Ivy League PhD holder Felicia Genie is the pride of the Iban community

Felicia highlighted Sarawak in the eyes of the world by wearing an Iban scarf in her graduation robe at Columbia University in the ‘Hooding Ceremony’.

WHO would have thought that what started as a dream has become a reality for Dr Felicia Genie Tersan – the first female teacher from the Iban community to receive a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) from Columbia University in New York, one of the world’s leading universities in the United States of America.

From Sungai Tanduk, Undup in Sri Aman, Felicia, 38, received her scroll at the convocation ceremony on May 17 and 18 after successfully completing her PhD in English Education from Teachers College at Columbia University, one of eight research universities listed as an Ivy League institution along with Princeton University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth University, Harvard University, and Harvard University.

Ivy League institutions are seen as the most prestigious universities in the world and are known for their strict selection of students.

Felicia shared that she initially felt that she was ‘not good enough’ to be admitted to Columbia University, and did not expect that her efforts to introduce Sarawak to the eyes of the world would be accepted at the institution.

Felicia takes a photo in the background of other graduates at Columbia University’s convocation ceremony.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I would be given the chance to enter Columbia because first, the fees were expensive and I came from a modest family. Second, I felt that I was not good enough to enter this university.

“However, because of my research interest in teacher professional development and rural community education, I set a goal to pursue my PhD under my supervisor who happens to be at Columbia and has the same interest in research in this field.

“So I tried my luck by contacting my supervisor via email and explaining my plans. Thankfully there was positive feedback and encouragement for me to apply there,” she said.

Before starting her PhD studies in June 2019, Felicia found the application process at Columbia to be quite complicated and time-consuming.

“Besides following the requirements where Master and Bachelor transcripts, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), letters of support and others need to be sent, I also need to prepare a strong statement of purpose as to why I am the right person for the PhD program.

Felicia (centre) with her supervisor Prof Ruth Vinz (right).

“From there, the faculty members of my chosen program reviewed my application and decided whether to offer me a position to be a Columbia University PhD student,” he said.

Studies sponsored by the MoE

Felicia considers herself lucky because her PhD studies were funded by the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MoE) under its Hadiah Latihan Persekutuan (HLP) program, where successful teacher applicants are offered Cuti Belajar Bergaji Penuh Dengan Biasiswa (CBBPB), or fully-paid study leave with scholarship.

“Because of that, I became ‘brave’ to apply to Columbia because it was funded. Even before I left, my parents made a lot of sacrifices to make sure I could start life in another country.

“But thankfully when I was there, I didn’t bother my parents about financial matters because I was determined to obtain my PhD without burdening them, since both of them are retirees.

Felicia is in front of the bronze sculpture of Columbia University’s Alma Mater and Low Memorial Library.

“In fact, the cost of living in New York City is very high. Sometimes, money is really tight because the sponsorship allowance is all used to pay the house rent which reaches more than US$2,000 (RM9,300) a month. The salary I received in Malaysia is used for commitments in Malaysia.

“Sometimes when I’m desperate, I buy raw materials from Columbia’s free food pantry to cook my meals. In fact, my survival skills were really put to the test during my studies.

Promoting Foreign culture in America

Felicia said she was very proud to represent the Iban community in getting her PhD at Columbia University, especially when her research thesis titled ‘Coaching Across Cultures: A Narrative Inquiry of Instructional Coaching in Rural Sarawak’ was selected to receive the Doctoral Dissertation Award.

“From the results of my search in the list of alumni of Columbia University, as far as I know, there is no Foreign student who has obtained a PhD from Columbia. Therefore, I decided to highlight the Iban identity while I was there, including in my thesis.

“In the thesis, I highlighted the state of Sarawak and our multiracial culture, so when I was chosen to receive this award, I was very flattered.

“For me, it means that Sarawak and the culture of my community is valued on the world stage. When I went on stage for the ‘doctoral hooding’, I also wore an Iban scarf over the robe.

The screenshot shows Felicia (top right) with her Dissertation Committee members after the thesis was announced and passed.

“The feeling at that time is indescribable – tears flow when I remember that I was able to raise the pride of the Iban community and Sarawak.

