Take initiative! Get Connected!! Get involved!!!

Expert post by
Uttam Gaulee

From
Nepal

Field
Higher Ed Admininstration

This is something that I wish somebody told me in the very beginning of my academic career in the US—take initiatives. An international student’s academic journey begins with a seemingly disadvantaged situation as compared to that of the local students because you begin with adjustments and settling in process. Inherent in this process is a danger that you may just buy into not being “able” to do certain things. I am writing this post to guard you against that insidious element.

Just keep in mind that life’s adjustments never end. So, it is advisable to start taking steps toward academic and professional development early on. If you want to truly succeed in the university and build for success when you graduate, you must start thinking about more than just maintaining good grades. Of course, as I see in some students’ stories on this site, you may find yourself hardly catching up with coursework (and for graduate students, assistantship responsibilities as well) during the first semester, but how long should you wait? Until the second semester— the third— ? But then the time to graduate will knock on your door before you are ready! So, you should start looking at the bigger picture of professional development right when you join your program. Yes, you may want to gradually increase the time for getting involved, but there is no need to wait in order to start at least thinking about, learning some ideas, and taking small steps.

Also, everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning! You may even feel like an odd person wherever you go, whatever you say or do. But if you think about it, that is also where you are special! So, please do not seek safety in silence. Sure, there will be some risk of making mistakes. But it is by daring to make mistakes that you create opportunities for yourself, for learning and connections at first, and then for contribution! The day will never come when everything will be settled and you’ll start your “big” initiative with confidence. If something goes wrong, you’ll learn a lesson. You’re here to learn after all, aren’t you? By speaking out, you’ll be grateful that you added your unique perspective to the conversations. Be shocked, but do not get shaken: tenacity matters!

Research shows that most important elements of student success as self-efficacy and involvement, which reinforce each other. Even though it may seem like a non sequitur, involvement outside the classroom is extremely important for your success. Such engagement outside not only pays back ultimately but is almost essential to academic success and necessary for professional development in the long run. Student Integration Model developed by Tinto (1975) emphasized a student’s involvement in the community. In his subsequent search and publications, Tinto followed up on the idea of involvement as an important element in students’ academic persistence and success (Tinto, 1993, 2010). Two more researchers highly involved in student learning and development have also highlighted the importance social involvement apart from the classroom activities. They state:

What matters is the nature of experiences students have … the courses they take, the instructional methods their teachers use, the interactions they have with their peers and faculty members outside the classroom, the variety of people and ideas they encounter, and the extent to their active involvement in the academic and social systems of their institutions. (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 642)

While none of these models were specifically developed to account for the international students, evidence suggests that the importance of involvement is vital for various minority groups. There is relatively limited research on engagement in the community on and off campus among international students; however, general research does indicate that international students can greatly benefit by being involved both academically and socially. For instance, Trice (2004) found that interacting to Americans and other international students helped international students succeed in many ways. After an outstanding review of theories and existing literature, Trice established that international students who socialize with host national students are the “most satisfied with and the best adjusted to their experience abroad. Nevertheless, it appears that relatively few international students spend substantial time with Americans” (p. 673).

As Trice tells us, international students tend not to get socially involved. But we know that it is hard to be successful academically and professionally without developing a whole range of “soft-skills” that help you become a well-rounded scholar, professional. It is by such involvement that you begin to gain social and networking skills for leadership. However, if the idea of social engagement sounds a little daunting to you, then just start by working closely with your professors on top of taking the class and completing the assigned work.

Even if you are still trying to focus on maintaining a certain GPA, you can get “involved” by at least trying to get support from the professor rather than waiting until the deadline and trying to address the challenge without support. Trust me: it is okay to show your ignorance to your professor—he or she is there to guide you after all. You can impress him/her by showing how you learn rather than by pretending that you already know a lot. And trust me, your longer journey toward academic, professional, and community/social engagement could be starting in a great way as you build stronger relationship with your own professors. There is a high correlation between academic success and social involvement because, as I previously mentioned, these two reinforce each other.

Conventionally, there are two things that most people pay attention to when it comes to international students: language and culture. These are the “barriers” they know about and they may unknowingly convince you that you just need to overcome these two in order to be successful. But there is a lot more about becoming a successful scholar in a new environment and getting ready for the professional world within a few years. Get involved in the community within and beyond the campus.

Every university has a diverse range of student organizations, each trying to achieve a special goal by bringing together a certain group of students. Based on what support you need, search from the list of student organizations at your university/college. If you do not find one that caters to your needs or interest, find out how to establish a student organization yourself. Design some programs and seek funding, invite members, you’ll love the process, they’ll thank you and you’ll be noticed. Nothing will go in vain! What you do on campus today will go a long way into your future life and career.

