UNIVERSITIES abroad have always been a popular option for Malaysians who wish to pursue their tertiary education.
The reason for going overseas to study varies, but in general, it is an opportunity to see the world with the added plus of obtaining credentials from a university overseas which is often assumed will enhance job prospects especially in today’s globalised work environment.
Some students want to delve into a specific field of study, and for them, studying at a particular institution of higher learning will provide them with better learning opportunities.
Hor Poh Choo, an associate director with Sunway Education Group’s International Office, says that to study at universities abroad, Malaysian students would first have to take up internationally recognised pre-university programmes to obtain the necessary qualifications that would enable them to earn places at universities overseas.
“Upon receiving offers from universities, students would then have to start making preparations for studying abroad like applying for a visa and learning how to open bank accounts,” she said.
Unlike travelling for leisure, studying abroad involves much more than just a short stay in a foreign land. It involves adjusting and adapting at many levels, including culturally, academically, socially and financially.
The inability to cope could impact students’ academic performance and results, and even their overall well-being.
“Besides doing their best academically, students studying abroad are encouraged to get involved in activities beyond the lecture halls. There are opportunities to participate in internships, study abroad programmes, field trips, community engagement projects and career networking sessions.
“Students who take up these opportunities will find that the experience and skills obtained will come in handy when they join the global workforce later,” she said.
DEALING WITH CULTURE SHOCK
Students who study abroad usually undergo a four-phase adaptation process, said Associate Professor Dr Sabariah Mohamed Salleh, head of Media Literacy Research Group and an expert in Young People and Media with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Centre for Communication and Digital Societies.
The four phases are honeymoon, culture shock, adjustment and mastery. It is otherwise known as the U-curve model, a theory by Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard from 1955.
“Like the letter U, students who go abroad would be full of excitement when they first arrive. It is the romanticised feeling of being in a new country, very much like when we go for a holiday where we look forward to an exciting adventure,” Sabariah explained.
But over time, students will start feeling homesick, miss local and home-cooked food, start pining for their family and even the pets that they left behind.
“Students studying in a country whose lingua franca is not English or Malay usually will feel troubled in this phase because more often than not, they are not fluent in the new language and particularly, the local dialect. Frustration will set in because of this. At this point, some students will even question their decision to study abroad,” Sabariah continued.
“Adjustment is when students start to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings, finally being able to get acclimatised to the new environment, culture, norms, language and values. By this time, new friends whom they can trust would have been made. They would have also probably gotten used to a new daily routine.
“Mastery is a phase where we can see students being able to adapt to the local culture and finally feel at home in their new environment,” she explained.
Sabariah said it is difficult to pinpoint how long each phase will last, as it depends on the students themselves. Some may choose to wallow in self-pity thus prolonging the culture shock phase.
However, the pain of adjusting could be lessened with the help of social media and the Internet.
“Students can gauge what to expect and better prepare themselves by searching for relevant information which can be easily obtained from blogs and social media networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram,” Sabariah pointed out.
“Once abroad, the students should not confine themselves to their living quarters and lecture halls.
“It is important for them to make new friends and have their own support system in the new environment. The people who live with or near them are the ones who they can turn to when they are unwell, in distress or need help,” she said.
Melissa Low Jee Yee, 23, who recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business (Accounting) from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia last December, said that the experience of being away from home for studies has made her more “mature”.
“The experience of having to fend for myself in all aspects of my life was an education in itself,” she said.
From “setting up home” like getting the WiFi service to dealing with the agent at the Student Housing Board and shopping for groceries, Low learnt to be more responsible and prudent with her spending.
“I needed to have an open mind and not stray too far away from my roots.
“This also meant adapting to a new method of learning. There was a lot of studying and reading I needed to do. I learnt quickly that completing the recommended readings would make my time at RMIT all the more smooth sailing,” she said.
“My advice to incoming students is to be friendly but cautious of the friends you choose during this vulnerable time as they will play a part in the goals that you achieve, the career you will work towards and ultimately, the person you become,” she said.
