Got a Fulbright scholarship to live in Malaysia for 1 year
June 1, 2011 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Torn about whether to take or pass on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of safety concerns and pressure to do something academic/career oriented with my time.

Hello everyone! Please excuse the length of the post.

I am posting on behalf of a friend.
My friend applied for a Fulbright Scholarship (the Teaching Assistantship one, it entails teaching English in a foreign country for 1 year, all expenses paid).
She was very excited when she found out that she got into this very prestigious program, but overwhelmed because she had applied for Korea, but got Malaysia (a place that she hasn't researched).
She has a very short time to make the decision on whether to accept or not, and is torn about her decision mostly because of safety concerns and the pressure to do something "stereotypically" productive.

This is a two-part question. Feel free to ignore part 2 if you are not familiar with Malaysia.

Part 1: A waste of a year?

One of the reasons she is hesitant about this program is that she thinks she might be "wasting a year". She is 22, just graduated from college with honors. She has been very active throughout her college career both academically and in extracurricular activities (internships, managing a radio station, a prestigious journalistic program, etc...).

Her parents have instilled upon her that she is a "bum" (mostly because she is not interested in pursuing an immediately lucrative, concrete profession - i.e. law, business, medicine. Just imagine them as the stereotypical Asian parents, even though they are not Asian) , which could not be further from the truth. She feels that if she doesn't do something that yields very tangible results (i.e. getting a job to start her career or to continue her education), she is wasting her time. I am trying to convince her that she putting too much pressure on herself, and that this is a perfect time to do something like this, and that there are things you learn about life when living in a place so radically different from your home that you wouldn't learn anywhere else. This is an opportunity that most people only dream about. The kind of thing people muse about at the end of their life as proof that it has been fulfilling. An invaluable experience in many ways. She might regret it forever if she passes up on this.

By the way, her alternative to spending a year in Malaysia would be at a mediocre job in her college city (the job is affiliated with the university, part of the deal would be having the opportunity to take graduate classes gratis for a year). This job is only obliquely relevant to her degree (she is unsure about her career choice in general).

Of course, my convincing is not sufficient - because what do I know? I haven't spent a year on the other side of the world. What is your advice regarding this? Would love to hear from those who've had similar experiences or just older and wiser folk in general!

Part 2 : Malaysia Safety Concerns

She heard about the terrorist activities in the east of the country, and the statement on the US travel site "Violent crime against travelers and expatriates is relatively rare" is quite vague, and not reassuring. She is also afraid of standing out and attracting unwanted attention - she is tall and blond.

Because Malaysia is a new participant in this program, not very many details have been worked out. She would be placed in Jahor, Terenngannu, or Pajang. She would be living in a residential school in a remote town/village and teaching English for 20 hours a week for a year. There would not be any sort of overseeing body that she'd report to nearby (Fulbright has a center in Kuala Lumpur).

Does anyone have any information regarding safety issues in those three states? First hand knowledge, especially from long term stays, would be especially helpful.

What are the living conditions in remote towns in that region of the country? Are there parts in those areas that are very difficult to access and travel to and from? Safety aside, in general, what was your experience like there?

I appreciate any information you may have or experiences you'd like to share!

Thank you
posted by Kateruba to Travel & Transportation around Malaysia (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Part 1 response: You are 22. You are an adult now. This is the prime opportunity to do what your parents don't want you to do. If taking a scholarship to go abroad and teach English is being rebellious for you, then please, be rebellious. If you want to go: GO! Compared to staying in the college town and having a mediocre job? GO GO GO! You will learn more than you ever imagined by leaving the country. Having international teaching experience will look good on any resume.

