Justin Tan vowed he’d help his father and grandfather after each had a stroke.

Now, three years later, the 21-year-old senior is establishing a chain of stroke rehabilitation clinics across Southeast Asia, where his grandfather was recently one of 600 patients in Malaysia who visited the clinic twice a week for therapy.

“I’m an optimist, but I never thought this project would reach the scale that it has,” Tan says. “This is bigger than I ever thought.”

Arriving at MIT as a freshman, Tan was eager to realize his dream to help his family. He headed for the Institute’s Public Service Center (PSC) for advice on how to launch a nonprofit. By the end of the year, he had founded Students for Global Health, an organization for students to pursue international development opportunities abroad. On the advice of the PSC, soon he had raised $50,000 and had begun collaborating with doctors at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and at Penang General Hospital in Malaysia. After receiving a fellowship from the PSC last year, Tan traveled to Asia to open the first stroke clinic in Penang. The second clinic will open this year. Additional clinics are likely to open soon in Indonesia and Thailand.


Tan is also committed to training high school students in Asia to work in his centers. Recently, he established the Volunteer Association of Southeast Asia. Dozens of high-school students are now regularly trained at his clinic by staff nurses and volunteer doctors to care for the patients.

The son of two physicians from Montreal, Tan also this year won the MIT IDEAS Competition, an entrepreneurship contest that encourages young people to change the world. Tan’s team won $5,000 for developing a system that adapts virtual reality gaming technologies to function as rehabilitation aids for stroke patients in centers where there are few healthcare professionals. He introduced Wii technology into his clinic so patients can rehabilitate themselves. He is also now launching another nonprofit organization, Haptronics, to develop this technology.

“What I most learned from all this was the power of being inspired, the power of pursuing what you love, and pursuing it wholeheartedly,” says Tan, adding that it was the staff at the Public Service Center who inspired him to pursue his dream. “They believed in me, encouraged me, gave me advice and contacts, and listened to my problems, offering me guidance and help.

“This project showed me that I was put here on this earth to help people and to serve my community. And through this inspiration, it allowed me to transcend the limitations anyone has ever set for me and to move beyond all boundaries. I truly believe that doing this has allowed me to do anything I set my mind to.”


Tan is one of thousands of MIT students who developed leadership skills through the Public Service Center, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. The Center began in 1988 to enrich the education of students and MIT community members through leadership and service. It offers guidance, resources, and support to create meaningful service experiences locally and around the world. It also encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, facilitates partnerships, integrates service with education and research, and cultivates confidence and imagination.

“The biggest value of the Public Service Center is we enable students to change the world now,” says Sally Susnowitz, assistant dean and director of the Public Service Center. “We don’t make students wait until they’re professionals. We assume they’re ready now, and they can learn by doing what they’re capable of. We don’t do it for them, but we encourage them to pursue their dreams.”

Tan says: “It was great that not only was I creating the clinics for my father and grandfather, for myself, and for the Malaysian community, but I was also doing it for MIT, because it gave me the support.

“This project has developed into a passion. It’s not just something I feel I need to do, but it’s something I love. Because I love it, I’m driven to pursue it to make it better and stronger.”