Malaysian-born teen, who was accepted by eight Ivy-league colleges, heads to Yale

Cassandra Hsiao was born in Johor Baru but moved to the US at the age of five.
Cassandra Hsiao was born in Johor Baru but moved to the US at the age of five.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SAN FRANCISCO (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysian-born Cassandra Hsiao has opted for Yale University after making global headlines when she was accepted into all eight Ivy League universities.

Cassandra's moving essay about her struggle learning English while growing up in an immigrant household went viral on social media earlier this month.

The essay, which she submitted together with her university applications, caught the attention of the world's media, including the BBC and the Los Angeles Times.

It also earned her a spot in each of the eight prestigious United States universities that are often associated with academic excellence and high selectivity of admissions. The Ivy League comprises Brown University, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.

Despite her academic success, the high-achiever says she still gets taken down by mean comments online. In the weeks after the spotlight was trained on her, negative feedback on whether or not she was "Malaysian enough" has got the 17-year-old to ponder over her own identity.

It's something Cassandra, the child of a Taiwanese father and Malaysian mother and raised in California, has done all her life.

"The questions still sting: Do I even belong anywhere? Can I truly call anywhere home?" she wrote on her blog.

"I've always sort of been known as a child of immigrants, I can never fully call one country or another my own. And that was magnified when I saw reactions from Malaysia," said Cassandra, who was born in Johor Baru but moved to the US at the age of five.

After announcing on Sunday (April 30) that she would be pursuing an arts degree with an emphasis on theatre at Yale, Cassandra said that her struggles to find a national and cultural identity would be themes she would want to explore in her future stage work.

"I want to show that Asians are not one story but there are so many stories within that genre to explore. I want to explore identity," she told The Star.

She plans to study writing for theatre at Yale University, which is in New Haven, Connecticut, before either moving home to Los Angeles or New York to start a career in the arts.

She lives in Los Angeles and has worked as a student journalist for several small education papers and magazines.

Two literary pieces on her Malaysian experiences, "Pasar Malam" and "Ode to the Nightmarket" have been published in the online arts journal Rambutan Literary.

She visits Malaysia once every two years.

As for her admission into Yale, she said: "I visited the campus a couple of weeks ago. I really felt at home there and I was moved by the enthusiasm and passion that the students have and I cried on campus out of happiness."

Cassandra said she always knew she was meant for the stage. She recounted being mesmerised by the staging of The Lion King in Las Vegas when she was just 10 years old.

Her parents, she said, nurtured her passion early on by enrolling her in an arts high school and taking her for flute, piano, writing and music classes.

Her mother Grace Gan said: "We fully support Cassandra's decision and are excited for the next chapter of her life. This new world will inspire her and I believe she will grow in incredible ways with God's blessing."