Tunku Elana Khyra learned of Duke University from teen soap dramedy “One Tree Hill.” As a self-professed nerd who got the grades, sport awards and party spirit, she was drawn to the balance and quality of life the university portrayed in pop culture. “This was the right choice for me, since other unis I looked at are known to be more intensely academic,” she tells Study International via email.
The American system had other perks for the Marlborough College graduate too. First, its duration. “Uni in the US is four years long compared to three years in the UK — that one extra year meant the world of difference to me.”
Then, there were all the Harry Potter clubs and activities on offer at campus. Khyra played Quidditch, hosted a Yule Ball, made “butterbeer,” and even got to take part in the Quidditch World Cup in New York City.
We caught up with the Malaysian graduate to find out more about how she got to feed her Pottermania at Duke, her semester abroad in Madrid and what she plans to do with her BA in Psychology:
Why did you choose to pursue your degree at Duke University?
As a nerd who did well in my studies combined with being a highly competitive athlete who also loved to party, I was attracted to the balance and quality of life I would get at Duke University. This was the right choice for me, since other unis I looked at are known to be more intensely academic.
Initially, I began as an environmental sciences major. However, after taking the “Intro to Psychology” class I was hooked. The lecturers at Duke University helped spark my fascination about curiosity with the human condition and I just knew I needed to understand more about why people feel, think and behave the way they do. Including how that impacts the world.
I loved that the combination of the psychology programme with my certificate of Markets and Management exposed me to so many other fields I was interested in. I got to learn about marketing, business, creativity, entrepreneurship and leadership.
I was able to test different subjects before deciding on one. I’m grateful I had the luxury of time which gave me flexibility and freedom to be able to choose something I loved instead of a subject I felt pressured to pursue by family.
Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution?
Definitely, I was exposed to an incredible variety of people, cultures and perspectives that were new to me and guided me into becoming the person I am today. I’d say some of the biggest influences on my outlook on life came from the additional resources the uni provided — such as my career counsellor and academic counsellor who I think of as my mentors.
While unis in Malaysia also have academic counsellors, the quality and degree to which they will invest time and resources in your development doesn’t compare. My mentors at uni taught me time management, study skills and most importantly, challenged me to think about myself and what my values are. In addition, I was also encouraged to think about the life I wanted to lead and the legacy I wanted to leave behind.
There’s a huge network of people who support students outside the classroom and genuinely care about your development and growth as an individual, not only as a student. I can say without a doubt, I would not be the same growth-oriented person I am now without their support.
I also loved that the uni library lent writing support from senior English students who helped me think about structure, helped edit my essays and projects, and helped me to write clearly and convincingly on my own. I haven’t heard of this kind of support from unis in Malaysia.
Walk us through some non-academic experiences you were part of at Duke University.
Duke University embodied the holistic type of education I was looking for because of the insanely fun and unique activities and clubs offered outside of class. While there, I wanted to take myself a little less seriously than my extremely competitive high-school days (I was a sprinter for the Malaysian national team, swam competitively, played football and danced ballet).
So I joined the uni’s Quidditch team — played dodgeball while running around on broomsticks — and hosted a Yule Ball. I also got to make butterbeer (a magical drink in the Harry Potter novels) and took part in the Quidditch World Cup in New York City — a Harry Potter nerd’s dream come true.
My uni is known for its famed basketball programme and insane school spirit along with die hard fans. Once, we camped in a tent for a month so we could attend the popular college basketball event against the University of North Carolina. Safe to say, we won the national championship that year. Right after, we gathered all the wooden benches around campus and made the biggest bonfire I’d ever seen in my life. A whole week of ecstatic energy and various parties around campus — an experience so fantastic and absurd!
I also joined a club called “Business Oriented Women” where industry leaders shared their experience which taught me to be an empowered woman in business. I also studied abroad in Madrid for a semester, where I lived with a local and learned to speak Spanish.
Aside from academics, I also took credits in acting, yoga, and joined a sorority — dressing up in togas and being carried on a chair by two gorgeous shirtless men! It’s these ridiculous but wonderful moments that make an American college experience so darn memorable.
Tell us about your career trajectory since graduating.
Since graduating, I knew I wanted to continue using the things I learnt in my programme, so I dove into marketing and business. I started with business development finding tenants for a retail complex in Langkawi. After I opened my own kindergarten, as I’ve always been passionate about education, I learned a lot about entrepreneurship and brand building.
Now, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at MAA Group Berhad where I oversee the marketing and branding of many companies within the group. I’ve done work with our tuition centre — Pusat Tuisyen Kasturi — and lately have been focusing on our charity, financial services and hospitality-related brands.
I get to work with our luxury villas in Bali and California, a cardiac diagnostic charity that provides affordable heart care to underprivileged and underserved Malaysians, and a retail development in Langkawi attached to a marina.
Besides that, I am a volunteer and on the board of governors for the Budimas Charitable Foundation — a charity that supports underprivileged children in Malaysia. This is through making sure they get the quality food, education and shelter they deserve.
How do you use the knowledge and skills from uni in your current job roles?
I get to apply what I learned about consumer behaviour within the work I do. I loved building brand personas, thinking about customer’s points of views, what motivates them and how the companies I work with can provide solutions.
I love that my job involves both the creative and analytical process as I get to develop marketing strategies, Facebook and Google Ad campaigns and engage content. I’ve come to appreciate the necessity and dependence of a company on good data to make decisions.
What were the practical learning elements in your course?
In the “Marketing across borders” class, we had to do in-depth consumer research about the audience, get feedback from surveys, and develop a marketing plan and commercials for a product we were assigned. This is something I do daily in my work with companies across many different industries. I also developed my reading skills and sense of creativity.
What skills or knowledge do you wish you had learned more during uni?
I wish I learned more technical skills for digital marketing as my knowledge and understanding of marketing was broad and more generalised.
What advice do you have for international students looking to enrol in the same course as you did?
Don’t be afraid to try new things and pursue interests beyond the classroom. In an environment of intense learning, experimentation and varied experiences surrounded by great minds (students and teachers alike), you never know where these connections will lead you to and what opportunities may arise from them.
Through clubs and societies, you’ll get to meet a lot of different people that will open your eyes to a new way of thinking. Marketing and psychology are all about understanding people at their core and navigating those relationships.
In 10 years, where would you like to be living and what would you be doing?
I’ve always dreamed about living in Australia or Barcelona because the idea of living in a city near a beach excites me. For my partner and I, it’s important we raise our future children in a way that’s closely connected with nature and adventure — something you can find in both Australia and Spain.
As marketing is something that can be done remotely, I can see myself working from anywhere as long as I still get to work with impactful brands and help them add value to people’s lives. I’d love to learn more about organisational psychology as well.
I also envision investing more of my time and energy in projects and community initiatives that are close to my heart. For instance, advancing education for younger generations around the world, empowering young women, and helping people struggling with mental issues.
What’s one thing from home you missed and how did you substitute it?
Food! While at uni, I learned to make “roti canai” (an Indian-influenced flatbread dish) and “kari ikan” (fish-head curry) and made it for my friends. One time, my mother made a jar of “sambal belacan” (a spicy chilli condiment with fermented fish paste) which I brought back with me and put it in my fridge.
When I came back from class the entire jar was empty. Turns out my roommate threw it out after smelling it because she thought it was off. The irony is that she’s now completely obsessed with it and now adores Malay food.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.