Monday, March 26, 2007

Respice finem (4)

I had left home three years ago, in search of a new experience and a new adventure. I sought new challenges that I had never faced before because I felt there was a lot left for me to prove about myself – to myself. Leaving the shores of home to enter university abroad was an old dream that I was finally actually walking into and I was pinching myself in disbelief.
When I left home, some of my friends had already commenced their university studies at home and I had heard their detailed accounts of the politics that they had to negotiate as part of their daily experience of university life. Therefore, I found the warm and festive welcome to university life that I experienced in Australia quite reviving. I cherished the chance I had to share my university experience together with students from many nationalities and backgrounds. I also felt lucky to be in a position from which I could appreciate the opportunities that lay before me and the will to use those opportunities meaningfully.
The celebrations however, did not last more than a week and the grinding routines broke in. It took me a while to realize the problems that were threatening the higher education system in Australia and to understand that the idealist in me has been forced to accept the fact that the world I have stepped into was never going to be perfect. With government funding for higher education being reduced every year, Australian universities are competing in the open market in order to be able to function and carry on with their research programs. Fee paying students are priced commodities in this highly competitive marketplace and universities place their highest bids especially on International Students who pay well over twice the amount of fees as local students. In a desperate bid to attract fee-paying students, some higher education institutions have willingly sacrificed their high entry requirements and academic standards and begun to trade in the intellectual wealth of a nation for more tangible monetary gains, just to remain functional – if not profitable.
If I was ever stretched to the limits of my ability or intellectual capacity during my tertiary education, that was more often due to my own carelessness or procrastination than as a result of a rigorous academic program. Yet I had access to all the resources I needed in order to broaden the horizons of my knowledge and understanding of the world. The Libraries overflowed with tools that I could use to tinker with my mind and the environment was conducive for the intellectual discourse of a broad range of topics that covered almost the entire spectrum of my imagination.
Living away from home alone as a student was probably the toughest and most educational experience I have had so far. There, I saw the world from a whole new perspective, the things that once mattered to me didn’t mater so much anymore. My priorities changed together with the things I valued and my expectations of life itself. One of the first lessons I had to learn in this new role as my own guardian was about knowing the difference between what I truly believed in and what I was made to believe, to distinguish good advice from bad advice and go back to my basic understanding of what was right and what was wrong. Each day would present moments that questioned who I was, and what I wanted to be, challenge me to live up to higher expectations while the very roots of my confidence were being shaken. I knew that these were challenges I have come in search of, but they also made me aware of the importance of faith and trust. Until then, God was a useful but mostly intellectual concept in my mind, but with greater awareness of my inadequacies and weaknesses in the face of adversities and challenges I had never had to face alone, I had to learn to rely on a higher power and to trust that everything will work out ok. Looking back, this was perhaps the most useful of all the lessons I have learnt.
When I left home, I was at the peak of my confidence; sure of my abilities and employability. But after three months of searching for part time jobs and being rejected no sooner than I had applied, my bank balance was running out faster than I thought. I almost broke down. I had lost all faith in myself and could see no reason to continue what I was doing. It felt so much like the time I was stuck in the thicket of thorn bushes halfway up on Hunnasgiriya with nothing else but two friends, unable to inch forward or turn back. I told myself that giving up was not an option and fought on, until finally, I got a job as a waiter at a restaurant.
Working as a waiter was definitely not the best job in the world, but it was one of the most insightful for many reasons. The culture and social hierarchy at the workplace was not what I had anticipated. I had to adjust myself to an environment where the hierarchy was not based solely on a person’s designation or the amount of authority he or she had over others. Each person was respected and valued for the contribution they made to the organization. I found the differences of this new social environment helpful because people weren’t judged by the title of their occupation, because there was no pre-assigned level of dignity or wealth associated with each occupation.
Almost all my co-workers who waited tables were tertiary students and I made more friends at my workplace than I did at University. My workplace was a hotel right next to the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground and other major indoor sports facilities at the Melbourne Olympic park. I made it a habit to talk to my guests as I served them and was amazed to find a few famous names among them. My job gave me the opportunity to get glimpses into the lives of a wide spectrum of people ranging from sports personalities to circus clowns and farmers to chief executives during the time I worked there.

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