Finding Meaning in University Education

For the first time since graduation from NUS, I attended an engineering faculty alumni function today. I used to dislike going for functions alone as I would feel exposed and my mind would race desperately to try to find some topic to talk to the person next to me. But things have slowly changed since some time back – and now I enjoy meeting people (another story for another time!). But anyway, it had been a good day today – met a couple of nice folks both junior and senior batches, had good long chats about work and life.

So, after a quick registration, there was an option for a laboratory tour to see some of the innovative showcases of the faculty. The walk to the labs brought back memories – of my friends and I trudging to the labs to do experiments, bumming around study benches (!) and mugging hard in the tutorial rooms during the final week before each semester’s exam. It was a mild fuzzy feeling about the good times I had as a undergraduate. At that moment, eight years seemed just like yesterday (pardon the cliché).

And then I tried to remember what made me take up engineering, and what motivated me to study for a university degree? Back then, as a teenager fresh after GCE ‘A’ levels, a university education was the next logical step. The reasoning? I believed that a university degree will give me a much better footing in starting my career, and it was a natural proceeding after the ‘A’ levels. I admit, as a teenager, that was what went through my head and I did not put too much thought.

I have no idea why I am studying for a degree. (Image from 9gag.com)

I have no idea why I am studying for a degree. As a teenager back then, I did not give it much thought. (Image from 9gag.com)

However, that changed when I stepped into the workforce. It was after a few years I found out that success goes beyond simply having the necessary subject knowledge. And with some afterthought, I came to realise some real lessons and opportunities that are present in a university education that could help us in our subsequent career and life.

1. Learn Attitude and Proactiveness

More than a year ago, I had a discussion with an ex-colleague (whom, by the way, had a PhD, and I respect him a lot for his technical knowledge, as well as views on education and the world) on the reasons for taking up university education, and my answer was that this was primarily for gaining knowledge, but he disagreed. He believed that the university was a place to pick up life skills for your career, and it took me a while to realise that, but it made a lot of sense.

In many ways, the university resembles the real workplace. Sometimes, the information (or lecture notes) you may receive is barely sufficient or incomplete. You will have to be independent and proactive to look for additional resources to supplement your learning: Go to the library and find the reference book, login to the online database to download papers, make a date with your lecturer to consult him/her on various questions, look for the lab technician to get some tips on how to use the hardware. More often than not, people will be happy to assist you. Do not expect to be spoonfed; not in school, and definitely not in the workplace. Being proactive helps develop a great attitude which will go a long way in your career.

2. Network and Know More People

The university (or other tertiary institutes, for the matter) is a great place to make friends and get to know different people. They can range from your professors, your teaching assistants, or even friends from other faculties (whom you worked together in projects via cross-faculty elective modules, for example). It is never a bad thing to know more people – who knows, they may become mentors whom you can turn to for advice, or they may (some time later) turn out to be partners whom you can collaborate with in your work, or they could be the link to introduce you to crucial people you should know. Or it could be the other way round?

In my opinion, many science and engineering students do not think too much about networking. Probably to some it is because it is easier to interact with machines than interact with humans, or that networking is for the “business people”, but increasingly, engineers have to handle more social interactions at work : such as colleagues from different teams in cross-team projects, customers during sales and technical support, vendors during procurement, and even investors (such as in a startup). Get used to networking early so that you can feel comfortable doing so when you start your career.

3. Broaden Your Social Horizon and Try New Things

A student’s life is not just solely about books and examinations – all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! There are a myriad of activities one can experience in university (and other tertiary institutions). For instance, you could join a CCA (Co-curriculum activity). Take up leadership positions in your CCA. Or you can learn a new skill. Or you can sign up as a volunteer to contribute to the needy in society. Or you can take up tutorship to help your juniors. Or you can go on an exchange program overseas to experience how work and play are like in other countries. And the list goes on. Such activities will broaden your horizon, and you can learn about and appreciate different cultures, while experiencing the social interactions while working with people. These are what you cannot learn from examinations and lecture notes.

 

And there you have it – studying for a university degree is beyond acquiring knowledge, it is also the time you pick up important life skills, expose yourself to new experiences and broaden your network.

Yep, university education is the tutorial, and that was the easy part.

Yep, university education has been the tutorial, and that was the easy part of Life.

A university education is just the beginning of your career – upon graduation, the long quest of building your career, and the rest of your life, awaits. Good luck!


If you think this might be useful for someone you know, please forward this article to them! ;)