"Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong."
John Denver felt at home in West Virginia. Similarly, students want to feel at home in their academic institutions. At least that's what a recent survey by The Academic Experience Project, conducted on university students of Bangladesh, has shown. Common sense makes one wonder why this simple concept has been ignored for decades by those who are charged with reimagining and redrawing the immense possibilities of higher education.
Two vital factors, routinely ignored by academic administrators, are "assurance of safety" and "social integration" that bring about the feeling that you will be safe and an integral part of the social fabric of your institution. Both features are associated with being at home. Somehow the authorities have failed to take the necessary steps to make the students feel welcome and at home. In many of the universities, students have been looked at as little more than sources of revenue.
Most of the renowned universities in Bangladesh are located in the capital; some are in other major cities such as Chattogram, Sylhet or Khulna. This means that students from all over the country travel to these cities, particularly to Dhaka, to pursue higher education. This includes ethnic and religious minorities from the Chittagong Hill Tracts and those from the villages and the suburbs. Many of these students are hardly accustomed to urban life and are living away from their loved ones for the first time. To ensure that they have a satisfactory academic experience, it is important for the authorities to make them feel safe and welcome within their academic institutions.
The following programmes—by no means a comprehensive list—are suggested by the Academic Experience Project to make students feel more at home.
Accommodation Facilities: The university authorities ought to make sure that there is sufficient accommodation for all students who need it. The facilities should be well-managed. Basic hygiene guidelines should be strictly followed. Since these facilities will literally be the "home" of the students for the duration of their stay, a well-kept dorm will go a long way in making the students feel safe, which was one of the most important satisfaction-driver of students according to the study.
Strict Action on Violence: Bangladesh student politics is often heated and violent. The well-publicised death of Abrar of BUET is one of many examples of student political activists going overboard with the "disciplining" of their peers. Whether or not student politics ought to be banned should be at the discretion of the university, but they should double down on violence and ensure that transgressors are punished to help create a "safe" environment in which academic pursuits can thrive.
Counsellors: Each university should have a sufficient number of counsellors and psychologists easily accessible to the students. Their interactions with the students should be bound by strict rules of confidentiality—this will make the students feel comfortable about approaching them.
The topic of mental health is taboo in Bangladesh. Institutional steps should be taken to address this taboo so that students do not feel intimidated or embarrassed to admit that they need help. While this would require large-scale cultural as well as societal changes, the process must begin with earnestness. The universities should appoint and train therapists who can offer students expert assistance to deal with a myriad of different mental health issues that accompany the stressful task of pursuing higher studies. These steps will make students feel more integrated with the institution and provide social support.
Mentorship programmes: Some universities have this feature in place, but it is far from being widely practiced in Bangladesh. Each student can be assigned a senior mentor who helps facilitate the process of adjusting to a new academic institution, as well as provides valuable insights with regard to life on campus which the senior has gained from experience. The mentor can also make social integration easier and introduce the student to other like-minded people with whom they will feel comfortable spending time.
Teachers: The role of the teacher in the life of the student is multi-faceted, and its significance can hardly be exaggerated. They should be actively involved in making sure that the students feel safe and integrated within the university. The teachers should respect students as co-creators of knowledge and make students feel comfortable approaching them with new ideas, as well as legitimate grievances and complaints. Given their position, teachers can make or break a student life experience and should use their influence positively.
University students are the nation's future. A grossly overlooked factor is their academic experience that can be greatly enhanced depending on how they are made to feel in the university environment. The steps we suggest will potentially enhance that experience by making them feel safe and involved: a feeling of being at home. This "nurture factor" will likely better equip them to deal with the real-world problems of tomorrow to take Bangladesh forward!
Irfan Ahnaf is working on his MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. The article is a result of his collaboration with the IBA students to turn the spotlight on higher education in Bangladesh. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.