Connexion: A Guide to University Survival as an Underprivileged Student

Malaysian Students' Global Alliance
10 min
Friday, October 29, 2021
  1. Barriers to Networking

One of the various benefits of attending university is the opportunity to expand your personal network of peers and professionals alike. For students who have grown up in the same vicinity all their lives, this is their opportunity to go beyond that social circle and meet people from different backgrounds and hometowns. However, some students are less equipped than others when it comes to building their professional networks. This article will discuss some of the most prominent barriers to networking that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to face.

The first barrier is the lack of references. Some students, particularly those from more affluent backgrounds, have been ‘networking’ for most of their lives. This is because their well-educated parents were able to offer their children an additional social asset, which is a disproportionately professionalised social network of their own.

Through this, they were able to meet key mentors and seniors early on in life and form personal connections with them. In comparison to their wealthier peers, low-income young people report fewer informal mentors beyond their families and neighbourhoods. For first-generation university students, they are often building their professional networks from scratch.

Next, first-gen students can lack the critical cultural capacity necessary to navigate the “hidden” curriculum. According to Vanderbilt University, this is because they receive less familial support when it comes to understanding how to traverse the various procedures, jargon and expectations that come with being a young adult about to enter the working world. Similar to the culture shock of travelling to a new country, these students may feel out of place without proper support to ease into university and working world ‘culture’.

It is important for university students and young professionals to have sufficient social capital. The OECD defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups”. A UK government survey found that more people secure jobs through personal contacts than through public advertisements. Low-income students suffer from social capital gaps, which affects their prospects in the short-term and long term. Down the line, it has been estimated that 50% of jobs will come through personal relationships.

In order to provide better support for students with disadvantaged backgrounds, universities and government stakeholders should explore the following methods. Firstly, they should reduce the barriers faced by exploring new ways for students to interact in unorthodox ways. For example, by encouraging first-gen students to join sports clubs and societies with influential alumni ties. Next, students should be able to borrow or rent professional clothes from their universities for networking events and attending interviews. Lastly, universities should set up and maintain societies like ‘The 97% Club’, that can act as platforms for students to build relationships with alumni who understand the first-gen journey.

  1. Inequality of Education and Opportunity

As the saying goes, "no compromise on education!”, they believe in the power of education to lift families out of poverty. It is not always the case. Unequal opportunities among states in Malaysia caused most of those living in extreme poverty are lacking basic education, and the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified this problem. Veveonah Mosibin, a Sabah girl who climbed to a tree to get internet connection to take her exams when school closes due to Covid-19 outbreak has shown the inequality of educational opportunities between states in our country.

Data from the Ministry of Education shows that in 2015 alone, rural areas have a 7.5% of children do not enrol or dropping out of primary school compared to 5.4% in urban areas. In addition, many children in rural areas who do attend school receive an inadequate education due to the poor quality of schooling — incapable teachers, overcrowded classrooms, poor facilities and lack of basic teaching tools such as textbooks, blackboards, and pens and paper. These factors contributed to the low enrolment of students from rural areas in tertiary education and caused the vicious circle.

Sharvin, a team member from MY Scholarslab, a youth-led initiative that exposed high school students especially from rural studies about scholarship opportunities, and Kai Ling, a Sarawak girl who holds a law degree in University of Malaya, have spoken with us about their stories on access to tertiary education, thoughts and experiences on education inequality, and encouragement to students who are struggling with access to tertiary education.

What were the challenges or obstacles you faced when access to tertiary education?

Kai Ling: There are limited seats in recognised tertiary education centres in my beloved hometown. Only those who work hard could gain their way into the universities.I was fortunate enough to pursue my degree in University of Malaya. However, the cost of living in Klang Valley area was above my affordability. I had to toil my way to perform in order to earn a scholarship to continue my university.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Kai Ling: I studied hard to score academically and actively participated in extracuricular activities to make myself a versatile persons. Whenever I am free or during school holidays, I worked as part-timer to earn pocket money and saved them for my expenses during my university life. Could you tell us what motivated you to join MY Scholarslab? What are your personal experiences/observations about the education inequality in Malaysia?

Sharvin: I joined MY Scholarslab by happenstance, the program director approached me when they decided to expand the team after the success of the first event, and have different perspectives of education inequality in Malaysia from my experience in MY Scholarslab. I saw some students especially from rural areas such as Terengganu, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak, who were 18 years old but don’t know how to build a resume, how to apply for scholarships and how to communicate with others.

Do geographical inequalities that lead to information barriers affect the accessibility to tertiary education in Malaysia?

Sharvin: Yes, I lived in Bintulu, Sarawak, I know how difficult to reach out to inter part of Sabah and Sarawak. For example, we noticed it’s hard to let people who stay in inter part of Sabah and Sarawak get vaccinated during the national vaccination programme. And MY Scholarslab face the same problem as well. We find out that we are hard to approach students in rural areas.

I personally send the email to these schools to ask their students to join us and luckily we receive some replies. What advice would you give to those students who are still struggling with access to and success in tertiary education? Kai Ling: Be courageous and persistent in pursuing your dream. To gain a seat in university is like a protracted war and patience is the key to this battle. You may face lots of unexpected challenges throughout the journey, but please keep moving forward and believe that eventually you will be successful. Also, not to forget to reach out for assistances and advices whenever needed. Sharvin: Study hard. It’s your stepping stone to access the opportunity. Then, grab every chance. If you have a scholarship offer, just apply for it, even though you don’t fulfil the requirement. As the famous saying go, ”Never try never know.” And, be realistic and practical. Don't follow others blindly. Choose the course that will give you better career opportunities.