Beyond the classrooms and your professors’ offices and within the campus, there are many opportunities for academic and professional development. Start visiting the Career Development Center early on; they will help you plan and execute a career development plan so that when you graduate you are ready to go on the job market with confidence. Use the library, Writing Center, and other academic services in order to boost your learning. Go to workshops, guest lectures, and other events on campus in order to boost your professional growth. All the above services and events may not seem “necessary” for getting a degree but they will help you learn very important skills and more fully understand the broader context of higher education. They will help you prepare far better for when you graduate than if you limit to being a straight A student.

Among other methods of engagement, volunteering is highly effective in social integration because this also develops a sense of belonging with the community, and thus increases a self-recognition and self-efficacy among students (Manguvo, Whiteney, and Chareka, 2013). These experiences can be extremely useful for international students to thrive in the academic as well as social life.

Talking of student involvement in US universities, there is an old culture of fraternity and sorority-life, which often creates an insider-outsider dichotomy.  Few international students go to these conventional places in order to learn American culture. As far as I know, these organizations may not be the best places for enhancing your academic and professional growth. However, you may want to learn whether these organizations can provide you with opportunities that you can benefit from. The point is to seek out places, events, and people in order to create opportunities for you to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.

Remember that you should not just assume that you are the outsider who needs to learn about the local cultures, institutions, and people. In today’s world, you should go multidirectional rather than unidirectional. For example, many local students are willing to learn about foreign cultures, so you can share your culture with them. Invite them to your cultural organization.

Let me add at this point that conventional views, even research/scholarship, about international students tend to be based on the idea that they are “outsiders” trying to gradually become insiders, or “legitimate” members of the academic, social, professional, and discourse communities here in the US (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This framework has some value, because we do try to learn how to perform like insiders. However, in today’s world, this view can be quite often inaccurate and unproductive. If you think about it, in a globalized world, you could be the “insider” in a variety of ways, as when you are helping local students understand social issues from your part of the world, add a more global perspective on an issue, play the devil’s advocate when local colleagues seem to consider something local as universal, etc. Even academically, you may be an expert in a subject area due to your past education or experience. In all these cases, the insider/outsider model becomes rather problematic. Indeed, one of the purposes that American universities admit international students is for the cultural enrichment of local students. I’m sure you have a considerable amount of knowledge about the world that can help you flip the outsider/insider positions, which will benefit both parties. Try it and you will like it!

But don’t limit your engagement within your department and the campus. Even if you can spare a small amount of time, find ways to engage with people outside campus whenever you can. Meeting people in places such as local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations will help you understand the local society and culture at large. Being connected to local people and understanding their lives and ideas can be extremely helpful in the long run, not only because the education system you are in is “situated” in that larger society but also because you are very likely to start doing your academic and professional work with the people outside the campus.

Whether it is within your department, in the campus community, or with scholars in your field at large, networking is extremely important. Never eat a lunch by yourself. This is what one of my mentors told me years ago and this mantra has proved to be a blessing. On campus, or in a conference, I approach to people, take interest in them, and find connections. You can save time, enjoy conversation, and build networks—while making your lunch taste better!

The main idea I am trying to suggest here is this: develop professionally, and for that, start early, be strategic, take one step at a time, and actively seek opportunities. Start working on your writing skills, both academic and other types. Start working on your presentation skills. Start finding and attending conferences in your field. Start proposing papers to present. Start networking with experts in your field. Start sharing the experience and expertise that you bring from your previous educational/professional career. Never tell yourself that your professional skills—writing, using technologies, communicating, presenting, networking, and so on—are limited “because” you are an international student. Tell yourself that if they are limited it is because, like any other student, you haven’t seriously committed to improving them yet. Start doing what you can. Plan and reach your goals, however small. With the support, resource, and opportunity that you now have—which you can reinforce with your passion and perhaps anxiety—you can turn any deficit into strength very soon. If you only look at the deficits, you’ll dampen your own aspiration. Look at your positive sides—you are resourceful. Dare! You can!

References

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Manguvo, A; Whiteney, S; & Chareka, O. (2013). The Role of Volunteerism on Social Integration and Adaptation of African Students at a Mid-Western University in the United States. Journal of International Students 3 (2), pp. 117-128.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2010). From Theory to Action: Exploring the Institutional Conditions for Student Retention. Smart, J. C. (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, PP 51-89. Springer Netherlands.

Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 671-687.

Embracing challenges with an open mind and striving for work-life balance

Story by

Coralhead

From

Malaysia

Institution

Cornell University

Major/Field

Social Science

Level

Graduate

Graduate school for me was and still is a series of transitions and adaptations on several levels.

First transition was the academic environment: active participation (not just merely attending, although I was a listener for the most part out of shyness) in the department meetings, seminars, and peer review sessions. It took a good year became I felt confident about asking questions and providing feedback. I realized that people are often kind and as long as I applied myself to the problem, the results are usually satisfactory and the interaction was positive.

Second transition was adjusting to the work load that was expected by professors at graduate-level courses and balancing that with the work that goes into writing a dissertation proposal. Whether it was statistics or social science theory or some methods course, there was so much to do and read within a week! My spouse who was a PhD student at the same university advised me that my approach to coursework should not be the same as an undergraduate, meaning that an ‘A’ might not be as important as understanding and applying the concepts needed for my own research. Eventually, after a year I was able to let go a little as I tend to be a perfectionist or wanting to respect the professors teaching the course by doing the work, attending all the classes, being an active participant. I am not suggesting slacking off but to prioritize accordingly because in the end, the coursework is meant to serve a bigger cause – the dissertation research.

Finally, as a graduate student who is also a wife and mother of three young children, my time is a very scarce resource. Precision time management and discipline are prerequisites for making grad and family work. Having a personal life motivates me to strike a balance. Sure, I would love to work all day on geostatistics or understanding the theory of collective action, or work weekends because there is that paper due, but my children are asking me to come play. So work-life balance is essential because graduate life is like a marathon where I try run it at a sustained speed. I hope to reach the finish line in good form and having enjoyed the journey as well.

Two Lessons From My Academic Transition

Story by

Mahyar Ghorbanian

From

Iran

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Graduate

Upon finishing my Bachelor of Science degree in an engineering discipline from my home country, I came to the United States as a young, passionate student to pursue my graduate studies (Masters and Ph.D.) and basically internationalize myself and accredit my academic experience. Below is the story of my experience of improving my English over the course of the more than four years I spent in the United States as a student academically and socially.

As an engineering student, my academic experience did not involve too many writing or speaking exercises with the exception of writing technical papers, preparing manuals and speaking in my presentations at conferences and meetings, which I learned to accomplish over time. The reason for that is because I, as an engineering student, got used to demonstrating my opinion through numbers and formulas. My English was not a barrier as it is for other majors’ students. However, I personally liked to develop my English skills more solidly since knowing more English would help me communicate and present my academic and scientific thoughts better as well as increase my brain capacity intellectually.

I pondered about how to express myself when I wanted to have my first presentation in the first semester I attended here. I then realized in order to communicate in the best way possible, it would be much easier and more coherent to think in English first and then speak rather than think in my first language and then translate. Substituting this process with the old one I had in mind would help diminish the intermediate steps to present my thoughts. I made that my motto and tried to follow it. I confess that this idea helped me to absorb that English is another way of communicating in my unawareness.

However, the above technique did not help to improve my accent. I suppose the accent, which we have when speaking foreign languages, is biological and related to our vocal cords which were formed irreversibly during our childhood and puberty. I imagine human beings’ vocal cords are somewhat like an egg. Once the egg is cooked, we cannot take it back to the state it was before. Therefore, we cannot modify our accent to the point of zeroing it on accurate sounds and tones of a different language.

Once I had the thought process mentioned above embroidered in my mind, I tried to learn more vocabulary and get involved in more technical conversations with my colleagues and started reading technical articles. This process would help to learn different types of grammar and various ways of putting together words to present what is going on in my mind. I also kept in mind that vocabulary is like a fish that is alive in the sea of words. I think everybody has a specific style of writing and presenting his or her ideas, which is unique like his or her fingerprints.

I employed these two rules which I formulated for myself in my mind as the semesters and years passed. As a result, I believe my English skills have improved effectively when I compare them to the time when I just came to the U.S.

Benefits of Discomfort

Story by

Yeongmin Ahn

From

South Korea

Major/Field

Humanities

Level

Undergraduate

Most of us instinctively desire to be in an anxiety-free state, also known as the “comfort zone,” even if we know that getting outside of it is good for intellectual and professional development. There was a moment in the army when I had to come out of my comfort zone. That experience not only challenged me to grow personally but also changed the course and quality of my academic life.

