HUSTINGS COVERAGE 2017: SA INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS’ OFFICER

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Following the presentations of Activities Officer and Home Officer candidates on 10th March 2017, all three candidates for SA International Students’ Officer (ISO) took turns appearing on stage to present their respective manifestos.  After introducing themselves and touching upon various reasons to vote for them, attendees were then open to question them on issues concerning their campaign pledges. A mix of SA Executives, Student Council members, the IGNITE team, volunteers and students participated in this year’s Hustings. Current and outgoing SA International Officer, Marwa Abbas, was not present for the event.

Nikko (Nkosi) Sikhosana, School of Pharmacy.

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The ISO Hustings began with first candidate, Nkosi Sikhosana, better known as Nikko. She began by sharing a quote by Nelson Mandela, then moved on to talk about her Zimbabwean background. While she joked that Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation made her “a billionaire”, she said that there is more to her country such as its natural beauty and traditions.

Nikko expressed a lot of passion and desire to enhance the global cultural experience through her campaign pledges. In addition to the International Cultural Night (ICN), she proposed to give the citizens of individual countries the opportunity to showcase their culture, history and heritage on each of their national or independence days. She added that the implementation of a point system would help encourage participation of cultural societies in this initiative.

Additionally, Nikko pledged to invite more food trucks during International Cultural Week. According to her, this would expose the campus population to the cuisines of unrepresented countries.

She also detailed her plans to improve integration between Malaysians and internationals in her manifesto. Among them was “makan”, or eating sessions between locals and internationals. The second proposition was a speed-dating event titled “It’s a Small World”. This would be where local and international participants get to know each other. The third point was a suggestion to hold a country-team-based “FIFA World Cup Tournament”, which would also contribute to the point system. Finally, Nikko suggested “Friends beyond Borders”, a Fresher’s Week initiative to introduce new students to existing local and international students. However, this was only briefly mentioned.

Nearing the end of her speech, Nikko went on to state other proposals in her manifesto. Regarding the Language Exchange Programme (LEP), Nikko suggested that an ambassador monitors it at least once a semester. She also promised to ensure hygienic practices among campus food vendors through spot checks and small fines. Finally, she said that the ISO will be working in collaboration with the Careers Advisory Service to improve employability for international students.

Question and Answer Session: Nikko (Nkosi) Sikhosana.

During the question and answer session, the main issues raised were mostly about seeking to clarify or further elaborate on some of Nikko’s campaign pledges. One questioner asked about how the speed-dating event will take place.

From here, Nikko explained that participants will be in groups of four individuals from different countries. They would rotate to take turns in speed dating in order to make the event manageable. Nikko also reiterated how the “National Day” initiative could take place, allowing options from the sale of cultural food to creating posters.

A front-row questioner then asked about any possible plans to increase the number of languages in the LEP. Nikko responded that she cannot promise to do so, as it is run on a voluntary basis. However, she suggested that if a language is simultaneously demanded and limited, then some members may learn as a group instead of the existing pair arrangement.

Next, despite not being present, Marwa sent a question for Nikko, asking “how to make the International Cultural Night (ICN) more efficient”. To this, Nikko explained that the ICN and the International Cultural Week should be held at different times of the year. She also detailed that she has researched into available food trucks in the Selangor area to provide varied international cuisines such as Thai and Mexican.

Linur Chubaev, the outgoing SA President, sought further explanation regarding a proposed careers initiative for international students. In detail, Nikko acknowledged that internationals face difficulties to intern on a student visa. Furthermore, some, like herself, cannot return to work due to undesirable economic situations in their countries. Thus, initiatives encompassing but not limited to interview and CV skills, would encourage exposure for international students in the Malaysian job market and, in her own words, teach them “how to shine to Malaysian employers”.

Laith Albitar, Department of Civil Engineering.

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Laith began his speech with a strong campaign tagline: ‘YOU’, an acronym meaning

“You Occupy Unity”.

Then, he went directly to describing his manifesto.

Laith began his speech by describing an ambitious proposal for the ISO to initiate a financial aid programme to assist potential students from “countries of economic deficits and countries of war”. He then shared his personal background as a Syrian citizen. Laith said that he knew schoolmates from his batch who were talented but could not afford quality universities due to a deteriorated exchange rate.

