My Open University Secret

An untenured and tired lecturer, I‘m now an Open University undergraduate student to boot — despite my Master’s degree.

In my six years as an Indonesian academic, I never forget that I don’t really belong in my workplace. The realization hangs heavily over my head like Damocles’ sword. I’ve never been involved in programming or teaching courses that require field works. I’ve never been trusted in teaching core courses: most of the time I only teach compulsory general courses for freshmen and sophomores (think of Entrepreneurship as an example). Every time I manage to scrape things into conference papers, I’m always doubtful whether they’re acceptable in my field.

Above all of these, I’m the oldest untenured lecturer in my department who began lecturing as a professor — my late father — ’s personal assistant. This history puts me in a painfully awkward position. I’m neither young enough as a young lecturer (my so-called young colleagues are still in their late 20s), nor am I considered as experienced. It’s impossible for me to commandeer projects, yet it’s equally improbable to engage me as a footsoldier. For Indonesians, seniority matters. Therefore, an inexperienced senior is baffling.

My Unfortunate, So-Called Non-Linear Background

My age and my employment history aren’t my only weaknesses. I come from what our government calls “non-linear educational background” — something undesirable in a lecturer’s resume. To defend my choice, I’ll say that I have a wide range of interests, which led me to discover my current field as early as seven years ago. But this seems to be a weak reasoning for my superiors and for the government.

Realizing where I stand in my workplace, I push myself to read more books, write more papers whenever I can, commit myself to disciplinary-related projects, and keep up with the current research trends in my field. But these do not help much.

One day, after a disheartening work trip, a concerned colleague advised me if I wanted to enroll at Indonesian Open University, as an undergraduate. He said it would benefit me to study the core of our field, as I would gain a firmer footing as an expert.

Embarrassment and Embitterment

I balked at the advice. I wasn’t ready to face the fact that distance-learning at the Open University was my only viable option in the short time range. Additionally, I was raised believing that the Open University was a dubious university for the elderly or for blue collar workers or for the less intelligent.

In short, my ego was hurt by the advice.

The truth is, first, I already have a Master’s degree from the university I’m working at. This university is supposed to be reputable and all that, so how could I relegate myself to an inferior university? Or so I thought. Second, for two years I had been preparing to apply for a Ph.D. But I was discouraged by an education agent, who told me that my educational background would only result in rejection by foreign universities.

Nevertheless, I came to realize that enrollment as an undergraduate at “conventional” universities isn’t an option. I am not only ineligible for our university’s scholarship scheme but am also too busy with teaching, as well as thesis and internship supervision. For example: this semester I have to teach from 7 A.M until 8.30 P.M, three days in a week. I spend the rest of the week doing administrative tasks (such as editing submissions to my department’s student journal, revising budgets, and translating guidelines for our department) and taking care of my family.

Thus, I found that the advice made sense, after all. I gathered information from the internet and found the Open University’s system surprisingly efficient. Without telling a soul at my workplace, and only telling my mom, my husband, and my brother, I decided to register.

The Eye-Opener: My Freshman Day

Upon registering, I obtained my modules, my student card, and the list of my courses for this semester. I can even pay my tuition from an available EDC machine. There’s no need for me to line up for hours in a bank, which always happens when you enroll as a student at my workplace, I tell you.

After registering, I was told that on a certain day in February, I had to come to my town’s Center of Distance Learning Unit for the Freshman Day event.

From that point on, the Open University only got more and more interesting for me.

First, the staffs are very helpful. I am saying this because I’ve had my share of unhelpful staffs at my current workplace. They’re also very tech-savvy, maybe because their workplace offers distance-learning.

Second, I know I’d never find more inspiring people than my fellow freshmen. These people are so motivated. At least two female students took their young children with them to the Freshman Day event (and amazingly, the lecturers were so understanding! I have to learn a lot from them). During the event, I met several young and hopeful English teachers. I really enjoyed talking to them.

Third, from the two catalogs the university gave me on the freshman day, I found that it provides me with access to international reputable journals, the ones that were inaccessible in my department. It also runs an online bookstore and a virtual library. The library consists of virtual reading rooms and is managed by very responsive webmasters.

The Buds of New Hope

Soon, my online tutorials would commence. I’d have to participate in discussions as well as submit assignments to assigned lecturers. After two months, there would be written final exams, the majority of which is in multiple-choice form.

Sometimes, when I ponder that I have to go through automatized exams, I’m beset by feelings of shame again. What will my colleagues and old friends say? What will my students say? Will they laugh at me; thinking that I’m bogus?

And in my darkest hour, I wonder what my late dad would’ve said, too. He was a respected professor in his field, the one I looked up to when I started out on this path. Am I a disgrace to him? These questions haunt me to this day.

For now, I’m still keeping this enrollment secret. But I think there’s a chance that gradually I won’t see this experience as a skeleton in my closet. Maybe I’ll adjust, or maybe I’ll be able to appreciate that my academic life is a little bit more colorful than most people’s.