In 2010 I joined the army as a KATUSA. KATUSA stands for Korean army to the United States army. Simply put I was an American soldier under Korean administration. During my service term I had to go attend a class called “Equal Opportunity Leader course.” The class was about discrimination in the army such as abuse of rank, sexual and racial discrimination. Teaching method was a typical American style: open discussions. Individual participation in class also was reflected in the final grade. But the key difference between here and school was that I had no choice but to participate because it was mandatory.

The highlight of this class was giving presentation in front classmates. Each person was given a topic to work on with five day time limit. I had never in my life given a presentation in front of anybody until that point and it was driving me crazy. I had complaints but since it was obligatory, I prepared for my material. It was no easy research to look through huge database finding thesis and data that fit my topic. I personally asked my sergeants and gathered advice from my peers in the class. It was not a material that I could simply extract sitting in a chair. I really had to dive in it.

On the day of presentation when it was finally my turn, I pushed back my anxiety and walked towards the platform. As I stood up in front I felt very nervous but once I started talking, the presentation proceeded smoothly. After five minutes of presentation I received applause from my classmates and shook hands with the instructor. It was an incredible moment filled with pride and joy. Above all, I was extremely satisfied that I had walked out of my comfort zone on my own. This experience was meaningful in a way that it advanced perception of my academic caliber. Due to this incident I learned that I am capable of expanding my limits.

Before I joined the army, my view on my academic experience was not clear. During my first year in SBU I never gave a deep thought about what or why I was studying. I just sat in the class and when I had the chance to participate in sharing ideas I chose not to. Avoiding attentions was one of the reasons that made it hard for me to understand the American way of teaching, the purpose of open discussions. Was studying not sitting on a chair reading and memorizing text? To me, standing in front of people expressing opinions was nonsensical. I had the notion that academic subjects should be approached with the methods that I was used to: reading and understanding, not expressing one’s opinions.

I had been accustomed to the Korean way of studying before I came to the U.S. In Korea from elementary to high school education is vastly similar. The instructor lectures while students take notes and memorize them. During class period there are no presentations or oral discussions but just one sided flow of information. Nobody questions or ponder on why studying should be done that way. Naturally, I accepted that this is how it is done. From that perspective feedbacks in class are unnecessary and a waste of time.

Given that kind of academic background it was a no surprise that I was baffled when I arrived in the States. Professors encouraged students to actively participate to bring out our thoughts and it seemed the students enjoyed it as well. I was at first dissatisfied by the system thinking this was not effective academic learning. I stayed silent most of the time for about a year. I was a passive person and I was comfortable with it. During my time in school I sometimes wondered if I should change my way of studying but I could not really change my attitude. That is until I had one incident in the army.

I returned to school a few months later with different mindset from my first time to school. This time I could more easily participate in class and accept the American way of studying efficiently, expressing my opinion and expanding the spectrum of my academic abilities. The teaching system here was not wrong, it was only different from what I have been used to.

My personal experience might not be a 100 percent academic incident. However, this incident has had an enormous impact in altering my way of learning. Through this event, I have learned that one moment in life experience may shape the rest of your academic career. The KATUSA training course made me a better communicator, and it gave me a whole new perspective and confidence to pursue my university education in a very different and effective way.

The incident taught me not to be afraid of getting thrown into situations but use that chance to expand my limits. Had I insisted on staying in my comfort zone, it would have taken a lot more time to be a successful student in a new environment.

A Transition with very little to complain about

Story by

Ankita

From

India

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

I came to USA to pursue my higher studies in Information Systems. Having studied in India for over 17 years, it was blatant that moving to a new country will demand adjustments. While it was quite upsetting initially, owing to the fact that I was overwhelmed and missed home to pieces, it all eventually seems worthwhile and amazing.

The first extremely exciting thing was the tailor made course structure that felt just right for me. I had an option to choose courses from different departments as long as they all were logical with respect to my course. In India, we follow a fixed pattern of studies. You are required to study and accomplish grades for the subjects given to you. Choosing out of a set of provided courses was never an option. That said, the concept of choosing and registering was new to me. The idea of Core and Fundamental subjects was so different.

At first, I was in a big mess because I had no idea about the fact that class registrations have due dates and they fill up due to limited seats. I hadn’t done any form of registrations before I got here. I thought it was assumed I’ll be allotted a class and subject! After having visited the University a couple of times with all the emails that confused me; I figured I was late with my registrations. Classes were full and my University portal displayed all the courses as ‘Closed’. You could imagine my anxiety now. New place, new academic culture and I have no classes to go to! However, my International Students Department and respective professors helped and guided me through the entire process and now I have the subjects that I desired and in fact am loving the same.

