Most people would have given an arm and a leg for that phone call—the one when you learn that your career aspirations are unfolding exactly as you expected. I got that call when I was barely 20 years old, telling me I qualified to attend a prestigious university for my Master's degree. The future looked bright.
But the same evening, I learned that I could go to Australia with a fully paid exchange scholarship for a diploma. To me it looked like an opportunity of a lifetime, but I grew up in Asia where it was expected that I would never give up a graduate degree for a mere diploma.
I asked for a delayed start to the Master's program, but it was denied and the dean told me that it would be young and naive to give up a prized spot in the program to chase after an airy fairy diploma.
I had to make a tough decision. If a university could not see and value my aspirations, could it truly nurture me into the person I wanted to become? Could I really change the world if I played by rules that held me back from what I wanted to do? I decided to take a chance on myself and go for the diploma.
Later, as I stood at the front porch ready to leave home for the first time, to move to another continent where I knew no one, I trembled with fear and began to cry inconsolably. What was I doing? Stepping into the unknown on paper is one thing; leaving your family and life behind is another. Did I have what it takes to manage this huge personal and professional risk?
That's when my father gave me a gentle hug and said something I will never forget: "You have worked so hard for this moment; don't dilute its importance with your fears."
Not only did I have a wonderful experience in a new country but I worked very hard and convinced the department to "upgrade" me to a Master's degree. My advisor challenged me to write 50% of the thesis in two months, saying she would put my case up for review and I made it happen. I did it, and started with research that later inspired me to earn a PhD.
The entire experience taught me three things: To believe in my own ability to carve a path; to remember to ask for what I need; and most importantly, to not let the system define what I can or can't do.