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Penang Malaysia – Food, Study, and Exploration

A semester abroad like no other – Penang Malaysia is an area renowned for its great food, diverse culture, and World Heritage Sites.

As a New Colombo Plan Scholar, I was able to experience life in Malaysia at the start of 2020, before the global pandemic. Studying on the island of Penang at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), I experienced Malaysia’s unique culture first hand for six incredible weeks.

I was afforded this opportunity through the prestigious New Colombo Plan Scholarship (NCP).

“The NCP scholarship is an Australian government initiative which aims to increase the knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region in Australia by providing undergraduates with support to study, undertake internships, and learn languages in the region.”

Connor

It aims to develop deeper cultural understanding and long-lasting people to people connections.

Arriving at Penang International airport at 10 pm Malaysian time, I was greeted by two USM student buddies who took me to the main university campus. After some admin and paperwork, I was then taken to my off-campus student apartment where a hot meal was waiting for me.

I rented a fully furnished apartment at the E-Park Condominium on the 23rd floor. It was a room with quite the view. The condominium was a brisk 15-minute walk away from the university, although it took me some time to adjust to walking in the Malaysian climate. My tip, make sure your first classes start before 9am if you want to avoid the high humidity.

One of the more entertaining mistakes I made in preparing for Malaysia was packing way too many ties and button-up shirts. Before I left Australia, I found an outdated document that suggested formal attire was mandatory for attending classes. Fortunately, this was not the case – standard long pants and t-shirts were fine for most occasions. I’m all for wearing formal clothes, but in Malaysia that attire would have been hard for me to maintain with 30-degree days at 80% relative humidity.

Life at USM

USM’s main campus was significantly larger than any other university campus I’ve been to in Australia. It was like its own mini-town complete with a doctor’s surgery, post office, banks, bus service, and restaurants. The main campus is surrounded by interesting sites including George Town, part of which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Street art in George Town, Malaysia

USM has a rich culture, attracting students from all over the world. My exchange cohort consisted of over 20 different nationalities. I met people from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Yemen, Finland, Germany, and Japan, to name a few.

“The university also has an amazing volunteer buddy program composed of enthusiastic local and long-term exchange students. They were very inclusive and ran all the orientation week activities.”

Connor

I quickly felt at home at my host university and made many new friends within the first week. I was surprised at the number of local students active in the buddy program. At least 80 students were involved, giving up their spare time to spend with us.

At USM there was dancing, a lot of dancing, by the buddies and sometimes the exchange students too. This was quite a surprise. Outside of bars and school discos, it’s not often that you see dancing in Sydney. But at USM, there were dances prepared for every student event. I am still impressed by the quantity of different choreographed routines each of the buddies memorised. At some point they even persuaded me to be involved too.

USM organised a separate orientation week for all the exchange students. This included a health check-up, a visit to a waterpark, culture sharing nights, and (you guessed it!) lots of dancing. It was a great week, and it helped me to become friends with the buddies and other exchange students. I did not expect to visit a water park during orientation week, so it was quite a pleasant surprise, not to mention incredibly fun.

Aerial view of Kellie's castle

USM’s International Student Department organised several events and excursions for the exchange students and buddies over the course of the semester. There were events on almost every week, which meant I always had something to look forward to. My favourite event was a weekend trip to the Cameron Highlands. We explored Kellie’s castle, the BOH tea plantations and visited night markets. It was also nice to experience some cold weather for a change.

Classes at USM

“Enrolling in classes at USM was a unique experience in itself. During the first two weeks, we were encouraged to attend any lectures we were interested in before asking the lecturer to be admitted.”

Connor

It was quite different compared to enrolling in subjects through an online service like at UTS, it felt more fluid with class times changing depending on the students needs. I must say, I found this useful for picking classes – trying the content before you commit to it.

As a Mechatronics Engineering student, I took the opportunity to learn some computer science courses. I also chose to study Bahasa Malaysia to learn some basics language skills. Even though English is widely spoken in Malaysia, my new found skills were quite useful in ordering food and understanding menus. I am sure if I had stayed longer and learnt more, I would have put it to good use. I was hoping to learn enough to converse with my friends in Malaysian.

On the topic of subjects, most of mine had around 20-30 enrolled students. For me, this meant I was able to talk with the lecturers more often. It was good to obtain the extra insight into what they were implicitly expecting from the assignments.

Food and Clubs

“The food in Malaysia is nothing short of amazing. I didn’t pick an exchange in Malaysia for the food, but I’d definitely go back for it.”

Connor
bowl of soup and noodles

During my first week, I was introduced to the on-campus Subaidah Indian restaurant. My favourite lunch quickly became Roti Cheese or Nasi Goreng and Ice Coffee for under RM 10 or roughly $4 AUD. With dozens of restaurants and cafes scattered around the campus, I often found myself exploring different restaurant menus with my friends.

USM has a thriving clubs and societies scene. Most students living on-campus are involved in at least one club or society. I joined a club known as Coffee Hour Class, where international students share and teach parts of their culture. I decided to volunteer to teach students about Australia. I was planning to run several activities such as a Vegemite tasting, Australian slang class, and a sausage sizzle. Sadly, due to the pandemic, I had to return to Australia before I could run any of these classes.

Despite the short length of my exchange, it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I am so thankful for the opportunity the New Colombo Plan and UTS gave me. I look forward to returning to Malaysia again in the future.

Author’s Note

The views in this article are my own based on my experiences.

Connor Boughton
Bachelor of Engineering
Universiti Sains Malaysia

Malaysia

2020 New Colombo Plan Scholar for Malaysia

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