by root-control

In Focus

closing the gap

Name of Respondent: Connie Foong
Designation: Co- Founder & Managing Director

1.How long have you been with your organisation and what’s your favourite part of the job?

We’ve been running the programme for two years now. My favourite part of the job is definitely the direct interaction with each of our scholars and working closely with their mentors to help them grow in the student competencies to achieve the big goal of going to niversity. Seeing our scholars step out of their comfort zones to pursue goals that they might otherwise never have considered- that’s definitely one of the most rewarding parts of doing this. Also seeing some of our students successfully obtain scholarships to pursue higher education has been immensely joyful and validates our work and impact.

2. What do you wish to pursue/Why did you start this organisation?

Our motivation to start Closing The Gap stemmed from our experiences as teachers in some of the most challenging public schools through the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship. In 2016, one of our co-founders, Brian, met up with one of his ex-students who is a really bright student and did well in his STPM. Unfortunately, he did not have a lot of options due to financial challenges, and was considering taking a year off to work before applying for university again. Brian knew he had to do something about this, and long story short, we managed to help this student work on his soft skills and English to apply for scholarships. Half a year later, this student successfully secured a full scholarship to pursue his undergraduate studies at a private local university. That was an amazing moment that affirmed the need for a programme like Closing The Gap.

We also realised that not enough was being done for our young people after SPM- many of students we work with from underserved communities often do not know what pathways they can pursue and are unaware about their options. We were also frustrated by how uneven the playing field is for underserved students, particularly for those who show immense potential for top universities, but simply because of their socioeconomic circumstances and other barriers, did not realise their full potential.

3. Where are some of the challenges you faced/are facing with regards to the work that your organisation is doing?

Logistics is one our first batch of 29 kids come from 7 different schools from all around the Klang Valley. In fact the furthest student was one boy from Sekinchan, which is two hours away from KL! Our workshops and university residential camp are all held in KL as we believe it’s important for our students to be exposed to different environments, so figuring out how to get our students to those venues has been a challenge, especially when they live far away and access to public transport is limited. Their parents are usually busy with work, so they don’t really have anyone to drive them.

And of course, you have the usual challenge of student commitment- the students start on the programme as they enter Form 5, which can be stressful as its SPM year. Shifting mindsets have also been a challenge especially as we push the students to aim higher and open up their worldviews to consider options they might otherwise have never considered. There are a lot of barriers, both mental and tangible ones, that they have to consider as they plan for what’s after SPM: unsurprisingly, finances is the most common barrier, but self-esteem is also something they have to work through.

Another challenge is, of course, funding. What we’ve observed is that a lot of corporations are willing to give for direct programmatic costs. Unfortunately, not many are willing to cover operation or administrative costs. But if you really want the programme to be done well and see longer-term sustainability and benefits, you need dedicated people who can manage and run those programmes. (And for that, we’re extremely grateful for OSK Foundation’s belief in the work that we do.)

4. How do you intend to tackle these challenges?

For logistics, it’s a matter of setting expectations one – of our student competencies is that they can take responsibility for themselves, and our scholars learn that even things as seemingly simple as figuring out transportation is part and parcel of growing into a responsible young adult.

Students also come into the programme based on teacher recommendations and an application form they have to submit. Part of the application includes a short essay on why they want to be in this programme and what they hope to achieve through it, so that helps with setting the tone as well as for the team to make sure our programme are serving the right profile of students.

On fundraising, we have been fortunate to have met like-minded partners and supporters who understand and believe in the work that we’re doing, so we’re grateful that we are still able to continue the programme into our third year. In fact, we’ll be welcoming 49 students into our third cohort next year, our largest ever yet!

5. How can the public be part of this?

We’re always on the lookout for volunteers or you can sign up to be a mentor! The cornerstone of the programme is our mentoring, where we pair each scholar with a mentor to journey with them for two years and help them navigate the post-schooling landscape. We usually open up applications around October and November each year for mentors. Those interested in volunteering can fill out our form here. We also appreciate in-kind donations, such as sponsorship for venues, or financial help to support our students.