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.