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My Father Was An Ex-Convict And Gangster. But He Was The Reason I Was Able To Graduate With A PhD In Engineering From USM

Proving the doubters wrong.
If you’re one who comes from a dysfunctional or broken family, you’d probably heard passing remarks from others about how little your chances of succeeding in life are.

For this young man, his father, who was an ex-convict and gangster, was the inspiration behind his success in graduating with a PhD in Engineering from USM despite the odds stacked against him.

This is his story.

Selvakumar mariappan's family portrait
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

Rough upbringing

Speaking to WeirdKaya, Selvakumar Mariappan said that he didn’t exactly grow up in an ideal environment and was was brought up in a kampung rife with crime and drugs.

Unfortunately, his father wasn’t spared from the wave of crime sweeping through the neighbourhood and soon found himself on the wrong side of the law.

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My father was an ex-convict and got involved in gangsterism during his youth due to his life struggles, which pushed him into a desperate state.

Selvakumar mariappan's father
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

Despite having lived a life of crime, Selvakumar ‘s father never neglected his family and made sure that his children would not walk the same path as he did.

“He never failed to provide a better life for his family, especially us, his children. He never let us fall into the path of darkness and continuously provided us with all the necessities for our success.

“He left his dark life behind and went to work as a laborer and most recently as a security guard,” said Selvakumar.

Selvakumar mariappan's father
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

He also recounted the days where his father would “force” him to do well in his studies during his primary school days through harsh discipline.

“During my primary education, he would beat the crap out of me and forced me to study (I hated that multiplication table). I still remember the day he told me that he ended up like what he did because he didn’t had the chance to get a good education (he never got past Std 3).

“He also told me he wasn’t rich and didn’t have the means to provide us with good education. If I wanted to study beyond the stars, I had to do it myself. Get excellent grades, get a scholarship and study as much as I can,” he said.

Not so smooth sailing

Taking his father’s words to heart, Selvakumar threw himself into his studies and scored straight A’s all throughout his primary and secondary school years. Upon leaving high school, he went to enroll himself at Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) to study Mechanical Engineering.

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Sadly, he was forced to withdraw after discovering that UNITEN didn’t provide loans for foundation studies – an event which he attributed to his lack of research.

Not long after, Selvakumar was given an offer to study Diploma in Electrical Engineering at Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM), which he accepted immediately. He also went to apply for several JPA scholarships as he didn’t want his stellar SPM results to be wasted.

Selvakumar mariappan testing a circuit
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

However, it proved to be a super bumpy ride for Selvakumar as he struggled to excel in his studies.

Life wasn’t easy, and being stupid and far from home was really tough. Due to my inability to adapt to the new environment and personal issues, I only managed to obtain a CGPA of 2.83.

“During my 1st semester, I did really terribly for the Electric Circuit subject, where I obtained a D grade,” he said.

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‘Pity your father’

Things continued to look dire for Selvakumar for the same subject, where he found himself going blank during the final exams.

“Out of despair, I raised my hands in the exam hall after 30 minutes and handed the paper to my lecturer. He asked if I had finished it and I told him I couldn’t answer most of the questions.

“Instead of asking me why I couldn’t do so, he asked me what kind of job my father was doing. When I told him that he was working as a security guard, all he said was, ‘Kesian bapa’ (pity your father) before walking away.”

Selvakumar mariappan at a lab
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

And that was exactly what he needed to hear in order to reignite the fire in his belly and turn his studies around.

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Forging ahead

Having made the resolve to complete his studies no matter what, Selvakumar went on to finish his Diploma with a CGPA of 2.84, which was considered to be mediocre by his standards.

He then applied to continue with his degree in UTeM but was transferred to its technology engineering faculty instead. However, he didn’t let this minor setback affect him and managed to complete his degree with a CGPA of 3.91.

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Selvakumar mariappan working on his fyp
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

Having completed his studies, Selvakumar was faced with another challenge: finding a job. In the midst of doing so, he was given an opportunity to pursue his PhD studies along with a scholarship at USM.

“While I was selected for the project, it wasn’t an easy ride too. I needed to attend a board interview to qualify for the position and was denied for the fast-track program. Despite my excellent CGPA results, I was told that if I had studied at USM or UM, I would’ve been considered as a potential candidate,” he said.

Selvakumar mariappan takes a selfie with usm colleague
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

To further add on to the complications, Selvakumar was informed that he couldn’t begin until he started his Master’s research and convert it into a PhD research.

Nevertheless, he didn’t let it faze him whatsoever and spent the next six months studying microelectronics without pay.

“I taught tuitions and earned pocket money for my travel and food expenses. When the research started, I managed to publish three papers in a year and converted my MSc to PhD after attending a mini-viva for conversion.

And to those who said I couldn’t do it, they were witnessing what I did and that I would’ve done my best even if I was a lawyer, doctor or whatever I am!

Selvakumar mariappan at prime conference in italy
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

‘Embrace the journey as yours alone’

In October 2021, Selvakumar finished his PhD studies and now serves as a Senior Lecturer at USM – a far cry from his days as a struggling student at UTeM.

He attributes his success to his supervisor Dr. Jagadheswaran, whom he called as the “one who made him who I am today”.

As for his father, Selvakumar paid the ultimate tribute any parent could ask for by putting his father’s name on the PhD certificate instead of his own.

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Selvakumar mariappan's parents
Photo courtesy of Selvakumar Mariappan

For those who are seeking to achieve greatness in your lives, never give up as persistence and resilience will definitely bring you success. Embrace the journey as the experience is fully yours and yours only.

“Never let people steal your dream and make you complacent. Never ask why you’re doing it. Instead, ask yourself why not do it and see how much you can achieve!”

Special thanks to Selvakumar for sharing his touching story with us!

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