Map the System 2022: Aaron Leong’25 and Andrean Alogon’23
When I was growing up in Malaysia, I would often travel to the city from my home in the suburbs during the weekends. When we passed by construction sites where migrant workers toiled under the scorching sun, people around me would make disparaging remarks, labelling them as dirty, would-be criminals.
During my second semester at Wesleyan, I signed up for a systems thinking student forum out of curiosity, where each student or team was to research and present a project using a systems thinking methodology. Each project would then be evaluated by a panel of judges, and the winner would then represent Wesleyan at the global finals at the University of Oxford in June, competing against teams from other universities worldwide. Initially, I had no clue what the student forum was about, and I decided to attend the first class as one of my seniors in the Freeman Scholars’ Association, Aldrean, was the student teaching the forum. As I learnt more about what the class was about, I recalled the migrant workers I had passed by as a child, and I wanted to use this project as a platform to learn more about them, to explore the challenges they faced.
With our entire class starting from scratch with zero background on the subject, Aldrean was of immense help to both me and my fellow classmates. He gave us an enlightening crash course on systems thinking, and guided us through our research process as our class delved into complex topics from the perspective of a systems thinker. As I read through news reports and research papers, and interviewed experts and journalists, I found out that migrant workers in Malaysia faced multiple entrenched barriers such as poverty, discrimination and poor health outcomes. Far from being an ‘alien’ issue separate from an everyday Malaysian’s concerns, the root causes of challenges they faced were inextricably linked to the failures of our country’s political and economic systems – corruption, poor governance, and the racialization of society.
With my research, I won the local finals of the competition in May 2022, and I was selected to represent Wesleyan at the global finals. However, I felt that my project was too detached and academic. When I returned to Malaysia for my summer break, I reached out to civil society groups and migrant worker organizations as I wanted to speak with migrant workers themselves, to hear their perspectives and see if they agreed with my project findings and proposed solutions, before I presented them at the global finals. Meeting them after work, I realized that many of them worked 12 to 14 hour days, with one of my interviewees telling me that he had never taken a day off in 7 years. What surprised me was that despite the challenges they faced, they were generally satisfied with their life in Malaysia – the conditions and pay here were much better than those in their home countries, they said. In contrast to the pessimism of researchers and experts about their state of affairs, the migrant workers themselves, despite acknowledging the various barriers they faced, were upbeat and hopeful for a better future.
Having integrated these on-the-ground insights into my project, I made my way to Oxford for the global finals in mid-June. I had never been to Oxford before; upon alighting from my airport shuttle bus, I was entranced by the beautiful medieval architecture of the city. I didn’t have much time to enjoy the sights, however, as the program organized by Map the System began the day after I arrived. The three-day long program was a whirlwind for me, as Aldrean and I hurried from session to session of talks, tours, workshops, and networking events. We met so many wonderful, inspiring people from all over the world from Egypt to Taiwan, who each had fascinating projects they had worked on for months: access to water for indigenous Americans, domestic violence in India, and so on. Before I knew it, it was the competition day, where the 45 global finalist teams would present in a selection round to narrow the field down to the final 6 teams. I had initially felt nervous as I was not used to public speaking, but Aldrean’s mentoring and rehearsal sessions helped boost my confidence. My presentation went well, and the judges were curious to learn more about the migrant worker experiences I had documented during the Q&A session.
While we didn’t make it to the final round, competing at Oxford and forming new connections with the other participants was an amazing experience. As a bonus, we even received an honorable mention as one of the top teams outside of the final 6! Most importantly, however, working on my project for the class and the competition enabled me to understand the experiences of marginalized communities in my country through their own voices. It made me realize how much more could be done to improve their livelihoods.
When I was 10, I created my own fantasy school. I called it Adamville Academy. Not really sure why, it just had a nice preppy ring to it. I had 20 fantasy enrollees that had fantasy grades in a neat, little Excel spreadsheet. It was tedious work – (boy is it hard to be a teacher) – but I loved it. Perhaps this was why it came as no shock when I 99% agreed to teach the System Mapping student forum when Makaela Kingsley offered it. The 1% that held me me back was which other thing I had to give up. Well, whatever that thing was, it had to wait.
I was first introduced to System Mapping by taking the student forum that Sarah Ardhani and Akansha Singh led – the student forum that I would then lead. They were great mentors, and they assigned the task to research an issue dear to you and map the system around it. I picked, not surprisingly, the low-quality education system in the Philippines. It was the education system that I grew up in, and as much as I have great words for the people who raised me in it, the system was still depressingly broken. I did the research with my equally passionate friends in the Philippines: Cris Cruz, Dorothy Andrada, and Janiel Horlador. We got to talk to a variety of people from the center to the fringes, and our research was chosen to represent Wesleyan in the Global Finals.
And then the great and awesome Makaela, who originally taught the class, offered me the chance to teach the course. And we know the story, I accept. I adapt the course materials that Makaela, Sarah, and Akansha have built to match the timeline and deliverables of the Map the System competition. These deliverables were a Challenge Landscape – what is the challenge?, Solutions Landscape – what has been tried?, System Map – what does the system look like visually?, Gaps and Levers of Change – where is there room for leverage?, and Key Recommendations. These deliverables are staggered throughout the six-week duration of the class and conveniently combine into one full research paper that students present during the public presentations.
The most rewarding thing about teaching are the students which whom you learn from. This time, they were real. Andy Lisheng ‘25, Yumiko Takahashi ‘25, and Jonghwa Kim ‘25 researched the epidemic of relation. Jess Canning ‘24 and Julie Ordonez ‘23 mapped the global risk of future pandemics. Emily McEvoy ‘22 studied the interrelations affecting Connecticut’s low-income students. Aaron Leong ‘25 investigated the access to healthcare of migrant workers in Malaysia. Ultimately, Aaron’s project was chosen to represent Wesleyan in the Global Finals.
I guess the other most rewarding thing about teaching is you get to chaperone the student to Oxford. Aaron and I went to Said Business School at Oxford University for a span of three wonderful days in the summer of 2022. Thankfully, my amazing internship boss Ryan was so chill about it, so I got to spend my time in Britain without stress. It was my first time going to Europe, so I just knew this was gonna be memorable. I went there as an educator, and it was intimidating but also amusing to see myself in the same room with full-fledged professors and researchers from esteemed universities to talk about pedagogical and curricular experiences for Map the System. I was quite surprised to hear the variety and similarities in the challenges faced. Some universities have the class offered as a masters-level elective. Some offer it to professional policemen. It was a great academic exchange and it altered my brain chemistry to hear diverse minds at work. During one of the mixers, I spent almost two hours just talking to my colleague David who is a business owner and professor about everything from poverty and success to raising a family in this day and age. On our way to a fancy dinner to Somerville College, Aaron and I walked with Eduardo who also had a business consultancy and teaches on the side. Them and all the beautiful people we had the chance to meet and talk to just inspired me all the more.
It was such a cherry on top of a horizon-expanding experience when Aaron received the “Highly Commended Project” prize. To be honest, I knew he was going to get it. After he masterfully presented his heartfelt research, the judges literally did not know where to start commenting because they were just entranced. Aaron inspires me that there are still more dedicated and passionate people at Wesleyan who are just waiting for this opportunity to be presented to them.
My biggest hope is that Wesleyan embraces systems thinking more in all of its departments. Above all, it is a mindset that empowers someone who uses it to see inconspicuous yet potent connections and leverage points in a world that is just becoming more complex. I dont know what can be more liberal arts than that. What we need are more movers and big thinkers like the people I have mentioned in this blog to gain momentum needed for social and environmental change.