My first year at a glance

Story by

Aahana Bajracharya

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Natural Sciences

Level

Undergraduate

For many people the experience of coming to an American university might have been one of transitioning into a large school environment. It was the opposite for me. Having studied in a large school setting up until the 2nd year in high school and then the remaining 2 years in a small school setting gravitated me to choose a small Liberal Arts college for my undergraduate studies. The concept of a liberal arts education seems to be unheard of in my country Nepal. I received some skeptic remarks regarding my choice of a Liberal Arts College but I’ve come to realize what matters most is the experience that you gain through any opportunity at hand. The decision to come to the United States is a turning point in my life to experience new things, trying out how I would fare in totally abstract concepts and finding something that I see myself building my career in.

While having conversations with my friends in my country, I was often asked, what I would study here but I probably surprised them by saying that I was going to explore. They must have found it weird that I did not have a specific answer. But, the whole point of me choosing a Liberal Arts College was to get a chance to explore the courses that would interest me and make reasoned decisions on choosing a field of study. That is something totally different from the education system in Nepal. Here, I have the option of choosing the subjects of my interest by exploring them not only superficially but through classes. I feel like this option best fit my needs and learning style.

Getting praised for one’s works definitely feels good and thus gives an incentive to do better. I got the appreciation from faculty and fellow friends on the fact that though hailing from a distant part of the world, I did have a fairly good command in their native language and more so had the ability to perform equally well in them. It was encouraging to know that international students have been setting up their mark through their academic performance and so the faculty already has some form of expectation from you. This has turned out to be positive in my case. I got appreciated for my academic performance in the form of honors in being named a President’s Scholar and also went on to become the chapter President of an academic honor society of my class.

Being active outside of class activities might seem to be an extra pursuit but it actually goes along with your studies to make a complete academic experience. I realized this when my Professor wanted to know what else I had been involved in beside my classes while he was to write me a recommendation letter for a campus leadership position. Moreover due to the small student body at my college, activities play an integral part in campus life and even the classes are structured in a way that allows you to incorporate these activities into your schedule. I would not deny that there came a time when I was under the pressure of handling my studies and my academics as I had not anticipated the classes to pick up pace too quickly. But all of these pursuits did teach me the value of managing my time and I’m glad that I learnt this early on.

Opportunities come your way if you seek for it, being involved in activities, trying out classes out of my major, allowed me to know different kinds of people and enhance my social skills. The barrier of culture never again became a problem in communicating my ideas through. I met people who had never heard of my country before and for some it was the first time ever meeting a person from Nepal. But, I’m glad that I get to represent my country here and set an example on their first perspective of a different country. It has been a great year trying new things, experiencing a wide range of activities and finally finding my academic niche on a unique academic discipline of Neuroscience and Applied Mathematics.

Share Your Opinions Freely

Story by

Shrutee Shrestha

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

I read a lot of posts in this website and many people have conveyed the message that it is extremely important to share our opinions. I am reiterating the same message and I can’t help sharing my experiences associated with how that message played a role in my life.

I am a quiet person. I would rather listen to discussions than participate. I take listening as a learning opportunity because it always broadens my knowledge. However, it wasn’t until my third year in college that I realized that sharing my opinion was also another part of the learning process. I spent two years of my college years sitting quietly, observing people, listening to their opinions and critically analyzing such opinions in my head. However, the learning opportunity might have been greater if I had shared those analyses openly and invited more discussions. Besides, it would have helped me make some new friends and lend a hand to my professors who work so hard to make the class participation as lively as possible.

I was aware that I was missing out by just keeping quiet in a corner. But I was not ready to come out of my comfort zone. In addition, I kept shifting the blame to my international background. I convinced myself that I would be a laughing stock in front of the whole class if I answered with my funny accent. Also, I felt that I had no pressure to reply because the teachers know that I cannot speak well and so they would understand. But what I did not realize at that time was I was just making excuses for myself. It had nothing to do with my accent. So many international students participate actively in class. I was just too self conscious and I did not want to reply incorrectly or share an opinion that is too obvious. During my third year, at one point, I got tired of shifting the blame. I realized I was not helping my classmates at all because they never got to learn my perspective on issues discussed in class. Suddenly, I wished I could re-attend all those classes where I could have enriched the learning experience. I remembered my professors looking at me during discussions hoping I would bring different perspectives in classroom because of my background. But they did not want to overwhelm me as well.