  1. Starting out a step behind

Well done, you got into university! Now you can leave your small town, start fresh independently, with no one to nag on you for not studying as hard as your peers. You will finally have unrestricted access to social events, a quiet residence for you to study in, and to finally be in charge of your own schedule.

You have been wanting to be free from your helicopter parents, from the responsibilities of taking care of your ailing grandparents, younger siblings, or from the constant dysfunctional mental or physical abuse at home. Now what? In this article, we will share what you should expect from being a student in university coming out of a disadvantaged background. But let’s start with getting an idea on what being ‘disadvantaged’ really means.

Firstly, being a disadvantaged student should not carry with itself a negative connotation. Having disadvantages simply mean that you have had specific background circumstances that may impede on the quality of your university experience and beyond. Such circumstances would be that you might have come from a lower income group, you have disabilities (visible or hidden), not conducive or dysfunctional family circumstances, being of an oppressed ethnicity, or having significant geographical barriers.

There are things that most education counselors, mentors, open days, or orientation sessions feel that are too sensitive to cover when advising you.

One of the prominent things you will notice is that you will be independent.

Some may have been waiting their whole lives for this, and others may feel scared about being away from their support systems. One particular group of students may feel like they have been independent their whole lives, but university is when they really feel it kicking in.

The truth is that in secondary schools, where you spend only half the day, five days a week with your peers, you don’t peek into your peers’ lives as you are able to in university.

Once universities physically allow for students to return, you will realise that during the weekends, families will come to bring home-cooked food for your roommate, while you are trying to balance studying, cooking, and doing your laundry.

You will observe your coursemates’ parents offering them internships or industry experience because they come from a family of engineers, businessmen, or software developers. You will have the loans that will ensure your basic survival in university, but it does take some disposable savings to ensure a holistic participation in social, extra-curricular, or professional networking events.

One such form of disadvantage is one that is widely felt, yet hardly recognised. There is a familiar stress point for most students in our Malaysian culture, regardless of race or economic standing. The parenting practices of this South East Asian culture has a track record of resulting in high levels of anxiety among the youths.

Entering into university is, in many ways, a fresh start for everyone. The benefit of being away from a rambunctious family, having the confidence that everyone else is new to the environment, and that you are in a new phase of life.

It is especially crucial to remember that university life will present itself with many opportunities for you to carve your future. Having disadvantages does not mean that you will not carve a future ‘as nice as others’, but just that there are barriers to be expected, and similarly, there is help to get you around those barriers.

University will be a beautiful challenge, and the playing field might not look the same for everyone, but that just guarantees a colourful social life for you and your batchmates.

Congratulations again, and all the best!

  1. Living in Urban Poverty

Malaysia has a long history of ethnic separation. With most Malays in villages, Chinese in towns, and Indians on plantations during the British Colonial rule in Malaya. They basically lived in their own neighbourhoods, followed different occupations, practiced their own religions, spoke their own languages and operated their own schools, and this tradition continues to our current education system.

Immediately after the bloody ethnic conflict of 13 May 1969, the government took drastic measures to strengthen unity among diverse ethnic groups by recognising one national language and establishing a national school system.

The education system is regarded as one of the significant tools for promoting ethnic integration, however, it was undeniable that current national school system is dividing the people along ethnic lines where most Malays study in SMK, Chinese study in SJKC, and Indians study in SJKT. History repeats itself. With the segregated education system in Malaysia, it is expected the higher education institutions to bridge racial differences by mixing them together under the same education after a long separation and creating an environment that will allow positive interaction among students from different ethnicities and backgrounds. However, the ideal is plump, the reality is bony.

In a survey conducted, at least 80% of students admitted that it is actually difficult to do social activities like eating together, studying as a group and sharing hostel rooms with peers from different ethnic groups.

They are self-segregating by race when grouping for group assignments and have negative feelings toward some acculturation and assimilation campus activities.

Undeniably, the segregated education system in Malaysia seems to be the main culprit, but we are not calling for the abolition of vernacular schools here. We respect the right of Chinese and Indians to learn and protect their mother tongues and admit that the syllabus of SMK is not diverse enough yet to represent all races.

We are calling for a better policy to fortify unity without abolishing vernacular schools. For example, innovative programs such as intergroup dialogues that encourage cross-group interactions and provide opportunities for students to come together and share their thoughts and story about racism and discrimination should be introduced in higher education institutions.

There still exist areas for continued development in connections and integrations between different ethnic groups in campus lives. And, all of us, Malaysians, regardless whether you are student or not, we should stop judging others based on their race, religion and skin colour. We can't ask the government and authorities to do something, but at the same time catalogue everyone by their races, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Sabahans and Sarawakians, and assume they behave in certain, specific ways.

Download the PDF here:
CONNEXION: A Guide to University Survival as an Underprivileged Student (ENG)CONNEXION: Panduan Pelajar yang Kurang Bernasib Baik dalam Mengharungi Universiti (BM)CONNEXION: பின்தங்கிய மாணவர்கள் பல்கலைக்கழகத்தில் வாழ ஒரு வழிகாட்டி (TAM)CONNEXION: 贫困学生在大学生存的指南