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3 Hard Lessons I Learned from Putting Myself Through School by Mel Lim

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Mel Lim, 1997 in Pasadena, California.
Mel Lim, 1997 in Pasadena, California.

I arrived in California in May of 1997 with two suitcases—one contained my art portfolio; the other consisted of a small bag of clothing. It was my first time ever in the USA. I was 19. My only “experience” of America up to that point were images served up by television: Law and Order, Beverly Hills 90210, Dynasty, and Hunter. I began my tertiary education four days after my grand arrival on American soil at one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world - Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Two months later, the Asian economic crisis hit. Countries, businesses, and people went bankrupt, and social riots across Asia ensued. Consequently, my “adulting” accelerated, practically overnight.

Hard Lesson #1 - You Live with the Choices You Make

One of my toughest lessons came about following a phone call from my parents. My parents did not financially survive the recession, and each declared bankruptcy. Neither was in a position to afford me any financial assistance toward the pursuit of my dreams. Instead, they offered me two choices: either come home to Malaysia; or stay in the US. If I chose to return home, they would buy me a plane ticket. If I chose to stay in the US and continue with my schooling, I would be totally on my own. These were tough choices for a 19-year-old, no matter how big my dreams were. My belief in myself, compounded by my naiveté about the endurance test I was about to undergo, emboldened my stubborn nature, and I chose to continue my education. The rest is history. And the abrupt reality of my decision forced me to mature instantly. From that moment on, I was totally independent and financially responsible. While I had the freedom to choose how I wanted to live, my decision to stay in the States left me without ANY safety net. If I miscalculated even a tiny bit, or messed anything up, I literally had no one to come to my aid – no parents, no relatives and no friends. I was TRULY on my own in a foreign land, starting from zero, struggling to survive and succeed. Following this rude awakening, I made some good and tough decisions that eventually led to a successful career, but I had to own every single step. I alone was accountable for my actions. Consequences, good or bad, were mine alone to face. My independence forced me to OWN my life. I grew up fast.

Hard lesson #2 - When Life Gives You Lemons, You’d Better Deliver More Than Lemonade

My challenge entailed discovering exactly how to put myself through one of the most expensive private art schools in the world. I am living proof that if you can dream it, you can do it. At the time I attended this private institution 23 years ago, tuition was expensive: $8,500 per semester with a total of eight semesters to graduate. International students were unable to qualify for scholarship until their fourth semester. Nor could we qualify for any student loans.

But an opportunity arose when international students were granted temporary work permits to allow for economic relief during the crisis. This meant I could support myself.

I crafted and executed a strategic plan from day one, taking on four TA jobs at school, and working almost full time for some of the most prestigious design and architecture firms in town. I knew $6.75 an hour at my TA jobs couldn’t possibly pay my expensive tuition. Every opportunity, every decision was like a chess move. I didn’t apply for just any internship. I applied for the BEST PAID internships. I didn’t apply for just any job. I only applied for positions that aligned with my focus on architecture. I worked between 80-120 hours a week, and took on 18-21 academic units. Since I paid my own tuition, I needed to maximize my course load. I made sure the classes I took gave me an edge or a new tool that I could apply in my day jobs. I was learning 3D animation, motion graphics, cad tools, and rapid prototyping tools that even seasoned architects and designers had not yet mastered. I brought valuable know-how to the table to ensure that I was indispensable. I got letters of recommendation from professors and bosses, continued to increase my scholarship funding, and kept rising in the professional ranks. By the time I graduated, I had accumulated almost four years of full-time experience in the industry, earned a full scholarship, worked on designing some monumental architectural spaces, apprenticed under some of the world’s most famous design legends (and firms), and received the best job offers from renowned architecture firms nationwide.

Hard lesson #3 – Something’s Gotta Give: Learn to PRIORITIZE.

All my achievements came at a price. When classmates went on fancy field trips, I couldn’t join them. When they went out partying, I was too busy working my strategic plan. Extracurricular activities did not fit into my tight budget. So, instead of being able to build a social network of my academic peers, my tribe consisted of mentors, bosses, professional colleagues, clients — people much older and more experienced than me, who modeled success without angst, and with a humble, quiet pride.

I had to perform consistently and deliver my absolute best academically and professionally. In school I maintained my highest GPA in order to continue increasing my scholarship funding. Professionally I continued rising within the ranks of my day jobs, delivering my best work. Making it all flow required sacrifice. I knew realistically that in order to stay on course, I would have to make sacrifices. But I could never compromise on the quality of my projects. Superior work was both key to my success and intrinsic to my being. So, given my limited time, budget, and resources and dogged commitment to always delivering top quality work, I learned to prioritize my goals, activities, and resources for maximum impact and efficiency.


Today, as I reflect on these formative years of my young adult life, the hard lessons, sacrifices, and my insistence on excellence remain with me. They are part of my DNA, and are foundational to who I am both personally and professionally. I thrive on challenge, am constantly pursuing new opportunities and learning new skills, and am maximizing the potential of every moment I have been given to live, create, innovate, lead, and be a wise and loving single mother to two amazing sons. Accountability is key for me. I expect it of myself, and I demand it of every personal and professional contact with whom I engage and interact. It is essential to OWN the choices and decisions we make, as that is key to integrity, growth, wisdom and authenticity. Wow, do I have colorful stories to share with my children on how their mama overcame some incredible hurdles, and achieved her dreams by sheer force of will, grit and determination. My boys are my true north. It is imperative that they can feel pride and inspiration when they survey my life and accomplishments, and that they understand they too are masters of their own destiny.

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