He declared that during the first year of implementing this scheme, the university would accept three entrants, the following year seven, and within five years, this scheme would be able to accept academically high-achieving student from any country. He said that he has been in discussion with the Alumni and Donor Relations Office (ADRO) regarding this matter and that the project has already been in the pipeline for two years.

Laith also plans on enlarging the International Students Bureau (ISB). In his own words, “We have 72 different nationalities on campus. [But] how many ambassadors do we have? 20? 25? So there are almost 55 different nationalities that do not have respective ambassadors who can talk to them.”

Hence, to tackle this, he suggested a large-scale publicity campaign to entice students into becoming student ambassadors. And while on the topic of publicity, Laith briefly mentioned that he would like to gather feedback from students regarding the ISO by setting up a small booth.

The highlight of his manifesto was the suggestion to rebrand the ICN and International Cultural Week as the “International Cultural Festival” or ICF. His rationale behind this move is to “not give it a specific time” because, in his view, it implied that “you can only be cultural for seven days […]” and that the current set-up is too limiting. He even suggested up to ten or fifteen days of international cultural events.

He also raised the issue of the LEP, promising more publicity to attract participants. According to Laith, this was to help it expand and succeed. However, he reiterated that the ISO cannot guarantee more choice of languages.

Question and Answer Session: Laith Albitar

It was apparent that Laith’s ICF proposal had caused some confusion. Several attendees grilled him on the event proposal, in particular about the unclear duration of the event. Laith responded by standing firm on his view that the ICF should not be time-constrained lest it falls short of expectations of the student community. However, this did not satisfy questioners, who still insisted for a timeline estimate. To this, he simply replied that a month-long ICF would be “impossible”.

Laith’s answer had then raised a new issue, which another questioner followed up with how the ICF will counter booking problems. Laith assured the asker that the organisers, including himself, have learnt from the mistakes of this year’s ICN, and that the event will be “well organised from the beginning”.

Then, another female student asked about how it would be possible to maintain the students’ interest for a prolonged cultural event. Laith again repeated the same point he used to answer to a previous questioner. He said that having ICF that was not time-constrained would avoid it from falling short of expectations.

Next, an interesting question was raised by a male attendee, who asked Laith, “using your experiences, what plans have you put in place to handle cases of racial discrimination on campus?” Laith responded by referring to the efforts of various societies that address this issue directly, using the Anti-Racism talk that was happening next door to the hustings, organised by the Islamic Society, as an example. He also mentioned the role of ambassadors in communicating the issue with the management, which would ultimately be responsible for taking action against discriminators.

The same attendee then asked another question about the candidate’s experience with handing a religiously diverse community. To this, Laith responded that he and his colleagues have mutual respect for one another.

With regards to the LEP, concerns were raised about the existing issue of matching students’ mutual language learning. According to the numbers stated by the questioner, LEP was oversubscribed with only 60 or 70 students having been matched to their intended choices. In fact, a large number could not join at all, due to limited spots. In addition, the system requires “double-matching”, where the partner needs to mutually agree to learn the other’s language, and vice versa. While admittingly stating that the ISO is not promising to increase more languages on offer, Laith said that he seeks to reach out to more people that speak uncommon languages to participate in meeting the demand.

The last question was concerning the LEP. The asker said that among those who did get matched, some could not be motivated to follow up with the programme. The questioner then asked Laith if there would be any incentives, to which he responded with a more flexible approach to the classes where students can opt to attend on alternate weeks.

Bakhtiyar Badar, Nottingham University Business School.

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Last but not least to present his manifesto was Bakhtiyar Badar from Pakistan. He greeted everyone with multiple languages and gave a little backstory of how his first days in UNMC went. He emphasised with the freshers, as he had felt homesick, confused and clueless as a new exchange student himself. He proposed plans to integrate them into the campus community from day one. One of his ideas is to offer wristbands and t-shirts to freshers to indicate that they are new to the university, to help returning students identify and assist them.

Next, he touched on a controversial topic for internationals: the visa office, as part of his campaign. Bakhtiyar proposed a new and separate section in the SA website dedicated to visa information. His reason was that the visa process can be very stressful for many foreign students. So, he says that one centralised space should be available where all the problems and solutions can be found, including worst-case scenarios and contact information.

