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Embracing challenges: how one student learned to balance extra-curricular activities with her studies to get ready for the world

Cambridge community  Cambridge Learners  Southeast Asia & Pacific  

In 2023, Ong Zhi Hsuen, a student at Sunway College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, achieved grade A* in all four of her Cambridge International A Levels: Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. Although proud of her results, she believes extracurricular activities played a key role in preparing her for the world and that developing a peaceful mindset is crucial for dealing with life’s challenges.

My parents have always encouraged me to explore my passions and I have a genuine passion for my courses and subjects. I’ve humorously told those around me that studying is my ‘hobby’ and use breaks to browse through my lecture slides like storybooks or doodle scientific concepts and phrases on my notes.

Fuelled by a passion for life and an insatiable curiosity, I have participated in competitions such as the British Biology Olympiad and the IMU Science Discovery Challenge. Encouraging results pushed me to progress further and seize every opportunity, including applying for the Harvard Prize Book award.

Despite the demanding schedule of Cambridge International AS Levels, I actively participated in the Sunway College Student Council, first as the Student Welfare Director and later as President.

The power of taking initiative and sharing a common goal

Engaging in my council roles provided invaluable experience, like participating in management meetings and serving as a panel speaker during town halls. It also connected me with peers from diverse programmes, ages and life paths, all united by a common council goal.

The experience shaped my perspective on the power of taking initiative. One unforgettable moment during my tenure with the council was when our directors swiftly organised a fundraiser, Valentine’s for You and Them, in response to the Turkey-Syria earthquake. It was a whirlwind experience, with the entire planning phase completed in just a few days and members dedicating their weekends on campus to prepare for the event. We collected over MYR1,400 for donation.

At one of the bi-annual town halls, I remember how nervous we felt about answering potentially harsh questions in front of an audience of over 100 students. However, the experience not only provided invaluable learning but also instilled a deep sense of confidence as we addressed each question posed by the student community.

Balancing time management with mental health

I am a procrastinator by nature and often prioritise tasks I enjoy, delaying those I find less appealing and lacking a systematic approach to meeting deadlines. However, during my time on the council, I consistently reminded myself that my primary goal in college was to study and this drove me to complete my extracurricular commitments efficiently, leaving ample time for focused studying. However, I have not always taken this approach.

Before Sunway College, I joined the school band, the editorial board and the cheerleading team, as well as taking on a part-time translation job – all while serving as class monitor. I also started a small baking business.

Time often felt insufficient and it was exhausting to manage so much. This self-inflicted pressure became draining, taking a toll on both my mental and physical wellbeing.

Rebuilding confidence and reducing self-criticism

Supported by my class teacher, family and a school counsellor, I began viewing my situation with a lighter perspective, gradually rebuilding my lost confidence and reducing self-criticism. This marked a pivotal moment and led me to accept the imperfections inherent in us all. I reconnected with my courageous, confident and passionate younger self. Entering college for Cambridge International A Levels, I approached life with a peaceful mindset. This journey taught me to manage time efficiently, as I knew how much was on my plate.

Turning struggles into challenges and career opportunities

Having experienced mental health challenges, I aim to pursue psychiatry. The future is uncertain, but with kindness, courage and determination, I’ll embrace challenges, much like how the eight-year-old me did.

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