Chance to choose one's own destiny

Education | Katie Hung 15 Jan 2019

An offer to join the prominent global accounting firm Deloitte as a consultant right after one graduates in industrial and systems engineering from a US university sounds like an opportunity that has one made for life.

For Natalie Chan, however, it offered the experience she needed to take the risk to follow her heart in setting up an education institute - Own Academy - where learning goes far beyond the four walls of a classroom.

It's a traveling school, in which there are neither settled classrooms nor curriculum. It advocates the concept of real-world learning as, for Chan, there's a huge gap between what schools teach and what today's industries demand.

Chan was never a straight A student. But receiving Deloitte US's offer in 2009 - during an economic downturn, one might add - led her to reflect on whether it might have been her personality and the way she connected with people that won her the job.

And that kind of learning doesn't come from schools, but rather from meeting with lots of people.

Therefore, the academy takes students behind the scenes of many different industries for hands-on experiences, meeting with leaders as well as creating internship opportunities for high school students.

For example, students get insights into the workings of local sauce company, Lee Kum Kee, through an experimental skill-training program that guides them through the production process to entrepreneurship and even the making of promotional videos.

But instead of focusing only on just groups of students, the academy's striving to make a bigger impact by bringing the concept to schools. It has invited client companies to come up with actual problems for high school students at American International School, with the professionals coaching the students, who are then encouraged to seek internship opportunities.

"What we do here does not translate into grades," Chan said. "It doesn't translate into how well your students perform in schools, right? But what I always tell them [parents] is that what we do at the moment is never a short-term thing. What we are doing is a long-term development."

Chan compares the experience to attempting to find a "light bulb moment" for every youngster.

"If a student wants to be a great filmmaker, being good at communications, English, budgeting, all are related to that," she said.

The 31-year-old local has been blazing the trail in Hong Kong for the past three years, putting the concept of real-world learning into practice. Having studied at local and international schools in the SAR, and a boarding school and university in the United States, she felt she was always doing what she had been told to do.

"I want to turn that ownership [of learning] around and give ownership to students. So that's why I called it 'Own Academy,' Chan said. "I want the ownership to be back in children or students' hands, and to empower them to learn how they can take control over their lives, and live the most fulfilling life they can."

Although she got the best upbringing from her parents, it eventually came to a point where Chan felt like she was losing her own opinion of how she wanted to live her own life.

Going into the corporate world right after graduation may be something that many other grads might yearn for, but not Chan..

"I still remembered telling my mom how unhappy I was, and she was just saying that: 'You know, 99 percent of [people in] this world are unhappy in their jobs. Because they have to, because they have to survive, because they have to sustain themselves.' And then I said: what about that 1 percent?" Chan said.

"Mark Zuckerberg can be doing something he loves, and really believes in it and do that well. She was like: 'you're not Mark Zuckerberg.' But then, I said I can be Natalie Chan. I can be who I am supposed to be. I don't have to follow anybody."

The young entrepreneur admits the road to her dream has been littered with challenges by her parents, who are now very supportive of her aspirations to diverge from the well-trodden path and abandoning a secure job.

She recalled her parents were trying to get her back on the original track, but they later realize that her mind was set.

"But they always tell me that what I am doing - trying to change [the ways of] education - is not easy," Chan said.

"I know I didn't choose an easy path, but I know this is a very needed path."

Starting over again, Chan moved on to become a co-teacher and film producer for digital story-telling, as well as going back to school herself for a master's degree in education.

However, there's never any regret, she said, as she has grown at every stage of her life.

Her background in engineering, for example, trained her to be analytical and systematic.

Chan said she has met lots of friends who are professionals, doctors and lawyers, saying that they wouldn't have gotten into their professions at first if they had a clear mind of what those would be like.

"My goal is to help students to be aware of all the options at a much earlier age, as well as to experience what these options are before they actually make a decision that they may later regret," Chan said.

The academy is now going to roll out a gap year rotating program, starting in September for high school graduates, who will then spend nine months going to companies of different progressive industries, like media and technology, and another three months for an internship or voluntary service.

While many parents worry about whether their kids can earn a living in future, Chan believes "they can be self-sustainable if you let them really figure out, do what they really love. If you love doing what you love, you will make anything work. And that's what I am going through right now."

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