Now, let’s discuss the grading system here, which was quite a change. I was used to attending lectures, studying, learning the theory and giving exams. The university and professors here don’t primarily focus on marks! They’re more inclined to testing your knowledge through practical studies. Class room studies become so much more light and entertaining when you have some creative brainstorming and constant interaction going on. But, this is how I feel now. The initial one month seemed like a nightmare! I found myself with sleepless nights, trying to fish for industry experts, fetching requirements and generating project work through client requests. I thought it’s all about studying and getting marks, but I was so wrong! I was doing research, speaking to industry experts, surveying and concluding my project work!
It took me some time to let it all sink in and understand that this is what I’m required to do and now I consider myself lucky to have gotten used to the drill because this is how real time jobs work.

Some issues I faced were the jargons and pronunciations used here. For example database rows and records are addressed as ‘Tuples’ here, while in India we’d just call them rows. This however is so trivial compared to things like the class size, independent studies under a professor and the concept of On-Campus jobs!

Back in the Indian system, the class is about a hundred students. You can’t really blame the instructor for the neglected attention being paid to half the class. Whilst here, the professor knows exactly what you’re doing and whether or not you’re keeping up! Further, there’s no concept of fetching for On-Campus jobs and Teaching Assistantships (TA). Here, I saw how students worked hard in order to get a job or work under a professor. At first I didn’t figure out how to go about acquiring one. But it wasn’t long until I, got a job on campus. It involved so much running around but in the end, worked out well with immense satisfaction.

On-campus jobs, independent studies under a professor and working with project members from different parts of the world has given me immense exposure and the ability to deal with people. This has resulted in transforming me into a confident and mature individual which brought out the part of me I never thought I possessed.

Learning never stops and till date I’m only getting to know more about this amazing academic system and it’s associated opportunities.

Discipline Required: A Harsh Lesson I Learned

Story by

Rajeev Verma

From

India

Major/Field

Natural Sciences

Level

Graduate

Difference between education system in South Asian countries and educational structure of USA varies greatly. The transition from former to the latter can be overwhelming for students from South Asia. I learned this the hard way when I was enrolled in a Ph.D program with assistantship.

Getting into a US university with assistantship is getting tougher and tougher every year for international students and I considered myself very lucky to get into a reputed school with teaching assistantship. During the orientation, I was told by the Graduate Program Director about the expectations of the graduate school and the department from a graduate student mainly maintaining a Grade Point Average (GPA) above 3.0. In my home country, while pursuing my undergrad I was living with my parents and there was no need for me to work while studying. The exam during my undergraduate study was conducted once at the end of the year. So, all my energy and focus on the course would begin before 3 months from that exam.

It took me a while to understand that the professors here put emphasis on homework, class participation and many other aspects that boost student learning and all of this contributed to the final grade. Besides learning, I had to focus on lab rotations which would later on help me in deciding which lab I should join in for a Ph. D. Due to competition from local and international students, I realized I had to put in extra efforts to impress upon the professors who had research grants. Also, since I was on teaching assistantship (TA) I was also expected fulfill the duties as a TA at least 20 hours a week.

So as a graduate student, I had to work 20 hours a week, research in lab at least 30 hours a week and then put in time to study for 2 graduate level courses. All this overwhelmed me and really shattered my confidence when I failed in 2 of the 3 duties as a graduate student. I immediately met up with one of the professors whose class I was taking and explained to him my situation and he suggested various solutions. In the end I ended up getting a B in his course, but ended up with a C in another and unfortunately that put me in a sticky situation with the department’s requirements of a graduate student.

Now looking back, I realized that when I was pursuing my courses in my undergraduate school I kept things for the last moment and I never really put in any effort to solve the homework then. This eventually flowed into my attitude and behavior while I pursued my studies here. I realized that if I ever have to be successful at any academic or professional level I would have to change myself completely. The change starts with a disciplined lifestyle that includes having a very strict time-table for research, study and work. It is also very important to have made some recreational time for yourself because only studying and pursuing research can affect a person’s ability to deal with stress.

So all in all a very harsh lesson learned indeed.

Be Flexible

Story by

S.B.

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Undergraduate

During the past two years, one thing that I constantly saw was how the American students were so eager to learn new things and explore majors before committing to declare what they want to graduate in. In contrast, when I first came to US, I thought I knew what I wanted to graduate in. I enrolled in major classes and spent as little time as possible in the general education classes required by the university. There were times when I felt I did not like the courses I was taking. But I just dismissed the thought. I never sat down to think about the career I would be pursuing. I was certain I wanted to be an engineer, the dream that my parents had seen for me. I never considered whether or not I could spend my life as an engineer.

