Before studying at Florida Gulf Coast University, I had never thought of studying overseas.
For the most part, I enjoyed my life in Malaysia — even though much of it was a monotonous routine.
I would go to school and come back. The same happened when I pursued my STPM (one of many pre-uni qualifications in the country).
After that, I got into Universiti Sains Malaysia to pursue my bachelor’s degree in applied biology.
When Malaysia went into lockdown due to COVID-19, I attended online classes at uni from my home for two years.
It was also a challenging period for my family. While studying for my STPM, I took care of our grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s.
That meant balancing my time between caring for him and studying for classes.
As you can say, much of my life revolved around staying home — and I am not a person that loves to plan too far ahead for my future. I tend to go with what I have right now.
Of course, I had ambitions of visiting some countries in Europe —maybe after doing my master’s, upon completing my bachelor’s degree, or once I secured a full-time job.
But that was just a dream.
I’ve never ventured outside Malaysia, except to Medan when I was 13.
I never had a passport since — that is, until I got accepted into the US State Department’s Global Undergraduate Exchange Programme (Global UGRAD).
From sunny Kuala Lumpur to sunny Florida
So, I was actually looking for a fully-funded internship programme by a genetic school in the UK. After reviewing the eligibility requirements, I realised I qualified for the programme.
Here’s the thing: I forgot what was the name of that school and I vaguely remember typing the following term on Google.
“fully funded undergraduate scholarship”
Global UGRAD was one of the top search results. I applied and the rest was history.
Of course, I was quite sceptical about a fully funded internship programme.
Is it really fully funded? Even if they did pay for my flight tickets and tuition fees, I’d still have to bear my cost of living as an international student.
It took three days to register for my account for UGRAD and three weeks to apply for the scholarship.
Florida Gulf Coast University
What is interesting about Global UGRAD is that I got assigned to study at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Getting accepted into Global UGRAD, though, was a dream come true because I always felt that the US was out of my reach or it was too expensive for me to study there.
Reading the alumni stories of how they went from Malaysia and how the programme impacted their lives was truly empowering. Some of them have their own YouTube channels.
It got me thinking: I could be them too. After all, America is the land of opportunities, right? Studying there — even for a semester — and the chance to live independently abroad was enough to motivate me to apply.
Even though I got accepted into the programme, it took time for them to decide where to assign me.
So, I started browsing through YouTube channels or online galleries on the scholarship website to see where the other Global UGRADers have been to.
You could see them going to places that were really cold — some of them were in thick clothing. Others would go to beautiful places that looked like national parks.
Part of me hoped to get assigned to a uni in the state of New York, thinking that would be nice. (That was how clueless I was about how Global UGRAD actually works).
My first week at Fort Myers
Before arriving at Fort Myers (a town near Florida Gulf Coast University), I read about people being kind and warm-hearted.
I experienced this when I landed at Fort Myers. A guy approached me and offered to help carry my bags as I booked a taxi to uni.
During the ride, I noticed how the trees looked similar to the ones back home or how the heat was familiar to the ones in Kuala Lumpur. I also observed that the roads were clean and the place was huge.
Upon arriving at my dorm, I was greeted by a UGRADer from Haiti, South Korea, and Honduras, who were already there before me.
It was so nice to finally meet them in person after chatting with them for months over Whatsapp.
I lived in North Lake Village, which as the name suggests, was situated across Miromar Lake.
The best part? I got to enjoy the golden sunrises and sunsets — so much so that I never let my blinds roll down apart from the time when Hurricane Ian struck Fort Myers.
One thing about Fort Myers, though, is that there are not a lot of Asians since that part of Florida is predominantly white. Most of them have not seen many Asians — let alone Malaysians — or even heard of Malaysia.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would encourage my friend, who was also from a country that is not heard of by the local community, that it’s a chance for us to share about our country, culture, and tradition.
Switching from rote memorising to adapting to how Americans teach at Florida Gulf Coast University
I noticed that Florida Gulf Coast University students were outspoken and not afraid to speak what was on their minds. It was as if nothing held them back.
My professors were also patient in learning new things, such as discovering how to pronounce my name properly.
They knew a lot too. In my pathogenic microbiology class, I did all kinds of experiments, which I didn’t get to do because of online learning back in USM.
My professors were like a walking encyclopaedia — you could name a bacteria and she could tell you what disease it was.
Outside of class, I appreciate the service learning opportunities because they teach you so much more than a classroom can.
I volunteered as a student journalist, was involved in a cleanup post-Hurricane Ian, and organised a Christmas gift donation drive at my uni for the Christian campus ministry.
Surviving Hurricane Ian
Before Hurricane Ian hit, I was reading the news that said a tropical storm was forming near the Caribbean, in the Bahamas.
That article mentions that if the storm were to become a hurricane, it would be named “Ian.”.
A few weeks later, our uni sent out a notice to students about how a hurricane was approaching Florida and it was gaining strength daily.
My friend from Haiti started hearing how Ian damaged Cuba, which was only 90 miles from the hurricane.
One morning when I woke up, I saw that everything was pitch dark. It wasn’t like the sun hadn’t risen, but it was completely dark.
The clouds were really low. Despite this, I walked to my class. It was so windy — only 10 out of 25 students were present in class that day.
Initially, Ian was projected to hit Tampa, north of Fort Myers. Many local residents were not bothered by this warning, but our uni believed that Ian would somehow divert to Fort Myers, as was the case with Hurricane Irma.
We were all sent to an evacuation centre, meaning we had to pack our stuff — we were even prepared to sleep there.
We ended up staying at the centre for four days and three nights.
[Nearly 400 buildings, shown on the map here, were visibly destroyed or severely damaged, according to to a survey of photographs and videos from the northern half of Fort Myers by New York Times.
One main commercial area, nicknamed “Times Square”, a bustling plaza of restaurants, bars and shops, was almost completely leveled.]
The worst part? One day, it was just pure silence — you couldn’t hear animals, birds, or anything.
I’ve read about these things, but I didn’t know that nature can sense hurricanes before they hit.
When Ian struck, the wind started getting stronger. The walls of the evacuation shelter were shaking.
You could hear how intense it was. Luckily, I had friends to accompany me and slept relatively well despite the whole ordeal.
Helping Florida get back on its feet
I got a rake and swept all the dirty stuff that was carried by the hurricane.
Everything was painful to watch — traffic lights were on the ground, and roads were destroyed. Ian ravaged many neighbourhoods.
The emotions really hit me hard when we went to a family’s house. There was an old man with a walking stick, who had no option but to run out from that place for safety.
He underestimated Ian and thought the hurricane would never make its way through Fort Myers.
Relating to Nelson Mandela
It always seems impossible until it’s done.
Nelson Mandela’s quote now hits differently after completing my stint at Florida Gulf Coast University through the Global UGRAD exchange programme.
After all, I applied to a programme I had never heard of without a passport in hand.
With Global UGRAD, I’m grateful for all the challenges that came my way and the chance to experience the US tertiary education system.