Alina Amir, Co-founder of Arus Academy — A Passion for Education

Malaysian-born Alina Amir has contagious courage on behalf of the children she teaches, for a better Malaysia.

Alina Amir, pitching at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia 2016

Alina Amir is one of four co-founders of Malaysian social enterprise Arus Academy. Arus Academy runs a gamified curriculum that gives students from lower-income communities the opportunity to develop themselves as computational thinkers, programmers, and inventors.

Arus Academy was among the top 6 Finalists at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia 2016, organised by DBS Foundation and NUS Enterprise. The team also won Malaysia’s Star Golden Hearts Award this year.

The big turnaround…

“I walked up to him and screamed, “Get out of my class, now! Take your bag and get out!” I threw his schoolbag out the door, harder than I intended to, and pushed him all the way out of the classroom, closing the doors behind him…

Once the last bell rang, I got into my car and drove straight to the boy’s house. It was my first home visit, and I felt bad — I was supposed to help my students get better, not throw them out of my class. I knocked on the door and a tired looking lady carrying a baby opened it. Inside the house, I saw two more toddlers in diapers. When I introduced myself as her son’s teacher, she seemed apprehensive. I told her how her son was behaving in school and what happened that day, and I apologised for what I had done. She merely looked at me and said, “Do whatever you have to do.”

I don’t think the boy expected me to actually show up at his house. He never became a model student, but he behaved better after that day. In fact, everyone else got better, including me…

I started to work harder at understanding why my kids behaved the way they did. I became braver in disciplining my kids, though I no longer chased any of them out of the class. I opened up and decided to truly embrace living within the community my kids grew up in.”

Alina, in an interview with Penang Monthly

Life as a Teach for Malaysia Fellow

Only 28, Alina has changed the lives of many children.

Soon after leaving her job as an analyst at Accenture, Alina signed up to be a Teach for Malaysia Fellow, spending four years teaching English and History (and keeping a watchful eye over the Ultimate Frisbee and Choir clubs) at one of Malaysia’s lowest performing schools. There, she found that students did not find what they were learning relevant to their lives, and longed for them to be independent learners who were hungry to equip themselves with knowledge.

In her second year as a TFM fellow, she launched Blok A, a peer tutoring programme that ran 3 nights a week to “create a sense of accountability for one’s learning, and the learning of his/her community”. She expected 15 children to attend. By Blok A’s third day, she found herself with 120 children, along with secondary school teaching assistants who took the initiative to help out — and did so willingly.

But it all started with humble beginnings. “It started small. I only had five children who wanted extra classes in my living room.”

Giving the gift of education

It was the opportunities she received in life — an overseas education, her training in her job as an analyst — that motivated her to gift the same to others.

“If I was going to work hard all my life, spend long hours, days, months and years working, I want to do work that I truly believe in and could make meaningful difference for my country,” she told Cleo in an interview. Through her social enterprise, Alina does work that is full of meaning and impact.

Scaling the heights of learning

Arus Academy provides a hands-on maker education (a learning-by-making approach) to underprivileged children for students from low income communities or high risk schools. It aims to nurture a spirit of innovation, with the vision that one day children will be inventors, not users; innovators instead of consumers.

Alina with her students at Arus Academy

“Sitting for exams, getting As in different subjects, are not important enough for these students because they have other ways of getting money,” shared the passionate co-founder. Arus Academy seeks to be an alternate way of learning that gives students a purpose, instead of simply educating them. Alina and her team of teachers seek to go beyond teaching academic skills to prepare students for complex future industries that “might not yet even exist as you read this”. Through what they learn at Arus Academy, students will be equipped with more options in the future careers.

In Arus Academy’s latest success story, two of their students took part in the Digital Maker Exchange Challenge organized by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation, and are set to represent Malaysia in a Silicon Valley “Dolphin Tank” (a friendlier equivalent to a Shark Tank pitch to a panel of investors).

“People don’t seem to realise that improving education is actually maddeningly slow work, bitterly contentious and very expensive,” says Alina. However, watching the children’s growth through her programmes is what gives Alina and her team the ultimate satisfaction. “Most of us are still energetic, doing what we do, because of the kids,” she says. Their increasing confidence and ability to think independently are her reward.

Notes to students and aspiring social entrepreneurs

To students, she remarks:

“I think a student should be whoever they want to be.

But if they choose to be an entrepreneur, I would recommend they become a social entrepreneur. In whatever that we do, we should always do it for the bigger purpose — for more than for yourself.”

If you want to be an entrepreneur…

“Have a lot of grit. It’s going to be a hard journey ahead, but it’s going to be worth it. If you truly understand your beneficiaries, your hard work will pay off.”

If you’re undecided…

“If you’re sitting on the fence…then you’re probably not into this.

I recommend that you become a social entrepreneur because you have a need to solve this problem, and you have a sense of urgency. If you have a sense of urgency, you wouldn’t be on the fence!”

Follow Arus Academy online…

Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

How can you help?

Alina says…

Arus Academy started off with the support of the community and public’s generosity. We are constantly looking for different ways to help more students from underprivileged backgrounds to receive quality and meaningful education in our not-for-profit branch, where we’re expecting more than 60 students to enroll in the next year.

We believe that every student has the potential to be a problem solver that can contribute to their community. We accept both monetary and in-kind donations —

Monetary: We accept any amount of donation where 100% of contribution will be to support and subsidize the cost of programs we do with underprivileged kids. Donors will receive end of year semester reports of the students’ growth and be kept updated with all the programs that we run.

In-kind donations: We also accept in kind donations in the following form:

1. Time

Volunteer with us to organise, conduct classes and events. For some programmes and events, the number of volunteers we get will impact whether it can be run or not.

2. Special skills

Arus Academy is always looking for new skills to equip our students with and someone who has it and willing to teach it on. We’re always looking for partners who want to help us create new content.

We also run on limited staff and budget. We welcome any kinds of help from accounting tasks, writing and designing newsletter, starting a garden, beautifying our classrooms etc.

3. Physical goods

Our classrooms are constantly in need of new stationeries from marker pens to paper. You can also help us in stocking up restroom facilities, cleaning household items.

If you’re interested to contribute either in monetary or in kind donations, please do email us at enquiry@arusacademy.org.my for more details.

If you can do neither, you are still welcome to stop by our centre in Penang if you’re ever in town. Both the faculty and our kids love having visitors at our space!

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Ready to develop your social enterprise idea?

If you are seeking support for your social enterprise idea, NUS Enterprise has a host of events and funding opportunities to equip you on your journey.

One such programme is the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, where Arus Academy emerged as a finalist in 2016. Take part and stand a chance to grow your innovative, scalable solution with sustainable impact.

Another programme is the NUS Enterprise Start-Up Runway, which supports start-ups at any point of your entrepreneurial journey.

More information on the Social Venture Lab @ NUS is available at our website.

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