Part 2 response: I'm not familiar with Malaysia, but I am familiar with The statement on is thorough. It advises a travel warning against certain specific areas, and otherwise is fairly standard issue for pickpocketing, theft and credit card fraud. Don't go to the areas listed and be smart.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:40 PM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

From Ms. Vegetable:

1. GO GO GO. This is literally the EASIEST time to take a year and be abroad - without the hassle of work visas by oneself, or finding a job, or housing, or dealing with crap back home.

posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:45 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

If her parents think she is a "bum" for being a Fulbright Scholar, it's probably because they want her to be an unhappy and unlucky person who turns down honking big opportunities in favour of an endless series of sacrifices to propitiate their insatiable superegos. Also when she does what they say, becomes a lawyer. and wins a Nobel Prize for services to human rights, they will say "that won't even cover the tuition we wasted so you could fritter your life away on hippy human rights work, and why couldn't you get an Oscar like your sister."

So she should probably just go to Malaysia, really. It's six of one and half a dozen of the other.
posted by tel3path at 3:55 PM on June 1, 2011 [15 favorites]

There is a lot she can do in advance to make sure she feels safer about being there. She should GO.

What her parents think is irrelevant. She will be working, learning, and earning. Under those circumstances, there is no such thing as a "waste" of a year.

When I was her age I moved to New York City and began a publishing internship. My parents thought I was crazy because I was working for free, and living in an "unsafe" city. It wasn't always fun or easy, but I had faith in the inherent value of what I was doing, even if I wound up having to jump ship and return home.

posted by hermitosis at 3:56 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

even if I wound up having to jump ship and return home.

Incidentally, I did NOT wind up having to go home -- I'm still here almost a decade later. Just wanted to make that clear...
posted by hermitosis at 3:57 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Violent crime against travelers and expatriates is relatively rare isn't all that vague. has a tendency to *overestimate* dangers to US citizens, not underestimate them, so if they're actually saying that violent crime against travelers is rare, that's a good thing. They can't really quantify it at a neighborhood by neighborhood level, though more dangerous cities are frequently singled out. (The warnings I hate, personally, say something like, "There is some violent crime directed at American citizens." How on earth do you do a risk assessment with "some?")

I do not know much about Malaysia, but if violent crime and kidnappings are rare, this sounds like a GREAT opportunity. Traveling is fun, a tuition break is awesome, and the Fulbright looks good on resumes and CVs, even if she later decides to switch fields. I don't really see a downside. The expectations of overbearing parents shouldn't even factor in.
posted by wending my way at 3:59 PM on June 1, 2011

I can't imagine the graduate program, corporation, law firm, medical school, or other future career spot that wouldn't see a Fulbright as an absolutely positive thing. Not to mention the living abroad part. This will only enhance her future academic or career efforts, no matter what her parents say.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:10 PM on June 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm not very familiar with Malaysia, aside from a general desire to visit there as a tourist someday. Though I'll say that I'm fairly up on what countries are safe or not, and it hadn't occurred to me that Malaysia would be of particular concern.

On the other point. I don't really understand how her parents' opinion of her life choices thus far (the "bum" thing, not proceeding directly to business school or whatever) are relevant here. It's not like she's trying to choose between doing a year in Malaysia vs. starting med school right away. Whether she goes to Malaysia or not, she's not going to be immediately jumping into something her parents would approve of. And considering it's a freaking Fullbright (incredible opportunity, extremely selective, looks great on a resume)....? I mean, she's not exactly looking to take a year off to bum around Southeast Asia and smoke hash, here. In my opinion it would be the mediocre job in the college town that would be a waste of her time, if she's the sort of student who regularly qualifies for things like this.

Also, since when is teaching English in a developing country "not something that yields tangible results"? Jeez. What is she expecting to do if she doesn't go, cure cancer?
posted by Sara C. at 4:10 PM on June 1, 2011

I can't believe she's even hesitating. This is an incredible opportunity, and one absolutely not to be wasted.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 4:29 PM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't see why she has only two alternatives. I can't say that teaching in a remote section of Malaysia, away from other, more experienced teachers, sounds all that fun (and I've been there, travelled, etc.) But why can't she get a different job in another place other than her college town? Taking grad classes for free also sounds sort of dreary, to me.

