Campus Capers…Not

I’m going to tell you about my alma mater today. Why today? Well, since USM (that’s Universiti Sains Malaysia) is in the news today. World ranking and top universities and all that. Falling in world ranking! USM was 111th out of 200 top universities in the world and this year, not even within the top 200. As an alumna of this “green university” which was once named one of the most, if not the most beautiful campuses in Malaysia, I believe I have enough experience to tell you what it’s like on the inside.
Crazily enough, USM had been my one and only public university of choice ever since I was 16 or in Form Four. I remember I had this cheesy “USM- Destinasiku” sticker on my cupboard door for ages (I believe it is still there today – no one managed to peel the sticker off!).
My extreme fondness for Penang played a part in why I chose USM in my UPU application form. Out of 6 choices, four were USM, one was UM and the final one was UIA. I told myself that if I didn’t get USM the first time, at least I could have 3 more chances to be chosen. That was how maniacal I was then.
And I was proud to be a USM undergrad when I enrolled in ’94. The campus was green and lovely; lots of old angsana trees and a general feeling that it was infinitely better than UM (my Best Friend got UM… and thus we were separated for the first time in 13 years!). UM was Old. USM was fresh and green and alive.
I lived in the campus hostel for the first two years out of the four that I was studying in USM and had a jolly good time. There’s something to be said for living with 300 other girls in cramped rooms. I learnt to give and take. I mean, you either stood by the pantry kettle and watch it boil (which it doesn’t ever when you’re hovering about) or leave it for 20 minutes only to return and sigh when you realise someone came and took your hot water away without even a thank you! That’s patience.
Or how about practically adjusting your schedule so you can haul your dirty laundry to the ‘laundry room’ to wash them before the rest of the girls come back from their classes? This also meant hauling a backbreaking pail of sopping wet, just rinsed clothes down four flights of stairs only to find the clothes line with nary a centimetre of space for your clothes? What I despised most was some girl would hang her clothes directly on the clothes line itself – without thinking, hmm, could I save some space for others if I used some hangers? Things like this tested my patience. A lot. And people… the same people you live with and see day in, day out, do actually accidentally take your undies and what-not. I have lost t-shirts only, fortunately. I say accidentally because it’s bloody impolite to say some undergrad actually stole clothes. But it happens. It still happens I think. Who says kleptomaniacs can’t be undergrads?
But hostel living is full of camaraderie. Where else can I get help on assignments if not walking down the corridor and knocking on my senior’s door, only to be invited in for some midnight snacks and gossip? I could still remember the first time my friend and I tried to type our first term paper on the PC. (This was in ’94 when having a PC meant instant glamour and prestige. Having one in your hostel room was like wow! This was also in the pre-handphone days.) We were such dungu’s with Amipro that we actually deleted the first paragraph we typed. All this took an agonising 30 minutes. In the end, we went back to the good old typewriter because we were fed-up of the formatting. How PC-illiterate I was then!
And this syndrome of USM students who loved to ‘bergayut’ on the public telephones. We didn’t have the pleasure or convenience of handphones then (even pagers were a rarity) so our only contact with our families were using Telekom phonecards on public phones. How we sourced out the most defective phone so our phonecard money ‘trickled’ slower thus ensuring we could talk longer by paying less! (It’s an open secret that USM undergrads shared knowledge of such defective phones with each other.)
The USM campus then was a lot more green compared to today. Friends who have not visited the campus since graduation day have not only been shocked by the number of buildings and new developments within campus, but utterly disappointed that development has meant that there are now less greenery.
The other grouse I have is that there are too many students on campus. In fact, hostel space has been running out for the longest time. So USM built spacious living quarters for students just opposite the USM Yeap Chor Ee back gate which is now called Desa S, T and U. They’ve even implemented the campus bus system so students do not need to bring in their own private transport (cars/bicycles/motorbikes) and in a sense, try to control the uncontrollable traffic on campus. It’s inevitable because as student population rises, needs rise too but the number of car park/bike park lots are not increasing at all. Thus, double-parking. Or illegally parking one’s car by the shoulder of the road. Then they came up with vehicle stickers. But they underestimate the intelligence of USM undergrads. Undergrads will scan and print their own stickers, fooling some guards sometimes.
I think this focus on tertiary education is fine and well but there must be someone who can say that there is a lack of capacity somehow to cope. USM still has tracts of undeveloped land and officially it can still ‘grow’ outwards. But infrastructure does not make a whole university.
I’ve seen many undergrads (some are my own coursemates) cut and paste answers from seniors’ term papers just to pass up something. Some memorise chunks of text to be used during exams. Others try to ‘spot’ exam questions. And I have had coursemates who get notes from seniors and hide these notes from everyone else. And you also get undergrads who hide much-coveted reference books on different shelves in the library so they can come back to them later (and prevent others from borrowing the books). That’s why one never learns to trust the online library system which says the book is in the library. Sure it is. Just that it is not in its rightful place. Kiasu-ism breeds happily in campus.
Tutorials are nothing but a repetition of the lecture proper even though discussion should be the order of the day. No one discusses anything because no one had prepared for it, and worse, no one understands two bits about the readings which have been passed out the week before. Many resort to translation of notes. It is no wonder that some lecturers are cynical about the level of maturity of their students. A good full-hour is wasted on explaining what should have been read up by the students themselves.
And yet, year in, year out, students do graduate.
I just wish we didn’t have this fascination with numbers.

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