting. 2 years before that day, two of my teachers judged me “unfit” to cope with the IB program in United World College (UWC) Singapore. My college counselor suggested I apply to 6 US colleges I had never heard of. But after a few emotional debates with my mother (which helped overcome my fear of rejection) I decided to reach. I applied to 4 Ivy League schools. “What the hell,” I said to myself, “At least I won’t have any regrets.”
That letter of acceptance became my battle cry to those skeptics in my school. What I am about to say may be controversial to many people. Here it goes:
For me, everything I have achieved so far is an extension of that acceptance letter.
When I say this to people, many object – “Wait, Diem, getting into a good school isn’t everything, there are many success stories from no-name schools, even without college diplomas.” To this, I simply nod and agree, “You’re absolutely right, but that is their story, not mine.”
I am who I am because I got into Brown University, simple as that.
Allow me to explain my logic. McKinsey & Company only recruited from Ivy League schools at the time, and it was the onlyjob offer I received after applying to 8 firms. Meeting such driven peers and faculty members inspired me to apply to these selective firms. If I did not get into McKinsey, I would not have had the skills and access to start Young Leaders for Indonesia (YLI) – a McKinsey-sponsored leadership program for local university students in Indonesia. This program allowed me to differentiate myself from the hundreds of other consultants who applied to Harvard Business School (HBS) but were not accepted. Without launching my first business with the help of my HBS peers, I would not have gained the confidence to spearhead the 3 startups I have established since then.
This is the essence of my longwinded reflection – an amazing college experience lasts for 4 amazing years, but a top college degree last a lifetime. It opens doors that otherwise would be shut, and creates a network effect that will propel you forward in the most unexpected ways.
In Indonesia, I see an increasingly inexplicable paradox: An explosion of talented Indonesian students who undervalue a top college degree, and a rapidly growing employment sector who consistently over–value it. And what’s worse, given the acute shortage of leaders in Indonesia’s private and public sectors, this gap will only widen over time.
There are so many talented Indonesian students who are capable of getting into top global universities but do not even apply. After surveying several high schools in Jakarta, I’ve discovered that the issue is first and foremost a lack of information, followed by a lack of motivation. It is not, as many suspect, only about cost. On top of various private/public scholarships, many top universities in the US offer low interest financial aid to foreign students. Most foreign graduates will happily tell you how profoundly their degrees have impacted their lives, but not enough students get to meet these individuals. The experience of sharing your intellectual growth with a global and talented peer group is invaluable, not to mention incredibly fun.
I remember browsing through HBS’s enrollment statistics before I graduated. Over 50 Chinese, over 40 Indians, 10 Singaporeans, 10 Malaysians. There were only 2 Indonesians. I was deeply frustrated.
This pattern can be seen across all top universities in the world. If we are to become the economic leader that we aspire to be, these ratios need to change, and they need to change fast.
But it can only start with a bold new mindset – the belief that it is possible.
11 years ago I convinced myself to reach. I hope the next generation does the same.
Photo credit: Microsoft and Chensiyuan in Wikimedia Commons