Poverty no hindrance to excellence

Now that Kasdi has secured a good job and 2 of his older siblings are working too, their family is financially much better off

By ZAPHNE PHILIP

SOMEONE who used to tag along with his impoverished parents to scavenge dumpsites for useful items, Kasdi Nata Sujono has come a long way.

Driven by his desire to study hard, get a good job and help his poverty-stricken family, Kasdi, who is now 23, went on to graduate in geology and seven months ago, he was appointed operating model executive at Petroliam Nasional Bhd’s (Petronas) Business Digital Unit in Kuala Lumpur.

Kasdi, whose outstanding academic achievements earned him a scholarship under the Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme (PESP) to pursue a degree in geology at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, grew up in a village in Balai Ringin in Serian, about 100km from Kuching, Sarawak.

His father, Sujono Suhanda, 65, was a labourer at a poultry farm, while his mother Fatimah Abdullah, 55, was a housewife.

“We were so poor that my parents would look for broken chairs, utensils and other items at dumpsites which they would repair and use. As for me, I would hunt for discarded toys to play with as my parents could never afford to buy me new ones,” recalled Kasdi, who has four siblings.

Now that Kasdi has secured a good job and two of his older siblings are working too, their family is financially much better off.

But the journey to get to where he is now was not an easy one.

Brilliant Student

Kasdi (right) together with his geology professor on his graduation day at the University of Colorado Boulder in US (pic: Bernama)

Kasdi said his family’s struggles pushed him to excel in his studies even though he had to revise for his exams by candlelight or torchlight as his house did not have electricity or clean water supply for that matter.

Studying in a small, cramped home that he shared with his parents, two brothers and two sisters was far from conducive, but still, he managed to score straight A’s in the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah exam.

Kasdi then received an offer to pursue his secondary education at SM Sains Kuching, but his mother persuaded him to decline it as she feared that he might get bullied by other students due to his small frame.

To please his mother, he studied at SMK Balai Ringin instead. Fortunately, he received a government scholarship to cover his expenses and even worked at the school cooperative shop as a part-time cashier.

“I worked part-time with one goal, which was to save money for my future (education) because it was my dream to get my family out of poverty,” said Kasdi, an avid reader who immersed himself in books to escape from the harsh realities of life.

He passed his Penilaian Menengah Rendah exam with flying colours (eight A’s) and the following year in 2013, he was offered a seat at the elite PERMATA pintar College, now known as [email protected] Centre, at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi, Selangor.

However, there was a hitch as he did not get any scholarship to study there.

“I still went ahead and joined the college even though I was taking a big gamble. Using the money I had saved from my previous scholarship, I paid RM350 for the airfare from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur.

“I also had to pay RM1,000 for my school fees. Since I didn’t have enough money with me, I pleaded with the college to defer the payment,” he said.

Financial Struggle

Kasdi’s financial woes, in the meantime, became worse when his father met with an accident and had to stop working as he had injured one of his legs and could not walk properly.

“My mother had to do some odd jobs to support the family and one of my elder sisters had to quit her job to take care of my ailing father.

“My family could not send me any money as they were living from hand to mouth. Occasionally, another older sister, who was a trainee teacher, would send me RM50 from her small monthly allowance to help me get by,” he related.

Despite the financial hardship he faced, the determined young man never once contemplated quitting his studies and returning home. “Fortunately, during the second year at PERMATA-pintar College, one of my teachers helped me apply for zakat from UKM. The money helped cover my tuition fees,” he said.

During semester breaks, he would stay back in college as he could not afford to buy a flight ticket to Sarawak. “After some of my teachers and friends knew of my predicament, they sponsored my flights home on a few occasions. I’m forever grateful to them,” he added.

Studying Abroad

Kasdi began reaping the fruits of his diligence upon completing his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia exam and scoring seven A’s and two B’s. Not long after that, he won the PESP scholarship to pursue a geology degree at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US.

“It was a dream come true…and definitely surreal too because I didn’t expect it.

“But I had always dreamed of doing geology after having been introduced to it during geography class in Form One,” he said, adding that while studying at PERMATApintar College, he had done some research on iron-ore mining with a geology professor.

While studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, Kasdi worked part-time washing dishes and as a front-desk assistant, as well as being a tutor to earn some extra money.

“These jobs helped me grow more mature and be financially independent. Doing different types of jobs also helped me develop my soft skills,” he said.

He had also worked part-time as a research assistant at the vertebrate zoology, invertebrate paleontology and geomicrobial physiology laboratories which, he said, increased his analytical skills.

Front-row Seat

He completed his four-year degree course in 2019, graduating magna cum laude in geology and with double minors in business and space.

Being one of the nine students in the geology class of 2019, who passed with honours, Kasdi said it was a proud moment for him to get that “front-row seat reserved for honours students” at the graduation ceremony.

He also received recognition for his research in geobiology where he developed a new method of calculating bacteria on the microscopic level based on images developed by Scanning Electron Microscopy.

He also developed a shortcut for data entry in the invertebrate paleontology laboratory to reduce time consumption on data entry.

Asked about his future plans, Kasdi, who hopes to eventually obtain a Master’s degree and PhD in geology, said he sees himself either going into research work or building his career with Petronas which had given him the opportunity to be where he is today.

“The scholarship (given by Petronas) not only helped me to further my studies, but also build my leadership skills and prepare myself for the workforce through its various development programmes,” he said.

Since its introduction in 1975 to support the nation’s human capital development, PESP scholarships have benefitted thousands of bright Malaysian students like Kasdi. — Bernama