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Get to know Peng, MINDEF scholar studying in California

PengProfTieng Chwei Peng, who goes by Peng, is a 22 year old MINDEF scholar from KB. Currently Peng is in her final year of an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. I spoke to Peng recently about her time in the States, as well as the website she founded for Bruneian students who are considering applying to the US for further study (Bruneians Guide to US Education -

On choosing to pursue a degree in the States.

For years, I pictured myself pursuing higher education in the United Kingdom. It was not until a year before I had completed my A-Levels that I considered attending a college (university) in the United States, an idea espoused by the Ministry of Defense at the time and supported by my family. After hearing positive experiences from people who had studied in the United States, and after days – if not weeks – of extensive research, my decision was made. Ultimately, my decision to steer off the tracks that I had built up in my mind for years and to study in the States boiled down to three things:

1. Years after being primed as a “science” student, I yearned to fill gaps in my knowledge, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.
2. I liked the idea of building my own curriculum, to have the freedom to choose my classes and which semesters to take them.
3. I wanted to diversify my experiences and was intrigued by “the road less traveled”.

The fact that the United States is sparsely peppered with Bruneians and the inconvenience of starting over in a new place inevitably crossed my mind but I saw these as minor setbacks that were far outweighed by the benefits that I would reap from an American education. Safety, especially with regard to gun crimes and natural disasters, did not weigh heavily in mind but I was sure to look into campus safety during my research about colleges.

National Day Dinner

National Day Dinner 20141

Oakland Bay Bridge

Oakland-SF Bay Bridge1

In New York City with other Bruneians

NYC with Bruneians1

What kind of support did you receive during the applications process, and what do you think would have been helpful, in retrospect?

The Ministry of Defense was very supportive and had arranged a workshop on the SATs, a US college admission exam, for its scholarship recipients. This helped me hit the ground running. Some of my friends were very encouraging of my endeavor in different ways, from giving me a written guide, to proofreading my essays, to accepting that I was going to be a hermit for a while as I labored over my application. Although my teachers were not too familiar with the US college application process, they put in effort to learn about it and helped me refine my application.

One of the challenging parts of applying (while having to study for the A-Level modules at the same time) was dealing with the uncertainty of it all – the uncertainty that I was doing things right, or that any of my efforts would pay off. With so few in the same boat, navigating the college admission process under the guidance of an experienced peer or mentor, or knowing some alumni (if there were any) would have been helpful. Additionally, earlier exposure to and awareness of the United States as a higher education option would have been beneficial.

What has your experience in the US been like? What do you think is unique about US higher education, and what kind of student would benefit the most from a US-style education?

My experience has been great so far! Despite not conforming to the tree-hugging Berkeley hippie stereotype, I have been fortunate enough to have found myself on a campus whose culture resonates with me. As I had expected prior to college, I am enjoying the freedom of tailoring my degree based on my interests and am participating in a flurry of club activities

One of the unique aspects of US higher education is the opportunity it presents for students to interact with people across different majors (degrees), enhanced by the fact that students are not confined to classes specific to their degrees. The liberal education system also encourages students to acquire and indulge in eclectic interests. Five years ago, I would never have thought that I would learn Irish dance from a professor or build a canoe...out of concrete.

A student who appreciates breadth in knowledge as well as research and networking with professors and professionals would benefit from a US-style education. US education is also great for those who would like to build on skills such as initiative, independence, and resourcefulness, derived from living in an individualistic society with relatively far and few Bruneians.

At Berkeley


Occupy Movement at Berkeley

Berkeley - Occupy Movement1

The concrete canoe

Concrete Canoe1

Tell me about the Bruneian's Guide to US Education!

The Bruneian’s Guide to US Education is an online resource designed specifically for Bruneians who are interested in learning about higher education in the United States and the college application process. The website contains a growing repository of information on the college admission process, student guides on living in the US, and -- hopefully in months to come -- stories from Bruneians in the US and a public database of students and alumni.

The idea was first developed on my first summer away from Brunei in the sweltering Texas heat. Perhaps I saw it as a way to reconnect myself with Brunei at a time when I would usually be at home with my family, devouring char kuay tiao purchased from my favorite noodle stall. More importantly, I was compelled to build this online resource because I had been approached by several Bruneian students over the past few years who were considering studying in the United States but lacked information and/or had already missed the SAT exam deadlines.

I was also inspired by the comprehensive online guide set up by the Singapore Malaysian Student Association on my campus that helped me immensely in adapting to life in Berkeley and the US college education system. Having had a positive experience studying in the United States, I was set on making information on pursuing college education in the US more accessible to Bruneians, be it prospective applicants, parents or teachers who want to help guide students.

In the years to come, I would like to see this resource grow to become more comprehensive, detailing information not only regarding undergraduate colleges but also those pertaining to community colleges and graduate schools. Ideally, the website will garner contributions from Bruneians with a variety of educational experiences in the US, be filled with stories of student life in the US, and have a fleshed-out public database of current Bruneian students and alumni of US colleges. Ultimately, this website will not just be informational tool but also a platform to help build a more robust Bruneian network in the US.

San Francisco

Personal - San Francisco1

The physical distance between Bruneian students in the US (and their scarcity!) means that it's virtually impossible to have the same kind of support system/community that is available in, say, the UK. How important do you think this kind of community is?

The Bruneian students in the US have started finding ways to touch base with each other, be it through the Facebook group dedicated to Bruneians in the US, group travel during breaks, or if we are lucky, casual meetings on weekends. However, there is still plenty of scope for this community to be more cohesive to be able to provide the support system that we might need once in a while.

I do think it is important to build and maintain some sort of Bruneian community in order to alleviate any sense of detachment from our own home country and culture that may develop. Nothing beats the comfort of being able to roll out Malay words that form naturally at the tip of our tongue or being able to talk about matters that are local to us. That being said, I do think that the lack of a community on the scale found in the UK or Australia may provide more room for students’ personal development and pushes students to meet more people.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Peng! All the very best for the rest of your time in the States.

imageAbout the Contributor: At her day job, Kathrina thinks and talks about books at UBD. At all other times, she can be found reading books, being a nosy parker (resulting in interviews like the one above), and daydreaming aggressively and voraciously. Occasionally she likes to pretend she doesn't hate exercise and can be seen moving sluggishly around Shahbandar.

Kathrina likes cake and always welcomes book recommendations, and can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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