If she's this smart and dedicated, with or without hovering parental units, I think she might look around for more interesting choices. Yes, the Fulbright is "prestigious" but there are Fulbrights and Fulbrights.

If she wants to teach in Korea, I'd be willing to bet she could find a job teaching English in Korea.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:41 PM on June 1, 2011

Go, for all the reasons mentioned above. I've spent a lot of time in Malaysia, mostly in Terengganu, one of the states under consideration. It's a rural, conservative area. There will definitely be an adjustment period but she will never regret going.

Memail me if you would like more info. Malaysia is a fantastic country.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:43 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been to Malaysia and it is a lot more conservative than other SE Asian countries (neighboring Thailand is a lot more 'relaxed') but the amazing opportunity to teach in another country on a prestigious program will serve her well in her future.

My Malaysian friends are saying "GO!" and that the odds of her coming to any harm is mostly dependent on factors that apply to nearly the same degree anywhere else in the world. Use good sense when traveling alone, meeting new people, etc. Also dressing modestly goes a long way in not attracting negative attention. I made the mistake of dressing like a "typical tourst" in a short skirt and tank top when I went to Malaysia from Thailand and the stares I got made me intensely uncomfortable. I was a single woman walking around at night with a man who was obviously not my husband.. but I didn't feel unsafe.

Bahasa Malay is a relatively easy language to learn and the food IMO is great! The proximity to Thailand and Indonesia alone should be a great draw. If she has a chance to travel while in Malaysia, it will be an incredible opportunity for her. I know too many people who are now settled in their "responsible adult lives" and mourn the lost opportunity to travel and experience the world. A year teaching abroad with a full living stipend is a dream for most people who are curious about the world.

She'll be fine, I'd love to be in her shoes!!
posted by loquat at 4:47 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for all of the helpful responses so far! Keep them coming. I agree with you all completely! I am passing them on to my friend.

Ideefixe - Would you elaborate a little bit on your travel experience in remote Malaysia?
posted by Kateruba at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2011

Totally GO!!!!

The Fulbright is prestigious and that alone is a good enough reason to go!!
posted by guster4lovers at 5:43 PM on June 1, 2011

GO! It wasn't a Fullbright grant but I graduated at 21 and not liking job prospects in 2001, I went to Japan for a year. It was AMAZING. Going to a country where I knew nothing on arrival taught me I could do anything. Taught me so much about myself. It led to a number of years overseas but fast forward 10 years, I have a Masters and a professional degree earning a sustainable living. If that's a bum, I'll take it.
posted by TravellingCari at 6:41 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. I was just offered a full scholarship to study abroad as well. I'm in my second year of a doctoral program. I had lunch with the Dean of Graduate Studies, wherein I spent the whole lunch trying to convince him that I would still graduate on time. He did not care. He wanted me to go and to have a good time and to finish when I finish.

2. The Dean also told me that you can and should use the scholarship on your resume/CV, as it signals to employers (in academia and beyond) that you can apply for, and get, large amounts of money. This is a plus EVERYWHERE. Grad schools, jobs, etc. They all see Fulbright and see someone that will add to their organization. Also, in this economy, unless your friend has a prestigious job lined up (which it doesn't sound like), then the opportunities she wants will be more likely to be around later, rather than this year. Also, she can keep up with jobs and opportunities via email and keep applying for things.

3. There is literally no other way to get this experience. Your friend will not be able to go to Malaysia or anywhere else for a year on someone else's dime and with such stringent care -- remember that the first people out of Egypt were American scholars. Ditto everywhere else there is violence or trouble. These programs have NO interest in having young American scholars have a bad or violent experience. They will prevent it at all costs.

4. Seriously? A mediocre job vs. a Fulbright? Here is an anecdote: one summer I was offered a job in the Hamptons, living on the beach. My alternative was a job in my hometown. I agonized for the same reasons -- parents didn't want me to do it, seemed like a risk academically, etc. I went to the Hamptons. I had a rough couple weeks, then I had an amazing time. Was it summer classes? No. Was it a prestigious internship? No. But it was a great time and a great experience and one that I'm STILL dining out on.

