“Whatever I am doing, I want it to be a rewarding experience which I find joy in.” This is what 18-year-old student Pang Yee Ler strives for — and finds plenty of opportunities for her at her current school. Its name? Shattuck-St. Mary’s Forest City International School (SSM-FC).
Located on the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia, SSM-FC is a boarding school for children between the ages of three to eighteen. It focuses on delivering an American International Curriculum based on its partner school in Minnesota, which has been operating over the past 160 years. This unique opportunity to experience an American education in Malaysia has not only attracted local residents, but students from Singapore, Japan, Korea, Canada, the UK and the US as well.
SSM-FC’s main strength is encouraging its students to develop a love for learning by chasing their passions and interests. For Pang, this meant creating a podcast titled “The CitiZen,” which explored topics they found to be important and wished for more people to know about.
“One of the first topics we discussed included the mysterious killings of dolphins which we invited Ms. Shan, our teacher in school who is also a marine biologist, to discuss and shed light on the topic,” says Pang. “Some other topics we discussed include the pressures of education and the importance of building skills and personality in the 21st century.”
It was certainly a shift from more traditional academic approaches, which are predominantly results-based. “In the beginning, I wasn’t quite used to this level of freedom and encouragement to explore since; it’s not something that is offered in traditional education systems,” they say. “The opportunity to pursue the things we wanted helped us dream bigger, which, in turn, motivates us to challenge our own limits while still developing soft skills. And because the whole school community is also exploring their own passions and interests, we get to see just how special and passionate everyone is and that is just really inspiring.”
Stories like Pang’s are typical of students at SSM-FC — and much of this stems from their many opportunities for experiential learning. High school students, for example, go through blended classes. This means that outside of their regular curriculum, they join rich learning activities such as project-based learning, peer collaboration, one-on-one or small group coaching, or an internship with a mentor.
“Students in our school all aim to do an internship project before they graduate, and these are based on their own interests,” explains Shan Dives, who teaches English at SSM-FC. “Students are partnered with a teacher who is knowledgeable in their chosen area. I personally supervise the Environmental Science interns, but we also have students doing internships in Marketing and Admissions, Photography, Art, Media and Technology, Music, Journalism, Healthcare, Business, Psychology, and IT.”
Internships run between one semester to multiple years, requiring independent work which is presented as part of a portfolio at the end of their projects.
It’s an innovative approach to learning that has produced driven students who go on to achieve wonders. “As an example, I am working with two interns who are passionate about the environment,” says Dives. “One student spent the year doing nature walks on Forest City Island and photographing all the bird and mammal species he found. He was able to identify them and produce a baseline study of the biodiversity. He has also produced an interactive map of where key sightings of these animals occurred, which is a great resource for us to share with visitors and new residents.”
Such projects are a natural result of the school’s ideal, serene location. “The school is built on an island called Forest City — and it really lives up to its name,” says Geography teacher Michael Dives. “The school is just covered in plants. On every single window, there is a giant flower box with plants growing on. We’re on an island, so we’re surrounded by the sea. I have a sea view from my classroom, and it’s so beautiful.”
Michael Dives also acts as the Director of Residential Life at SSM-FC, where he works to create a warm, safe and family-oriented environment. He ensures students receive everything they need to settle in, from additional second language programmes to “buddy systems” for younger learners. This, he says, is especially important for international students who are in Malaysia for the first time — even more so for those who are traveling without their parents.
“New students are always assigned a roommate, because that first night alone in a new place, when all the craziness of the day has passed, you don’t want to be alone in the dark,” he explains. “You want someone to be there who can support you. And so we always pair up new students with an existing student who knows the ropes. They show them around, settle them in, and show them where everything is, like the canteen, the classrooms, the sports facilities, and more.”
All in all, it’s certainly a welcoming environment for any new student looking for an education that challenges boundaries. “The SSM-FC experience taught me how to keep seeking personal growth,” says Pang. “It has taught me to keep pushing my own limits, develop my own skills, build meaningful relationships with others and not to be afraid to try new things. The impact of SSM-FC did not end upon graduation, instead it’s like an armor that I now have with me to face the future.”