Why do we go to university?

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University life seems like an eternity ago and I barely remember any of my professors or the subjects they taught me. There was, however, one memorable lesson given by a guest lecturer whose name I cannot recall but whose message still resonates with me until today.

In light of the controversy that followed Selangor MB Khalid Ibrahim's suggestion that UiTM open itself to some non-Malays, I would like to share what I learned from that guest lecturer who was invited to give a talk in the sports journalism class I was taking.

He was a baseball expert but when he took to the podium, he told us that he was not going to talk about America's favourite pastime.

Instead, he had a question for all of us: "Why are you all in college?"

That seemed like an easy enough question to answer. Several students quickly put up their hands.

"So we can get a good job one day and make lots of money!" said one student, to loud laughter.

The lecturer smiled and said, "Come on, we all know that there are many people who never went to college and are rich beyond imagination."

"To get an education," said another student.

"You don't necessarily have to go to college to do that," the lecturer said. "Many people get their education through the school of hard knocks."

Another student said, "To get a degree. You can't get that unless you go to university."

To that, the lecturer replied, "That's not true. You can take correspondence courses."

At that point, everybody seemed stumped so the lecturer finally said, "The main reason you go to college is to learn to socialise" and he proceeded to elaborate.

When you graduate and enter the work force, you will be surrounded by generally like-minded people with roughly the same educational background and social status.

If you are in banking, the people around you would have probably studied finance. If you are in the medical field, the people you mingle with will be fellow doctors and nurses. And if you are in architecture, your network of friends and associates will inevitably be those in the building and construction industry.

Unless you happen to have a very unique job that requires you to mingle with a broad range of people, the harsh reality is that your world will be constrained by your career choices.

College is the only time in your life when you are exposed to all kinds of people from all walks of life and from very different backgrounds – unless of course you go to UiTM.

While preparing to do a podcast on the controversy surrounding Khalid's comments, my podcasting partner, Ong Kian Ming, said something remarkably similar to what the guest lecturer had said. "The whole idea of a university is for different people to get together and interact."

He's spot on, just as the guest lecturer was. If you don't learn how to deal with a myriad of people and expose yourself to different worldviews when you are in the spring time of your life – when you are young and carefree – how will you ever be able to do so when you enter the "real world" and have to cope with the challenges and insecurities of carving out a career and struggling to make ends meet every month?

As mentioned earlier, your world will naturally constrained by the career track that you choose. But if you've had exposure to diversity early on, you would have a better chance of broadening your network beyond what would normally be the case – because you learned how to do so when you were young.

I was very lucky to have attended a cosmopolitan American university which had students from all over the US and indeed, the world. I had classmates from every continent. Some were rich, some poor; some were from developed countries, some from the third world. But in college, all of us were equals - we attended class together, we did assignments together, we played together.

Not to denigrate the value of academic lessons – they are important, of course – but my experiences in dealing with and socialising with classmates who were very different from me played a bigger role in my personal growth and development than any specific subjects I learned.

Granted, there are no universities in Malaysia that can offer the diversity you could find in popular American universities, which make it a point to take in students from all over the world.

But Malaysia does have a pretty diverse population. Even without the benefit of foreign students, there's a lot that our young people can learn from schoolmates of different ethnicity, religions and backgrounds. What a shame if we don't give them a chance to do that.

In our most recent podcast article, Kian Ming and I asked: "Can UiTM really aspire to be a world-class university if all the students there are of one particular race?" The people who are protesting Khalid's suggestion would do well to ponder upon this rhetorical question.



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