Having grown up in a lower class family with parents who struggled to send me and my siblings to school, I had decided I wanted to live their dream. Also as a background, parents in Nepal are proud of children who become doctors or engineers. They are unaware of the other options. Besides, I was not flexible either. Every thought of changing major would be dismissed by all the sacrifices I had made so far. I did not want to reconsider the priorities of my life. I did not want to invest time to figure out what I actually wanted to be. Nevertheless, when I interned for a company a few months ago, I realized I really did not want to become an engineer. It would be wrong to say that the internship made me change my mind. It was just one of the factors that made me THINK for the first time that what I was doing was not meant for me. University is a place to learn and gain knowledge. It is the place that teaches us to understand the world. Different subjects help us see people and things around us with different perspectives. Political Science, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, International Relations and other subjects view people and their relationship with others differently. It is the place that helps us realize that there are all these potential alternatives available in this world to serve the mankind and it is up to us to decide who we want to become and how to serve the society.

It seems to me that too many of us had already made up our minds when we applied to the US university because we all had to in our country. The circumstances could have been different. For some, it was parents’ dreams, for others it was different high school preparation for different majors. Some chose the major because their friends chose it or friends recommended it. For some, the options were very limited that they just had to pick one. It is necessary to understand that US universities have unlimited resources to help us find the right major for us. Some universities have over a hundred majors and more to choose from. So, we should take our time and learn different things to see whether we like them or not. It may not yet be too late to reconsider. For those who are not satisfied with what they are doing, do not hesitate to meet as many people as you can from different educational backgrounds. Also, it is extremely beneficial to stop thinking about those past years. My positive note to that is I am glad I realized my passion now when I still have time to fix things rather than 20 years from now. It would be a nightmare if I had to wonder what I did with my life when I am in my 40s.

I have realized that I did not come to the university to become an engineer or a doctor or a scientist. I came here to learn everything I could besides just graduating in a subject and fighting for a title after graduation. I came here to gain knowledge so that I could figure out my way in this world. So, my advice to everyone is not to focus only on major classes. You might not want to excel in only one field during these four or five years. We might as well learn a variety of things offered by the university. It is definitely important for international students to continue their education in order to maintain visa status. So, I do not mean leaving everything you have been doing so far (if you are unsatisfied with it) and taking a break to rethink about your life. All I meant is taking few extra classes and exploring alternatives before making a choice. Even after making the choice, one should keep an open mind and value different subjects they have to study and make interdisciplinary connections among them. Universities are really flexible in letting one change majors. Be flexible and try to take other classes as well.

Just as stock brokers would say, keep your portfolio as diverse as possible, because having only one kind of stock is risky.

My Challenges Were Not That Severe

Story by

Mitra L. Devkota

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Mathematics

Level

Graduate

A student has to struggle with many difficulties while trying to adjust themselves from one educational system to another. International students studying math are no exception to the challenges. I am giving a rough outline of some of the problems I faced as a mathematics graduate student in the US.

As a mathematics graduate student here in the US, one of the main difficulties I had to face while starting to pursue my graduate study was the difference in the educational system in terms of the use of computer and technology. For example, in my home country Nepal, the traditional way of mathematics teaching was to explain the ways of solving mathematics problems, proving theorems and corollaries, and in most of the cases, memorizing important results, formulas and the theorems. Those problem solving techniques were limited in notebooks and textbooks. In most of the cases, the problems solved in class used to be the potential problems to appear in the examinations. One would succeed well in exams if he/she would be able to memorize problems/ theorems.

When I started my study in the US, I found the way of teaching mathematics totally different from the system explained before. In the US, problems are, of course, solved from the textbooks, and in addition to that, those results are verified/ demonstrated making the use of technology (computer and software programs). For instance, if one had to invert a 3X3 matrix in linear algebra class, the traditional system of teaching this in Nepal is to find a matrix of cofactors, then find adjoint of the matrix, and finally divide the adjoint of the matrix by the determinant of the matrix. In the US, in addition to explaining this way (a long, tedious and time consuming way), students are taught to invert a matrix by using computer software (R, MATLAB, MATHEMATICA, and many others) and graphing calculators. If one has to teach solving a system of simultaneous equations via graph, in Nepalese educational system, we used to find couple of points lying in those lines, plot those lines and the point of intersection would be the solution of the system of the equations. But, in the US, in addition to explaining this concept using this method, lines are plotted in computers, and the point of intersection would be demonstrated making the teaching more practical, interesting and easy for the students to learn.

