SMC Economics Alumnus at Columbia University

From One Coast to Another

Melvin TjahajaIn 2013, Melvin Tjahaja arrived at Santa Monica College as an international student from Singapore with a very public social life—online and off—and no specific direction he wanted to go.

In 2015, Melvin Tjahaja left Santa Monica College for the prestigious Columbia University, an Ivy League school that is one of the nation’s nine Colonial Colleges established before the American Revolution.

How did he become such a focused student?

Tjahaja said he started to change during his mandatory service in the Singapore Armed Forces, where he became Sergeant. “For me, military service was a personal challenge. Sitting out in the jungle sweating and pushing my limits, and having to just suck it up, helped me decide I wanted to enter the liberal arts system in the US. So I looked around, and found what SMC had to offer very attractive.”

Tjahaja credits most of his transformation, however, to SMC, although his first semester was a bit scattered as he explored various areas of study. “I loved all the electives, but my GPA was pretty bad, partly because I blew a Pre-Calculus class,” he said.

“And then I retook the class, with Dr. Larry [Lernik] Saakian as my teacher. He was great! He told us stories that showed us how to solve problems quickly. And he stressed how important it is to exercise the brain,” said Tjahaja. “He showed me the importance of practice, and how that leads to perfection: getting that A.”

Another professor who provided “a lot of guidance” was philosophy professor Amber Katherine.

“Professor Katherine enforced why I was studying, and gave me much, much more…she encouraged me to face new challenges to be stronger,” says Tjahaja.

Tjahaja is majoring in financial economics at Columbia. “I’m interested in business, but I don’t want to limit myself to just business, and I’m still exploring,” he said. “So I decided on economics because it’s broader and more theoretical, but still has a math component, and it gives me a greater understanding of how society works.”

The Ivy Leaguer has adjusted to his new life on the opposite coast of the United States, although he misses the West Coast, his friends, and Santa Monica College.

“My life here is very different,” he says. “At SMC, I learned how to study. Here, there is that emphasis on academics, but a big, extra emphasis on your career – information sessions with companies every single week. So, pretty much I have no downtime.”

After graduating from Columbia, Tjahaja plans on working in the finance industry in New York – either as a trader or an investment banker. He hopes to move back to Singapore eventually to help out with his family’s business. For now, he is (as he puts it) “constantly on his toes.”

Read more stories from present and past years in the SMC Student Spotlight Archive.