My very first class as an undergraduate here was a nightmare. It wasn’t so much the fact that I was the only student from a polytechnic present at that 8.15am Monday morning class – it was really the nature of the class: Calculus (MATH001). I mean, can you fault me? MATH? IN THE MORNING? ON A MONDAY? That’s three strikes right there!
To be fair, it had been a good three to four years since I saw anything remotely resembling a mathematical symbol in a classroom setting, so I wasn’t looking forward to embarking on this compulsory journey (University Core mods, harrumph). But painful Math aside, what made that class stand out in my memory is what the very first professor of my university life said.
You probably know what he said even if you don’t hail from a diploma-awarded route because it’s very likely you’ve heard poly friends gripe many times before about it. My prof’s indelible words went something like, “We’re going to be moving very fast in the course of these 14 weeks, so you’ll have to keep up. But don’t worry because most of this is building off your JC H1/H2 Math foundation. It’ll all come back to you once we begin, so let’s start.”
I felt indignant – this couldn’t be right; it wasn’t fair. I had glanced around to see if anyone looked as anxious as I felt about this flagrant assumption. Nope. Everyone seemed okay with what the prof had said, ‘cept maybe this one girl who was more into what her horoscope had to say for that week. Needless to say, that morning was a flurry of graphs, functions, limits, panic, and confusion.
Although I did make it out of that mod alive, I wish I could say: Hey poly homies, that was the only class where the professor forgot that a university cohort is not only made up of just Junior College (JC), International Baccalaureate (IB) and A level students who did GP; H2 Lit; H2 Math; H3 Knowledge and Inquiry etc. – but alas, I cannot. Three years and 30 odd mods later, I hate to admit that you WILL hear remarks like these every once in a while. Profs and people do tend to forget that not everyone chose to go to a JC, or that everyone has a decent foundation in certain subjects. And often, for poly kids, this implicit feeling of inadequacy is repeatedly inculcated into us, our peers, and the system – resulting in an eventual manifestation of us second guessing our own abilities.
But hey, I also want to tell you: You’re going to do just fine. University is not all that different from poly and you may actually be more prepared for it than your other peers. JC students don’t always have a leg up on you over matters – it is important to shake this inferiority complex off early. So what should the SMU student who hails from a polytechnic tackle to extinguish this automatic learned behaviour of ‘I am not as intelligent as a JC student’ or ‘I cannot match up to their intellect, so how to do well?”?
TACKLE the Vigour of Curriculum:
Naturally, the content you are about to study will be of higher intensity, depth, and demand. But you ARE here to challenge yourself and learn, so don’t expect anything less. In poly, most of us faced wave after wave of assignments, sometimes juggling up to seven deadlines at one time, only to finally finish them all and then have to hunker down for exams. Unfortunately, our education system still favours rote learning which may not be most of our strong suits. The way to deal with university assignments, projects, and exams is the same: discipline and good time management. The good news is that once you get your pre-assigned mods out of the way, you’ll be able to plan your own timetable to cater to your interests, as well as down time – an option you previously didn’t have in polytechnic.
Everyone around you is panicking about the new concept of GPA and you’re just like “*Z SNAP* GPA? HONEY, PLEASE!” In your arsenal is three years of experience spent grappling with every assignment and project that set your grade point average in flux. It won’t be for nothing when you enter university – as a poly kid, you have enough EXP points to know when to choose your battles, and also how to choose your battles (for example, if you’re better at group projects than rote learning, bid for mods that have no final examinations).
TACKLE Professors and teaching methods:
Depending on what you’re intending to study, your type of learning and a professor’s teaching methods may impact you. This is especially so for the professors who believe that all 42 students in his/her class sat for the A levels and have a foundation in his subject: you need to hustle on your own to build any semblance of foundation. Take every opportunity to learn, research, and master your Achilles heel. How else does a prof’s teaching method affect you? For example, if you’re planning to major in Sociology, you will most definitely be tasked with an unimaginable ton of readings and independent learning; you will have to be in the know of social issues, problems, and solutions occurring thousands of kilometres away; and you’ll have to be a research maestro when tackling projects and papers. Some professors don’t use slides, they just rattle off knowledgeably, tapping into their remarkable brain capacity for information. Others give you hand-outs they specially prepared for you. And then there are the ones who don’t care if you’re present in class or not. Among poly students, there is a disparity when it comes to learning styles. Some diplomas may have taught only in lecture format; and others, hands-on and in small groups. Either way, you’re used to being an independent learner who doesn’t need to be spoon-fed so you know how to adapt. Try out classes with different profs, try taking notes on your laptop (if your prof allows electronic devices in class) or notepads, or even try recording your classes (remember to ask your prof for permission first!).
TACKLE the Culture:
You may already have noticed during camps where nearly everyone initiated a conversation with “Which JC are you from?” Get used to it, and then get over it. There will be cliques of people from JCs and institutions but pay them no attention and just go make other friends. I came from course that had a relatively small pool of students and it was a lovely environment, seeing familiar faces every day for three years. It was disconcerting and a bit of a shock coming to SMU and adjusting to different classes and classmates every semester. I’ve even gone a whole year without seeing my own majors’ friends in class! But poly should/could/would have exposed you to interacting with people of diverse backgrounds so you will hold your own. Some cohorts have working adults, international students and home-schooled students – hang out with them instead. If you can’t seem to strike up a conversation with the people in your classes, join a CCA or a society or a club. SMU is big on them and you’re more likely to meet likeminded people.
TACKLE the Group work:
You know that quote about the strongest steel being forged by the hottest fire? Yep, nothing prepares you for group work as much as poly does. You meet every type of groupmate there is, so much so that you don’t so much as flinch when you meet the spawn of something evil as your groupmate in SMU for a project worth 30% of your grade. That said, because most of us have that ‘Aiyah, just do the saikang lor’ mentality when we meet these kind of groupmates, it’s important that we don’t try to shoulder the whole burden. Hard as it may sound, learning to delegate work and trust that the rest will do their work properly is something we must do…for our sanities.
The destination of university is often deemed to only be attainable for a select few that take a certain route, while others who do make it to a respectable tertiary institution but chose a different route are denigrated or unacknowledged because we only make up the minority. It doesn’t help that social attitudes towards students who “don’t hail from a JC but made it to university” have always leaned towards being supercilious. Even though I’ve collected enough slightly surprised reactions with my answer to people’s question of ‘Which JC are you from?’ to make them into a profitable meme, I don’t get offended. I do not feel proud or accomplished: We earned our place in this institution just as the others did, surpassing the checks – albeit different ones – imposed by our country’s educational infrastructure. It is not a wonder that we are here – poly students have every right to be in university. We worked just as hard as the rest did.
So, don’t sweat it. All of us who began or are beginning at SMU all begin with a blank slate. Our chosen routes may be different but we all made it here. At an academy of higher learning, we cannot continue to perpetuate the social ‘norm’ that only one type of student is present within the walls of the Seminar Room.