In addition to the use of computer technology, the other problem faced by international students in the US is the use of different terminology for a given word. This may be because of the different system of English (American English and British English). For example, in Nepal, I learned/ taught that area of a rectangle is the product of its length and the breadth. Here, “breadth” is called “width.” When I used this formula while teaching in the US, my students did not understand what breadth meant. I was surprised to see this as I was using an English word as well. Then, one of the smart students of the class (who seemed to be quite familiar with British as well as American English system) clarified the confusion to the students as well as for me. He explained that in the US, we use width rather than breadth, and that way, the confusion was removed. Similarly, the difference in pronunciation of mathematical terms also created some challenges. For example, in Nepal we learned/ taught that the word equation was pronounced as “ik-wei-sn,” with an “s”-like sound in the middle, but when I used this pronunciation in the US class, my students did not follow me. Later on, I realized that they pronounce it as “ik-wei-jn,” using the sound “j” instead of “s.”

Another difficulty faced by international students in the US is the difference in examination and homework system. In the first assignment of Real Analysis I submitted in the US school, I submitted the whole note book to the professor where the professor had to grade just first two pages in it. He was surprised and asked me why I was handing him the entire notebook, and I was again confused why he was asking me why I am handing him the whole notebook. Then, I saw one of my friends handing in only the two pages as the assignment, and then understood what the problem was.

In the first semester of my US study, probably it was the first week of the class. Professor came to the class and announced that there would be a quiz the following week. I went to the class getting ready for the quiz (assuming that quiz would be similar to the one we had in Nepal, professor divides the class into some groups and asks oral questions to the groups). But when I was waiting for the quiz to start, the professor distributed a set of questions for each student. I was waiting for the group to be formed by the professor, but other students had already started working on their problems on their own, independently. Then, I asked the professor what was going on. He explained how the quiz takes place in the class, and then I was prepared to that system from the following weeks.

These are just some examples of the problems faced by international students, especially mathematics students, in the US educational system. One of the implications of my writing is that in the face of numerous confusions and challenges like these, an international student has to be patient in order to adapt to the new environment. Another implication is that the severity and the complexity of the problems faced by different students could vary, and in my case the challenges were not that big as there could be similarities in mathematics teaching and learning between the two countries. Another reason for my problem being not very serious could be that I came to US with extensive experiences in teaching and learning, which might have helped me in making my transition process smoother. It is also possible that I was a relatively quick learner of the materials and the technology provided by the instructor, so in spite of the initial setback, I quickly started doing well.

Challenges in Learning English

Story by

Moussa Ehsan

From

Iran

Major/Field

Computer Science

Level

Graduate

After finishing my BSc. and MSc. in two prestigious universities in Iran, I decided to continue my education in the US. Since during my masters I had published several academic papers in international conferences and attended a few of them as well, I was fairly confident about my English fluency. However, when I entered the US, I realized that was not the case. I would like to give three examples of the challenges I had when I first entered the US:

1- “Think in English”

When I entered the US, I faced a sever problem: although I was feeling that I am speaking fluently, my audience were not understanding me! The reason was although syntactically I was speaking in English, semantically I was thinking in Farsi. For example, in order to say “I will pick you up” I was saying “I will come after you”. I was not realizing that these two sentences have two different meanings. In short term, I was able to overcome this problem by explaining more. The problem was not as serious when I was talking to non-native speakers; however, native speakers were really getting confused.

The problem was arising even more when I was participating in the class discussions. When the professor was asking a question in the class, I had to spent a few seconds to think about the problem to find the answer but a few minutes to think in Farsi, translate it to English, and then make the sentence! These few minutes were also enough for me to decide not to ask my question from the professor. Therefore, in the first half of my first semester, I was incapable to participate in the class discussions; especially that I had some idea about the discussion.

The same thing had also shown up in my writing assignments. My advisor had to edit my articles, papers or reports significantly. Literally, he re-wrote my first paper completely. I used to hear this sentence a lot from my advisor: “This is not English!”

I have been constantly trying to practice how to think in English. I am seeing significant improvements since then although there is long way to go!

2- Limited Vocabulary

When I write I usually end up repeating a limited set of words and their variations in my essays. This is mainly because the domain of my vocabulary knowledge is limited. The problem was hiding itself more in speaking because the domain of words that I needed to communicate with people seems to be less than what I needed to write.

