The Academic Experience Project is a faculty-student collaborative work aimed to glean insights about the experiences of tertiary-level students. Each Friday, The Daily Star publishes an op-ed highlighting its findings. Today's is the third article of the series.
University life is going to be the best time of your life! We often hear this growing up, and yet when we do reach that level, we find that it is not at all what we expected it to be. So, what exactly did we expect and why are we not satisfied?
The Academic Experience Project that evolved from a class project showed that the quality of campus life and that of academic programmes jointly play a part in determining whether students end up being satisfied with their university life. Students come together from varying backgrounds. While this may provide an exciting opportunity at socialising for some, for others it can be a stressful experience. With their newfound sense of freedom, taking part in club activities or hanging out together after classes is something that many students look forward to. However, the introverted students and those who come from various districts often suffer from anxiety as they worry about being accepted in their new environment. The high cost of education, especially in the private universities, can also weigh down the minds of many. Those who come out with flying colours in their pre-university exams and get admitted to a public university worry less about such costs.
Then there are those who struggle with the demands of their studies. Many come to the universities hoping to learn new and exciting things and grow with the challenges they expect to confront. The lucky ones even find help in the form of like-minded and compassionate peers or seniors. Some take part in debates and competitions besides course work. Large numbers of students end up having to face the same old traditional way of learning—memorising materials that are not even updated in the context of a rapidly changing world. They start questioning what they are even learning at the university, and whether their academic experience will really be useful in real life, especially when they go out looking for jobs and building careers. They fail to experience and enjoy a rich learning process and end up being miserable and unable to associate positively with their educational institution.
Some students look for campuses with open grounds and gardens, while some look for state-of-the-art lab facilities and extensive libraries. There are still others who come with big dreams of doing something exceptional, benefiting society and the country at large. They have great expectations that the university will be where they find the big idea and expert guidance to take that initiative forward. Many universities do not manage to live up to those expectations.
So, what can universities do for the multitudes who feel miserable and continue to struggle during their undergraduate years and beyond? This is a question that must be addressed at many levels: from educational planners and policy makers to university administrators, faculty members, and even the students themselves.
For starters, universities can draw realistic pictures of themselves during the orientation programme so that students know what they are signing up for and what kind of expectations to formulate. Universities could also arrange for interactive, fun sessions to help students settle in and socialise. In addition, they can adopt a more approachable and responsive attitude towards student complaints, viewing these as areas for improvement.
Whether or not we are willing to face reality, the fact is that the students' educational experience allows very little for exploration and self-discovery, especially in terms of extra-curricular activities. While it may be difficult to accommodate this option at the primary and secondary education levels at present, universities can play a huge role by introducing to their students a range of people of different backgrounds, experiences and interests and take them beyond bookish knowledge. Seminar speakers, artists, social workers and a plethora of professional, social, and even political personages can be invited to campus to engage with the students and enlighten them.
It is also high time we moved away from the "only doctor-engineer-businessman is acceptable" mentality to accepting the fact that students can have a passion for and talents in areas other than these traditional job roles. Researchers, painters, filmmakers, adventurers, musicians and writers can all get their start during the much-coveted "university life". The authorities will also be pleased to find that given the right platform and support, students will themselves come forward to form clubs, find activities to take part in, share ideas they have been bursting to pitch, and even find funding for various co-curricular activities. Besides, faculty members could also have much to offer beyond the typical classroom slides and lectures.
Whether at a public institution or a private one, university life has the capacity to play a much bigger role in shaping the lives of its students. They are not robots who can turn out productivity on demand. As humans, their productivity will always be tied to happiness, to finding motivation and enjoyment. Students and authorities must work jointly to transform university life into a worthwhile and diverse experience where one can add the highest value to oneself. And, together, they can become the most important co-creators of a better nation.
Sifat Zereen is working on her MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. The article is a result of his collaboration with the IBA students to turn the spotlight on higher education in Bangladesh. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.