For Muhammad Hadi Anuar, 24, who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Ecole Nationale d’Ingenieurs de Metz (National Engineering School of Metz) in Metz, France, getting into the French students’ social circle was tough at first.
“For me, the thing that helped a lot was sports. By participating in sports such as soccer, rugby and badminton, I got to meet and socialise with other people and not just the ones I usually meet during classes. And when you’re a shy person, playing a sport helps you to interact with others better.
“In terms of studies, it’s imperative to have a study group or a buddy, someone to help you and maybe help each other in doing coursework and revision. Living alone is stressful enough because you have no one to talk to, so find a friend or make friends who can support you in your studies and even in daily life.
“What better way to learn something new than with the help of friends, because they employ different strategies that will benefit all including you,” said Hadi.
Keeping an open mind and broadening her horizons enabled Nur Izzati Khairuddin to thrive and make the best of everything during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Now an English lecturer at Kolej Profesional MARA Seri Iskandar, the 27-year-old, who holds a Bachelor of Education (Teaching English To The Speakers of Other Languages - TESOL) degree, exposed herself to a plethora of activities like getting involved in local events, especially volunteering during her undergraduate years.
“There are countless volunteering opportunities that can suit your interest. I was involved with numerous theatrical productions around Auckland (Pop-Up Globe, Auckland Summer Shakespeare) as a ticket scanner, usher and other volunteering jobs. In return, I was given opportunities to watch theatrical shows for free. So, take up volunteering and make new friends along the way,” Nur Izzati shared.
Having said that, she noted that as much as you are excited to make new friends among the locals, do not ever forget to forge friendships with fellow Malaysians when abroad.
“These are the people to have around you should you encounter problems, as they are the ones who would most likely understand and be able to help you in one way or another. Always try to attend events organised by the Malaysian student body at your university. From there, you’ll get to know fellow countrymen that you can count on,” she said.
Muhammad Nabil Rashidi Aly, 22, who recently graduated with an honours degree in pharmacology from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, emphasised the need for the right study technique to achieve a healthy academic performance.
“At university, studying is less about reading textbooks, revision books and so on. It’s more about reading scientific papers, especially current ones. It was difficult at first to understand the papers initially as they are dense and filled with scientific jargons. We even had tutorials on how to comprehend such papers. I only was able to truly comprehend reading these research papers in my second year. I find them interesting to read now, and I still read such papers when I have the time,” he said.
According to Sarah Deverall, director of the British Council in Malaysia, more than 7,000 new Malaysian students arrive in the United Kingdom each year, with undergraduates usually arriving in September.
Recent questions received from students about studying in the UK during pre-departure briefings held in Malaysia by British Council include: What will the lectures be like? Will I be confident enough to deliver presentations in front of a room full of students of different nationalities? Will I be able to make new friends easily? How cold is winter in the UK?
“These initial reservations are fairly typical of every new student and are to be expected, given that living and studying in a foreign land can be quite daunting at first,” she remarked.
Deverall suggests that students make contact with current students or alumni, get involved in university and club events, work part-time or volunteer.
“The UK is relatively safe and secure. But as with any location, it is always wise to be alert and aware of your surroundings. All students are also advised to register themselves with the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) before arriving in the UK to ensure rapid assistance in case of emergencies,” she said.
There are currently 8,271 Malaysian students in the United States. Malaysia is ranked 21 out of the top 25 leading places of origin for international students in the United States.
Kavita Chandran, a senior adviser with EducationUSA based at the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE), said the various challenges facing Malaysian students in the US include academic, weather and lifestyle.
“There are various resource centres and support teams available on campus. Students should know that help will be provided,” she said.
As of April, there are 21,358 Malaysians studying in Australia across all levels of education, and around half are in universities.
Some 5,000 new students from Malaysia commence higher education studies each year.
According to Bernadine Caruana, an education and science counsellor with the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, travelling to Australia for studies is a well-trodden path for young Malaysians.
“International support staff at institutions of higher learning readily provide help to students for a whole range of issues related to studying and living in Australia.
“In addition, many state governments also run student centres or hubs to provide support for international students covering areas such as accommodation, health, employment and legal advice. They can also help international students to access various services available in their local community,” she assured.