It sounds like her objections have more to do with being scared than being seriously torn. You could talk with her about her fears and try to help with those -- look a the loss, look at the gain, promise to write and visit, etc. Have her talk with an academic advisor (someone she knows/trusts) or a career counselor at her alma mater.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:51 PM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and PS: if she goes into graduate study anywhere but law or medicine, then she should have her study paid in FULL. She should not be paying for grad classes anywhere. Nope. No. Not at all. If her motivation is free grad classes, then she needs to go do the Fulbright, then apply for fully-funded programs when she gets back, where the programs will see that she is self-motivated and able to get a major, national scholarship. And if she wants to stay at her home university, then she should talk with them about applying for 2012-2013. I'm guessing that they'll be receptive, at the very least, to having her return as a grad student.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:57 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

1) Is friend financially supported by parents - and would she be living well below her usual standard if she defied said parents and did her own thing? A Fullbright scholarship goes WAAY (waaay) further in Malaysia than in the US.

2) Naw. IF she get the Fullbright to go teach in Malaysia, she's on the very fucking top of the fucking list that the US marines in Malaysia are supposed to look/search-out after if anything bad happens. Someone like that gets put on fucking lists.

Terrorism? Really? Terrorism related deaths are about as likely as being raptured. Lightening strikes kill more people annually.
posted by porpoise at 7:55 PM on June 1, 2011

go go go go!!!!! Going somewhere a bit out of the way and not having any overseeing body does sound a bit scary, but I can't imagine it not being worth it. This is what being 22 is for, you don't know what you can handle or adapt to yet! she's never challenged herself to try! this will be an incredible growing experience for her, even the inevitable difficult/frustrating/homesick parts. Tell her to start learning as much as possible about her possible placement areas and, if needed, heckle the Fulbright people as much as needed for details about her potential placement. The more she knows, the less to be worried about.

As for "wasting a year." WHAT?!?! she got a FULBRIGHT, where on earth would that NOT look good on a resume? many other people have stated it better than I, but receiving and completing a Fulbright will look great for future academia, future work, pretty much anything. As someone mentioned above, no matter the field she goes into, receiving such a prestigious award and relatively nice amount of money will signal all kinds of important and desirable character/employee traits to any future employer or application reviewer of any sort.

posted by dahliachewswell at 8:29 PM on June 1, 2011

If your friend is worried about her safety then she is dramatically underestimating the immense value of white privilege and an American passport abroad. Malaysia is a former British colony, and thus largely English speaking, as well as a current member of the commonwealth, an ally of the United States.

Thus no matter what kind of trouble she might get into she will have the language skills, blonde hair and passport to generate massive amounts of support immediately. She won't even need the cheap cell phone she will be able to buy there. Your friend should know that she is uniquely privileged to have access to this experience as safely as she will.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:38 PM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

OMG Awesome!

She has an opportunity to go see the world, have a tremendous experience, and she gets to slap Fulbright Scholar on her resume at the end of it. What's the problem?
posted by mleigh at 10:43 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you read what is being said about other countries, including you own, on this site? I was a bi concerned about Istanbul until I realized that it had a lower of warning than London.
posted by jojobobo at 12:20 AM on June 2, 2011

For comparison, here's the UK government's travel advice for Malaysia. There's some useful safety advice down the page. They do mention potential danger in the east of the country, but I was struck by this statistic: every year 435,500 British nationals visit Malaysia - so it can't be too dangerous!

My experience of working in rural Africa is that I was much much safer living in a 'remote' area than in the city. Locals knew who I was and looked out for me. I'd advise your friend to be careful, to take her safety seriously, but definitely go for it!
posted by sleepy boy at 3:01 AM on June 2, 2011

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