AFTER pursuing their studies, scholarship recipients are expected to return home to serve the community and build the nation. But for Nelson Ng Jia Jun, a Yayasan Khazanah scholar with a burning passion for education reform, it is never too early to start giving back.
This 22-year-old is the founder of ProjectEd, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to empower underprivileged students to pursue higher education. Formerly known as Knowledge Is Free Foundation, ProjectEd was initiated with a vision to tackle educational inequality in Malaysia.
Ng, a masters in aeronautics and astronautics engineering student in the United Kingdom, cited the selfless act of a group of Filipino students as his inspiration.
“They secretly helped a student to pursue higher education by donating their own pocket money. I thought this idea could be applied for Malaysian students,” said Ng, adding that he could not have accomplished his dreams without a scholarship.
Growing up in a quaint and small fishing village in Pontian, Johor, Ng developed a deep interest in mathematics at a young age. Along with his penchant for physics, he began setting his sights to become an engineer.
Coming from a humble background, he knew his parents did not have the means to fund his university education. So, he worked hard to realise his dreams.
“I always believed that education, or rather, knowledge is the paramount factor in changing my family’s situation,” said Ng, who had never left his hometown before 2014.
After scoring 9A+ and 1A in Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, Ng was awarded a bursary by the Education Ministry to do A Level at Taylor’s College in Subang Jaya. The completion of this endeavour marked an important milestone in his life as he was the first in his extended family to be offered a place in a prestigious university.
“It was the proudest moment for my parents,” he said.
However, Ng’s education almost came to an abrupt end when the bursary programme was terminated in 2016.
“I was one of the 700 students who had to reject our admission offers to the top 20 universities in the world,” he said, adding that acceptance to a prominent university was one of the requirements of the bursary.
Due to financial difficulties, Ng considered breaking off his studies early. Fortunately, he was accepted to study in the University of Southampton, which waived his first-year tuition.
Hoping for the best, he applied for the prestigious Khazanah scholarship. With his excellent academic and extracurricular records, he managed to clinch the prize.
While studying in the UK, Ng discovered that he had excess from his scholarship every month.
“Many of my peers realised this as well. So, I started playing around with this idea (of ProjectEd) by asking feedback from my fellow scholars.
“Most of them were more than happy to donate RM1.50 daily ― which came up to RM45 per month ― to a scholarship fund. I managed to gather more than 50 of my friends to donate consistently for a year,” said Ng, adding that the money was able to support three university students.
He began running ProjectEd with a group of scholars in local universities and abroad.
Realising that they had to make a bigger impact, the team started conducting workshops and mentoring programmes to spread their wings.
He attributes his remarkable education and humanitarian journey to the power of self-belief.
“Ever since young, I have always believed in myself. From getting into university to changing the world, I’ve always had a lot of faith in myself to achieve these near impossible dreams.
“The biggest gift from my parents and God is the ability to think. I believe everyone should figure out some core values to live by.
“Mine are integrity, empathy, learning from failures and knowledge sharing. These values have shaped me into who I am today.”
True to his passion, Ng also initiated EduTech, a 10-week educational outreach programme in collaboration with Teach For Malaysia.
The initiative provides computer programming lessons and soft-skills development to 50 students of SMK Johor Jaya and SMK Puteri Wangsa in Johor, who face difficulties in their studies.
“By the end of the programme, the students would present an algorithm to solve daily problems, such as detecting drivers who fall asleep,” said Ng.
Last year, he participated in a five-week academic fellowship with The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative on social entrepreneurship and economic development at Arizona State University in the United States.
Honoured to be selected as one of the only two Malaysian delegates, Ng said: “It was a great opportunity to meet people from diverse cultural backgrounds. I believe that being a student is the best moment for you to try out new things.”
While being actively involved in community work, he still prioritised his academic performance and was ranked first in his second-year results.
Currently spending a semester at the French National Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space (ISAE-SUPAERO) in Toulouse, Ng harbours high hopes for the Malaysian education system.
“There should be more emphasis on developing the thoughts of our students and training them to think independently.
“Pursuing my tertiary education in the UK and France, I was initially overwhelmed by how well the students here can construct and articulate their ideas.
“I believe we should focus on developing thought leaders rather than exam-scoring machines. However, I understand that to improve this situation is challenging. I, myself, am also learning to improve on developing my thoughts every day,” said Ng.
Picture caption: Nelson Ng Jia Jun (centre) with the board members of ProjectEd. They are (from left) Ng Soon Kiat, Al Amirul Eimer, Phung Pei Shan and Shaan Gom.