“While wearing the Iban scarf, the people there asked about it and I took the opportunity to explain about the designs on the scarf and its connection to the culture of the Iban community.

“At the convocation ceremony, I also brought a bag made by my aunt using ‘pua kumbu’ cloth and woven with gold thread by my late grandmother when I was young. The fabric is now over 30 years old,” she shared.

Aside from wearing an Iban scarf, Felicia also carried a bag made of ‘pua kumbu’ cloth and woven with her late grandmother’s gold thread during the convocation ceremony.

Dealing with the normalcy of life while abroad

Felicia described her four-year PhD study period in the United States as “feeling like a very short time” considering the classes that had to be taken and assignments that had to be completed each semester.

Felicia (center) holds the Sarawak flag while posing for a photo in front of the Statue of Liberty in the winter of 2019.

“The biggest challenge for me was being away from my family – it was just me and my husband there at the time.

“In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, my husband’s grandmother died of cancer. We were both sad because we couldn’t go back to Malaysia at that time because of the strict protocol.

“And when I heard that my father had cancer and I could not come to Kuching to take care of him, it filled my heart with more sadness.

Felicia (left) and her husband (right) at a dinner at her supervisor Prof Ruth Vinz’s residence to celebrate her PhD graduation.

However, Felicia said it strengthened her determination to finish her PhD as soon as possible so that she could return to Sarawak to be with her father and family.

Establishing a doctoral student writing team

Felicia says that completing a PhD is indeed a journey to be faced alone, as shared by previous PhD holders.

“At Teachers College at Columbia University, there is a Graduate Writing Center that has been established for a long time, where they help students in the field of academic writing.

“They already have a writing group for PhD students and when they meet, the group is not big and their meeting sessions are more on sitting together to write and there is no sharing of knowledge.

“Because of that, when Covid-19 hit the world, I started a Doctoral Writing Group in collaboration with the Graduate Writing Center, and we meet once a week online for three hours to write together.

Felicia in front of the entrance to Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Each week, I lead the meeting and together we set goals, monitor writing progress and share academic writing with group members.

“Members who are PhD students also work together to create a collaboration. For me, having an academic writing community like this is very important so that PhD students don’t feel alone in completing their thesis,” she explained.

Felicia when she finished writing and sent her entire dissertation to the office of Teachers College, Columbia University before going through the viva voce process.

Experiences, challenges and needs of mentor teachers

Felicia’s experience as a School Improvement Specialist Coach Plus (SISC+) since 2014 inspired her to conduct a qualitative study in the form of narrative inquiry focused on the experiences, challenges and needs of SISC+ teacher coaches.

“The informants of my research consisted of SISC+ guiding teachers in the interior of Sarawak which we know is made up of multiracial ethnic groups.

“Among the important research findings highlighted by the informants is the need for preparation and support for these teacher guides according to their respective contexts, and the need to emphasize the culture of the community in their respective areas.

“The truth is, our challenges and needs in Sarawak are different and unique,” he added.

So he hopes that with the expertise he has, he can contribute in terms of increasing support for teachers in Sarawak, especially English teachers, according to the needs and strengths and advantages of the community where their school is located.

In addition, Felicia also hopes to contribute to improving the quality of English teaching and learning through Sarawak-based programs, to increase the potential and marketability of Sarawak’s children on the world stage.

Felicia (front, second right) poses in front of the Graduate Writing Center with academics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) South Africa who visited Teachers College, Columbia University.

Big dreams and high ambitions

Felicia advises the children of Sarawak entering school or higher education to work hard and not give up in achieving their high ambitions.

“Nothing is impossible. But, without effort, we cannot achieve our dreams. Everything is achievable if we have effort and purpose.”

Felicia has been in the education service for 14 years, starting her career as an English teacher at SMK Pusa in 2009. Her last school was SM Sains Kuching Utara in 2014 before serving as SISC+ Language Officer at Padawan District Education Office from 2014 to present.

Felicia holds a Bachelor of Education (Hons) in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and a Master of Education in TESL from Universiti Teknologi Mara.







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