Drawing from his exchange experience in Nottingham UK, he felt that incoming new students who arrive in UNMC’s second semester are not given a proper welcome or sufficient information compared to the first. Because of this, he wants to create just that, plus a catch-up session specifically catered for those coming late because of visa problems.

Part of Bakhtiyar’s manifesto is also first-aid training, which was inspired by an emergency incident on campus. He has gotten in touch with the NAA staff to create this as a module of its own.

From here, he went on to describe why people should vote for him based on his previous experiences. In his former school in Kuwait, he was assigned as International Relations Officer. There he has dealt with many nationalities in his class. Despite his relative lack of experience, he promised that he would prove himself with the hard work to come.

Question and Answer Session: Bakhtiyar Badar

A student asked about Bakhtiyar’s position on the ICN and LEP since his manifesto did not directly address these. His reply was that the next year the ISO will build on the successes as well as improve the programmes. According to Bakhtiyar, he has contacted Marwa about what needs to be improved and will try to implement these things if he were elected.

Another member of the audience began his question by noting that Bakhtiyar is “truly international”. The asker then went on to comment on Bakhtiyar’s lack of experience with the current ISO, as compared to the other candidates. It stands to be seen that much of Bakhtiyar’s experiences shared had come from outside UNMC. Compared to Laith and Nikko, the questioner felt that Bakhtiyar was “more of an outsider.” Bakhtiyar replied that in terms of experience with Nottingham systems, he was the Deputy of Social Affairs in Nottingham UK. He then emphasised that what students see today is the hard work of the current ISO, but as an outsider, he can bring in new ideas to the table, as well as work even harder.

Despite his reasonable answers, some of Bakhtiyar’s campaign proposals did, however, cause controversy among the attendees. One, in particular, was his proposal of a 24-hour depression hotline. Bakhtiyar had described the hotline as being “by the students, for the students” and claims he had discussed this plan with the Wellbeing Centre. Bakhtiyar seemed confident that a lot of people would be willing to volunteer for it. He also said that these participants would get induction and training from the Wellbeing Centre to handle the sensitive cases.

However, some in the audience voiced the viability of this plan in terms of manpower. A student asked whether those running the hotline will be sufficiently qualified, given that matters related to mental illnesses need to be dealt with very delicately. Risks are also involved, and incentives may need to given, some said.

Bakhtiyar responded to this by reiterating that the students will be trained well by the Wellbeing Office, with additional assistance given by the Nottingham’s UK campus. Bakhtiyar also pointed out that similar student-run hotline service already exists in other universities such as Manchester University.

Students also sought clarification on the visa issue, but he made it clear that the ISO nor the SA can help the students’ visa problems directly with the visa office because of the Data Protection Act. That is why he plans to provide contact information on the proposed section of the website so that direct communication can occur between the student and office even when personal information cannot be revealed.

Additionally, Bakhtiyar’s freshers’ identification system to wear specific t-shirts did not sit well with one student, who reminded him that less confident freshmen would not want to stand out. He clarified that the wristband is not compulsory, but it would simply help any student to know whether a new student may need assistance and welcoming. He also added that this system would also allow freshers access to special events and gifts.

A male questioner asked the candidate about his knowledge of accommodation issues faced by students, and measures to address them. From his own experience, Bakhtiyar has admitted to moving back and forth from on-campus residence to Univillage multiple times, citing that students dislike the “old halls”, but feel that the “new halls” are “too far” so they move to Univillage.

He also added that students who come late in the year are unfamiliar with the halls, the hall’s committee and the community. So, he proposed monthly housewarming events to familiarise students with their new homes.

The final question was again concerning the visa problem. The male questioner asked, “how would an unqualified group of students [referring to those who put up the information on the site] make a solution for the visa office when it hasn’t been done for the past four years?”.

To this, Bakhtiyar replied that the info will be based on what he and his peers have faced in their visa procedures. The point of the page is to tell them in a friendly and user-friendly way what is actually happening in the visa process. Veteran students would be more familiar with the visa process than new students, so they would share this through the site.

Written by Ahmad F. Affendy.

Photographs by Ahmed Afrah Ismail

I have two sides; one which is overly-passionate and far too inclined to start debates, and the other that just wants to curl up with a book forever. Writing is and will always be my true love.

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