Choy Siew Chee was one of the first students to receive a Bachelor of Science degree through a partnership between Campbell University and Tunku Abdul Rahman College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Today, the two-time Campbell alumna heads TAR College’s Perak campus.
Choy Siew Chee ’82, ’85 MED earned a Bachelor of Science from Campbell University, though she took all of her courses for her undergraduate degree in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TAR College). Since 1979, Campbell and TAR College have partnered to offer a Bachelor of Science degree, graduating as many as 13,000 students over the past 33 years. Choy was among the first students to graduate from the joint program.
After she worked for several years as a science teacher at a private school in Malaysia, Choy then moved to Buies Creek and became the first graduate of the joint program to enroll in graduate studies at Campbell, where she earned a Master of Education. “It’s a rare privilege to be a double first,” she says. “I guess I was at the right place at the right time.”
She taught science courses for several years at Asheboro High School in North Carolina before heading back to Malaysia to teach. In 1996, TAR College hired her to open its branch campus in Perak, one of the 13 states in Malaysia. She continues as head of the campus today.
Choy, who returns to visit North Carolina once or twice a year, spoke with Campbell.edu about her experiences in higher education in both the U.S. and in Malaysia, what she took away from her Campbell education, and what she enjoys about working in higher education administration. The following is an edited transcript.
How did you come to be part of the Bachelor of Science program that TAR College and Campbell jointly offer in Malaysia?
When I started my higher education in Malaysia, the university system there did not allow for a lot of free entry into universities. There was very limited space and placements for students. Because of that, I joined TAR College. The college’s mission was to enable and allow students who couldn’t get into the mainstream university to get a degree.
When I attended in the late 1970s, I joined the science program, which had an arrangement with the University of London to offer a degree through an external arrangement. But the year I joined, the program ended. A lot of students dropped out. But I trusted the head of the school at the time, Dr. Ng Lay Swee, who later became the principal of TAR College. She assured us that they were working on it. I remember for the whole year we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were holding on and hoping for the best. Then TAR College and Campbell formed a partnership in which the award of the degree was by Campbell but the classes stayed with TAR College. This arrangement allowed me to earn a degree from Campbell via satellite.
Today, in Malaysia, you can find this kind of program anywhere with no problem. But at the time, it was the first of its kind there.
How would you describe your experience with the program?
I remember it was difficult to graduate from at that time, because if you failed one subject, you had to repeat the whole year and take all the subjects over again. If you failed again, you were kicked out. I saw a lot of people drop out of the program because of that. Our program started with 24, and when we finished, we had only 14 graduates. It was a very tough program to get through, but it provided very good training.
And then you ended up on Campbell’s main campus in Buies Creek to earn a Master of Education. How did that come about?
Malaysia was going through a tough time with a recession and a lot of graduates coming out didn’t have jobs. I started teaching in a private school there. I didn’t feel like that was going to lead me anywhere, so I decided to pursue a master’s. I was ready for an overseas education experience, and I was familiar with Campbell through the program at TAR College. I felt confident enough to enroll myself in the master’s program.
What was it like to move from Malaysia to Buies Creek?
I was in for a huge culture shock. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t get around. I was confined to this little campus here. A few weeks in I was very home sick. I remember I made a call home – which was a big deal because I had to pay a lot of money to make that call – and my parents were not happy with me. They told me, “You chose it. You stay there, and you make sure you finish your program. Don’t come complain to us. You wanted to go so you better make sure that you survive this and get on with life.”
You stayed and finished the program. What made it worth it?
The master’s degree I obtained created many opportunities for me and allowed me to have experiences that I could only have dreamt of. I had a great time working in Asheboro and made many life-long friends from this part of the country. Currently I enjoy working for TAR College, which also has given me many opportunities.
How would you describe your time in Buies Creek?
Intense, as I finished my master’s degree in one and a half years. Busy. I learned a lot. Here, you also learned to kick back a bit and learn not to be so intense all the time.
Are there other similarities and differences between higher education here and in Malaysia?
I don’t think you can compare because the two experiences are very different. Education in Malaysia tends to be competitive and intense, while education here is a little more relaxed. You have more time to smell the roses. The two have very different perspectives of things, and there are differences in lifestyles as well.
I’m comfortable with both worlds. But it’s not for everyone. When I come here, I’m always “Chee Choy,” and nobody calls me that in Malaysia. It’s either “Choy” or “Dr. Choy” or just “Chee.” It’s never “Chee Choy.” And we’re in a city there, which makes it totally different. Here there are many small towns and more countryside. It’s also more suburban.
A lot of people from America go to Malaysia with a preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to be like. I would say go experience it for yourself, because you will find it is very different from the way you imagined. You have to make up your own mind on what you want to experience. Some would be more comfortable in North Carolina and some in Malaysia. Not necessarily because of language, but because of habits and lifestyle.
After teaching for a few years in Asheboro, you moved back to Malaysia to teach. Eventually, you moved into higher education administration. Why the move?
I was at the right place at the right time. The opportunities landed on my lap, and I said I’d be stupid not to take this. I just went along with it.
What do you enjoy about your work and leading one of TAR College’s branch campuses?
The challenges and constantly changing tasks. No two days in my job are exactly the same. I may have to deal with garbage on the campus and sit in high-level meetings within a span of several hours. And after dealing with garbage and sitting in high-level meetings, I’ll be back in my office writing a paper for publication. There is a huge array of activities going on. Every minute is different.
How did Campbell prepare you for where you are now?
The courses offered were very practical, and I still apply what I learned to what I do today. They were also intensive and prepared me for the challenges to come. And there were great professors that I met while I was here. I will never forget Betty Davenport [professor emerita of education at Campbell who died in August 2012]. When I teach the education workshops today for TAR College and lecture to those who teach, I still use a lot of the principles that she taught me and imparted to me.
A lot of those principles have evolved since then, but things like how to test a student, fair testing practices, the process of testing and why tests are flawed. It’s nothing specific, but it’s about the broader impact of those ideas -- basically how to be a great teacher.
What do you hope other educators might learn from you?
That work can be fun and enjoyable, and learning is easy when it’s fun.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough