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Bridging the gap in equal access to education

(From left) Ida Thien, Connie Foong and Cheah Kok Hin, three of the four founders of Closing The Gap. Photo Credit: SOPHIE CHIN

Perhaps she could have pursued a career as a high-flying lawyer, but Ida Thien has absolutely no regrets.

Thien, 27, is one of the four founders of Closing The Gap (CTG), a social project that helps high-potential students from challenging backgrounds overcome hurdles in order to gain access to higher education.

In the three-year program that CTG has developed, selected students participate in activities, workshops and training sessions to expand their knowledge and horizons. They have personal mentors to coach them.

Thien graduated with a law degree from University College London in 2014. Upon returning to Malaysia, she decided to join the Alumni Impact team of Teach For Malaysia, a non-profit organization that enlists young leaders as fellows to teach in classrooms for two years to end educational inequity.

That’s when she met her co-founders of CTG – Brian Geh, Cheah Kok Hin and Connie Foong. They set up the non-profit in 2016.

The launch of the 2018 Cohort. Photo credit: SOPHIE CHIN

The idea developed after they helped a former student enter university. “It struck us how the odds were stacked so high against him in terms of his chances of accessing tertiary education despite his brilliance. Higher education was his ticket to improving his family’s (wellbeing),” Thien explained to DW.

“In the end, while this student was successful in securing the scholarship he needed to pursue his education (in fact, he will be graduating next year!), we knew that there were many more students like him out there. With that, the initial conversations on starting a program like Closing The Gap commenced.”

“While it has often been suggested to me that I should consider qualifying as a lawyer at least, I don’t particularly regret my decision to take on a more unconventional path. I believe the decision has led me to many opportunities I would otherwise not have fathomed possible.”

At the moment, only Foong and Thien are involved in the project full-time. They share the demanding tasks of program design, impact, delivery and fundraising.

“Brian and Kok Hin have remained pillars of support throughout, particularly with our strategy and partnership work, even as they continue to juggle their own full-time careers,” says Thien, who is also an illustrator.

Currently, CTG supports 12 schools and around 60 students in the Klang Valley region.

Next year, they will welcome another group of students. They also hope to expand their program to other states to have an impact on more students.

Mentoring is a key aspect of the programme. Photo credit: SOPHIE CHIN

“We know that the work will get increasingly more hectic henceforth. But we have also learnt to tap into our network of professionals and mentors for support.

“We also face challenges around student commitment. Hence in our second year, we decided to concentrate our efforts in clusters of schools while also inculcating independence and work values in our students.

“We have since seen a marked improvement in student commitment to the program and hope to keep our dropout rates low.”

Despite various challenges, Thien and her partner find their work rewarding in many ways. It is particularly pleasing to witness the development of their students and the relationships they build with their mentors, they say.

“Many of our students enter the program with low self-confidence and uncertainty about the future despite the fact that they are very bright students. Seeing them blossom into more self-assured, independent and driven individuals who are prepared to be challenged beyond their comfort zones is a real booster for the team and reminds us why we do what we do,” Thien said.

Closing The Gap is currently raising funds to support the third  cohort of students who will commence the program in 2019. If you would like to find out more, contact Thien at ida.thien@closingthegap.my or go to https://www.facebook.com/ClosingTheGapMalaysia/

 

Author: Elle Wong (act)

Date

08.11.2018 | 10:33

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