Getting the best of both academic worlds


 As students embark on the 2017/2018 academic year, the author reflects on his time at an Islamic university as well as the oldest English-speaking university in the world. 

HAVE you ever seen a poster of the Powerpuff Girls wearing the tudung (Islamic headscarf)?

I have. And I thought it was quite creative.

It was my first day entering the hallowed halls of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) matriculation campus in Petaling Jaya.

Posters of the famous cartoon characters were plastered around campus with the caption, “Don’t forget to cover your aurah” (the physical parts of the body that one should not expose according to Islamic teachings).

A friend of mine approvingly nodded at the posters, telling me that they created a light-hearted yet vital aura – a reminder of our religious obligations. Another friend, however, appeared slightly perturbed by the posters, muttering something about the conservative and patriarchal message it sent.

Then, how about this: have you ever received a family planning device (ahem...condom) during your university’s orientation week?

Well, I have.

It was during the “Fresher’s Week” at the University of Oxford (where I did my master’s degree).

In fact, a few such family planning devices were smilingly handed to me by seniors as I walked along the sacred halls of Oxford’s Examination Schools, the venue for clubs and societies to recruit new members at the start of the academic year. (Oh, I gave the hand-outs away).

A fellow freshie appeared to disapprove of these hand-outs, saying it was “an unwanted imposition of liberal ideology on the masses”. Another gleefully laughed it off, saying he was glad that Oxonions could keep themselves safe and prevent the spread of unwanted diseases.

Welcome, dear almost young adults, to university life.

Studying at both these higher institutions of learning – IIUM which started in 1983, and ye olde 1096 Oxford University – certainly enhanced, and at times challenged, my various worldviews at different junctures in my life.

Walking along the corridors of IIUM, it was common for fellow students to greet you with Assalamualaikum (Peace be Upon You) and to address you as “Brother” or “Sister” – both Muslims and non-Muslims. I had never experienced this before during my schooling years.

It always put a smile on my face. It was a beautiful culture and gesture.

Oxford, on the other hand, exuded an alluring academic calm although the city was always buzzing with events.

Libraries were everywhere – more than 100 around the city.

Academic activities were diverse and robust, with (almost) no topic too sensitive to discuss. People were friendly, but the culture seemed a bit more independent and impersonal compared to IIUM.

Oxford had wonderful traditions such as college dining, punting along the river Cherwell and (the occasionally tedious) wearing of the sub fusc (a formal academic gown) for examinations.

IIUM didn’t have such formal traditions but there were lots of activities we undergrads looked forward to.

An eye-opener annual event was the Ummatic Week celebrating the diversity and cultures of Muslims from over 125 countries worldwide.

No doubt, studying at IIUM and Oxford presented its own unique set of challenges. Often times, one would be thrown into the paradoxical “clash” of cultures and environment, much like the reminders of chastity with the Power Puff tudung or the reverse with the prophylactic family planning door-gifts.

There were varying notions of gender roles within a community, state and religion, as well as coming face-to-face with strange new bed-fellows in the hostel dormitory who would turn out to be your life-long buddies.

I recall my Kelantanese friends viewing me with bemusement because of my English-speaking leanings. Never, too, had I met so many Kelantanese in my life prior to that and in our bantering, we uncovered commonalities and respected differences.

So what did I learn from my alma maters in this journey from school student to undergrad to post-grad? Here are some shared thoughts for incoming freshies.

1. Stay Fresh – This is the formal foundation for the real world outside and beyond. Observe and learn. Do not see differences as a bad thing. Find out more, understand where the views are coming from and if you disagree, be kind in your disagreement. At the very least, the differences enrich your worldview.

2. Love Knowledge – The input from your varsity environment, formal and informal, in and out of your lecture rooms, both good and bad, is the first thirst quencher in the hunger for knowledge. And we all know, knowledge is power!

3. Choose your “Battles” – From centric to the eccentric, there will be ups and downs. And it’s not the downs, the problems, as much as “how” you handle the situation. In both IIUM and Oxford, my realisation was that one is assessed (yes, even judged) for and by what one does or doesn’t.

Hence, a pre-emptive thought-out response, not an initial gut reaction, is worth considering. It somewhat determines your maturity and reputation.

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. A local university can provide a comparable experience.

It’s about learning and truly seeing and churning these into a vision we see ourselves fitting into.

All in all, I was drawn in by the spirituality of learning and brotherhood at IIUM and am thankful for the exposure to religious education I obtained there. Personally, it filled a void in my life.

Oxford, too, was highly enlightening, thanks to its traditions and inspiring academic community.

In my books, that’s how the best was won. I deeply cherish my varsity experiences and hope the 50,000 strong eager-eyed post-high school students entering our local institutions this month will do too. Congratulations!

  • Danial Rahman has education close to his heart and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Danial Rahman , columnist

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.