But how should I widen it? That was a challenging question! I first decided to memorize words. I started with a small (~2000 words) dictionary and had a plan to upgrade to bigger one soon afterwards. But at some moment I realized that it was waste of time, due to two reasons: 1- memorizing the words could help if I did not know the meaning of the words at all. But for most of the words either I knew the meaning, or I could guess it by finding the origin of the word. 2- As I was rarely using the newly-learned words, I forgot most of them after a week or so!

Therefore, I decided to change my tactics. Firstly, I only referred to a dictionary if I could not figure out the meaning of word at all or a specific usage of the word was important for me. Secondly, I only used English-English dictionaries and never translated the word to Farsi anymore. This helped me feel the word in English not Farsi — not to mention it also assisted me to overcome the aforementioned thinking problem! Thirdly, I would also read a few examples of how the word had been used. Therefore, I could memorize usage patterns instead of the words themselves. Fourthly, I started reading English novels. By reading more and more novels, I was observing some new uses of the words that I knew. Fifthly, I tried to practice the words by using them in my writing assignments, normal conversations, etc., as soon as I could. If I had felt that a word is very common, I used it in every other sentence if not every sentence! This was a good practice for me to widen my vocabulary domain.

3- Idioms and proverbs

Quickly, I realized that in some cases, although I understand all the words in a sentence, I do not get the exact meaning the whole sentence or topic. The first reason was that I did not know all usages of those words. But there was also a second reason, people in Long Island tend to use idioms and proverbs a lot which makes it hard for non-native speakers to understand exactly what they mean.

For instance, I remember that one of my instructors told me “It’s a piece of a cake. Go and finish it quickly!”. While I was leaving his office, The first thing that came to my mind was how a cake is related to my project?!

Definitely reading novels and watching movies were two useful ways to overcome this problem. The narrations between different characters in novels and movies usually contain some slang. Also, over time, I learned not to hesitate asking the meaning of a sentence if I do not understand it. At least I ask them to repeat what they said. This helps me distinguish between an idiom and a normal sentence and if learn a new idiom if needed!

My Academic Journey So Far

Story by

Asma Malik

From

Pakistan

Major/Field

Social Science

Level

Undergraduate

It is a fairly safe assumption to make that being an international student is not easy. But for the sake of being unassuming and rigorous, I would like to qualify the statement using my personal experiences of being an international student. I have been in United States for the last 5 years and I can vouch for the fact that this was not an easy journey.

University enrollments have reached saturation point and competition for jobs is fierce. With that as a backdrop, task for a foreign student appears even more daunting. This is further compounded by “cultural shock” caused by drastic differences in what counts as academic knowledge and skills. For all the academic curve balls university has to offer, this radical cultural shift presented me with my greatest challenge immediately after I took a leap across the Atlantic and arrived on American shores.

I come from a conservative country where religion and culture are uniting factors (this can sound like a gross simplification especially considering the sectarian issues that plague my country and eat into the social fabric – but I digress) and therefore being thrown into New York City, a city which is probably the most diverse community in the entire world, felt like a plunge into a pool of ice cold water directly from the cozy warmth of a bed.

As far as academic transition is concerned, the change was no less conspicuous. One specific incident I remember vividly took place in my freshman year: As part of my electives I took a Philosophy course focusing on world religions from a contemporary perspective. In Pakistan, religion is sacrosanct and therefore above reproach but here, I found myself discussing whether religion was dogmatic and overbearing, a necessity that was borne out of an illogical yearning for a more divine purpose of life. This was the core discussion in my first ever lecture and I was invariably asked for my opinion on this topic. My stutters and stumbles not only reflected my discomfort with the English language due to the lack of use but also a far greater and pressing issue: At that moment I realized how far out I was from my comfort zone and decimated my text-book driven approach to academics. The immediate aftermath of this rude awakening was the feeling of having an intellectual void which eventually metamorphosized into a research-oriented approach to studies in general.

Before my previously discussed experience, I thought I can always score good grades if I study and stick to my text books. But when I stepped into the classrooms of this country I realized there is more to academics than a stack of books that you need to throat learn. I began to see things from a more analytical point of view.

I believe that my experience was somewhat symbolic of how international students are torn between not just two cultures but also two very different academic approaches; those tensions can erode away their intellectual confidence that they may have accumulated over the years (certainly true in my case). However, I think that is advantageous for international students to be able to let their minds be awash with diversity, sometimes contradictory, ideas and opinions that open them to a non-axiomatic way of thinking.

Even if your early transitions seemed chaotic and disorienting, you should remember that in hindsight you gain more knowledge and understanding from such challenging situations than from ordinary situations that are in order and under control.