What will you accomplish in five years at university?

I HAVE observed that people undergo accelerated growth in their university years. Apart from studying to get a degree, they undergo a journey of self-discovery, growth and garnering experience.

With the rise of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), coupled with the argument that education systems have been found wanting, more people are supporting the idea that a formal university education is no longer necessary.

Why go to university under a system that is lacking when you can get a decent, and furthermore free, university education online?

One proponent of the idea is Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal. He started the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year programme for candidates aged under 20.

Those who get in would quit university and run a start-up under the mentorship of Silicon Valley establishments with a grant of US$100,000.

Thiel’s reasoning is that universities do not provide the experience needed in real working life, and thus he runs the programme for students who feel likewise.

Is that a valid reason? Has the higher education system become so alienated from the main purpose of education that it does not provide proper training for real working life? Perhaps.

Why then do the vast majority enter university? Is it because it is expected of them, their friends are all going to university, or they want to get degrees so that they can find respectable paying jobs when they graduate?

Let’s ask ourselves what a university has to offer other than a formal education. How can we make the most of it?

My high school education was one that didn’t give enough emphasis to self-expression. When I first came to university, I wasn’t one to speak out if I were in a situation I wasn’t comfortable with.

Though I had much to say, being a crowd follower meant I tended to keep my thoughts to myself whenever in a large group.

Am I still the same now? Yes, to some extent, the essence of my being an introvert has not changed, but I have become more comfortable with speaking in front of crowds or addressing an audience.

What changed? For one thing, I purposefully put myself in situations that called for me to speak – even when I would have preferred to keep quiet and listen to others.

Sometimes, it was as simple as initiating genuine small talk (Oh, how introverts dislike small talk!) or going up to someone I did not know and striking up a conversation.

In university, you will find many ways to train yourself to be more confident in expressing yourself.

It could be by joining a club, being part of a movement, or organising an event.

Find a cause that suits your interests and play an active role in contributing to the cause.

I participated in a Model United Nations (MUN) session, a three-day conference organised by the student-run Mini United Nations Curtin Sarawak (MUNCS) that simulates the United Nations sitting, where you represent a country and take on another country in a debate.

You get to choose partner countries and form alliances, craft your speeches and words, and lobby for your country’s interests. It is a great experience for students.

What do you gain from such activities? When you work in the future, you will encounter situations where you will have a project proposal to deliver, to pit your ideas against those of others.

You will need to be diplomatic yet assertive in bringing forward your ideas.

I also represented my university at a leaders’ conference not too long ago, where I benchmarked it against other institutions, and put forward our goals in a constructive way.

It was akin to participation in the MUN – having to lobby, form alliances and speak with tact.

University is also the place for you to expand your networks. Unless you already have an extensive set of connections, or are part of programmes such as the Thiel Fellowship, chances are that university is your best bet in growing your network.

Why is this important? It exposes you to different ideas, ways of thinking, cultures and habits. Couple that with working in a mixed group, and you will find yourself growing in different ways.

So, in conclusion, I say seize the chance to step outside your inner circle of friends, and grab the chance to work with people of different backgrounds.

You can choose to spend all your time on campus and immerse yourself in your studies, or choose to step outside as well and be active.

An average university life is five years. What else will you take on and do to make the experience count?

Esther Ling is a third-year Electrical Power Engineering student of Curtin Sarawak.

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