Breaking through the ceiling

Inequality in student communities is a genuine issue, but for Artie Lam, who studied at a government secondary school, it was a first-hand fact that almost put him off applying to Oxford University.

“Having been an English debater in secondary school, I observed that the debating circuit was tilted toward international schools, which had far more resources compared to a local school like mine,” Lam said.

“The same applies to Oxbridge applications, which explains why the distribution at Oxbridge is so disproportionate.” It was a waste, he added.

Lam, who says that government secondary schools have limited career counseling resources, submitted his Oxford application on his own, starting with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

“The application involved elements like an aptitude test, a personal statement, picking colleges and interviews – all of which had been previously unknown to me,” he said.

According to Lam, the situation of “less privileged” Hong Kong students who have the academic qualifications to study in Oxbridge but are limited by access to information and materials, has to change.

Lam is now in his second year of reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, fully supported by a Jardine Scholarship.

This was made possible only by the help of Project Access Hong Kong, which was introduced to him by a debater friend who said he could get help from the consultant the program provided.

Established in 2016, PAHK is an international registered charity operated by a group of Oxbridge students.

Over 120 Oxbridge student mentors are committed to providing the organization’s signature free, yearlong one-to-one mentorship program for secondary five to six students, which covers Oxbridge admissions to scholarship applications.

In the previous year, 30 percent of the mentees, all from local secondary schools, were accepted for their subject of choice in Oxbridge, tripling the 10 percent admission rate of all Hong Kong applicants.

Over 75 percent of successful mentees have been awarded a wide range of prestigious full scholarships, including the Jardine Foundation Scholarship, for which all local school scholars in the past two years were PAHK mentees.

“To this day, I still cannot thank my mentor enough,” said Lam, the current PAHK codirector and one of the organization’s former mentees. “The mentorship gave me an idea of what to expect and shaped my readiness for it.”

Ethan Chan is another student who has been helped by PAHK and has since given back to the organization. Chan also studied in a government secondary school that had never sent any students to Oxbridge before him – he had self-studied for the Scholastic Aptitude Test and Advanced Placement tests up until the point of application.

Chan, who had aimed to get an unconditional offer from Cambridge University – which was ultimately successful – said teachers at his school were unfamiliar with UCAS and even less so with Oxbridge.

“Oxbridge applicants from fee-paying schools have lots of connections and resources, such as in-house admissions consultants, but my school had none of this,” he said.

With a father suffering from health problems that weren’t covered by insurance, Chan’s family couldn’t pay the exorbitant fees, which amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The financial constraints and the grueling self-study process made him realize how crucial support and guidance are. With help from his PAHK mentor, who is also reading Chan’s dream subject and is also a Jardine Scholarship winner, Chan finally got a place in Cambridge to read human, social, and political sciences on a full scholarship.

Now cohead of outreach, Chan said PAHK allows him to further his visions of encouraging bright young minds to pursue their academic interests -just as he is doing – instead of conforming to societal expectations of pursuing “prestigious” subjects and careers.

Saying they wouldn’t be in their current path had it not been for PAHK’s help, the two hope to expand the organization’s reach to help other underprivileged but talented students.

“Hong Kong overseas university students have always served their community with organizations,” Lam said. “I think PAHK plays a very unique and important role in addressing more structural concerns in shaping and strengthening the communities we are part of.”

Both Lam and Chan agree that PAHK also helps mentally.

“The Oxbridge names are daunting and feel distant, but knowing there is a crew of people who actually made it in the process gave me great mental assurance through this challenging process,” Lam said.

(This article was published at The Standard on February 9, 2021: Education: Breaking through the ceiling )

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