So, I wanted to change. I had three years of college left and I wanted to graduate without any regrets. I felt that I have had enough of the quiet time. It was not doing me any good. I had to come out of my comfort zone somehow and learn to share my perspectives without hesitating. During my third year, I took social entrepreneurship class. The entire class had to come up with projects to help third world countries and I was the only student from the third world country. Everyone else was from US. We had real projects with interns, volunteers and funding to help the third world countries. Suddenly, it was a serious business. The interns and volunteers would follow our instructions. When I saw my classmates developing projects assuming the third world countries had facilities that I knew weren’t there, I spoke out and shared my story of growing up in a third world country. I volunteered to develop the initial phase of the project and identify key partners, activities and resources of the third world country and analyze value propositions. The projects took different mode from there and we saved a lot of initial developing costs. I gained more confidence from then on. I soon understood how sharing our opinions help enhance the learning environment in classrooms. The teachers were never looking for one particular (right) answer when they ask questions. They want to encourage students to come up with various kinds of opinions to help us understand how different we all are. They are not trying to test our expertise on anything. They are just trying to teach us to solve problems on our own by listening to everyone around us and respecting everyone’s views. Also, the teachers and students do not care about our accents. They want to know us better. They are just scared that they would overwhelm us if they point us out.

After that day, I was more active in class and I made a lot of friends. My networking grew. My professors recommended me to work on various developmental projects that the university was carrying out in different parts of the world. I was able to use lot of those works in my resume and I had amazing references which even helped me land on my current job. So share your opinions freely. I am pretty sure that you would not miss out on things as I did during my first few years in US university.

Language Transition in the US

Story by

Jing You

From

China

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

Unlike most other students who have shared their stories in this project, I did not come to an American university as an international student. But my experience of becoming a fully functional member of school and society still seems relevant to other students who may come directly into the university here.

I immigrated to the Untied States with my parents when I was 15, so a couple months after I settled down in New York, I was assigned to a nearby high school in Brooklyn, where I used to live. It was pretty tough for me during my first two years in high school because of the language barriers. I was really scared to talk in English in front of people; because of my accent, sometimes I have suffered from being misunderstood and I also have felt the embarrassment over people poking fun of me. It left me with feelings of depression and disappointment. In order to avoid those embarrassing moments, I only joined social activities, parties, and chitchats with Chinese speakers. As a result, my English did not improve at all, specially in communication part. In order to better improve my English, I had also tried several different methods, including memorizing vocabularies from word to word, and this method didn’t work well.

The very first time that I felt obvious improvement in my English was after I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. It was a really small town right next to Ohio, where the majority of people living there are native English speaker. Since there were very tiny amount of Chinese speakers, I was forced to speak English. Every single time when I make purchase, visit doctor office, make transaction in banks, and so on, I had to communicate with others in English, even though I was not willing to do so. Gradually, English become a crucial part of my life, and it become less and less strange to me. As a result, my English, especially in communication skills became much better.

Looking back to those days in Pennsylvania, even though it was very challenging and stressful at the beginning, it helped me a lot to cross the language barriers. I would  suggest other students, who may just came to the Untied States and experience the same language difficulties as I did, that communicating with others in English is an extremely useful and efficient tool to improve English. Talk to others in English as much as you can. You should not wait until you feel competent and comfortable for making the connection with everyone around you. Communicating with your peers and teachers may seem difficult but the sooner you start doing so the better.

My Academic Timeline

Story by

Sagar Parajuli

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Graduate

At some point in my life, my world was my village, my birth place, where I lived with my grandparents. The farthest I could go was a small town, about an hour walk away, where my parents run a small grocery. In the monsoon season, going to that place even was difficult because the stream got flooded and of course there was no bridge. For the farmers, the flooded river was never a barrier because they had to sell their products in the town anyway to make living out of it. They made chain with their hands every morning and that is how they crossed the river while their half body drowned. For a poor child like me, the only option was to wait until the water level in the river receded after monsoon. The wait was worthy because after crossing the river, I could see something fascinating; the moving motors and the lights in the night. If I was lucky, I could even ride a bicycle with my father sitting on the back. Apart from this, I was also fascinated with the neat and clean uniform worn by the students of the school in town. At that time, my dream was to go to that school lying across the river. My dream became a reality later on as I started living with my parents in town.

At a time, when being an engineer itself was considered great success in my society, I finished my engineering education from a renowned institute with full scholarship. That could be the end, but I didn’t stop dreaming. My dream remained much the same when I was a child i.e. to go to a good school, the only difference now was that the school lied across the ocean not across the river.

Following the dream, I started applying to the graduate schools in the US after completing my undergraduate in civil engineering from Nepal in 2007. I had applied to about eight schools in the US in the hope of getting admission with assistantship. In the meantime, while I worked as a civil engineer for the government of Nepal, I explored other opportunities as well and applied to probable funding agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the Japanese Embassy in Nepal, the Nederlands consulate in Nepal and the European Union. Unfortunately, I only got admission without financial aid from the universities in the US. I later realized that there were two reasons for this; one was that my statement of purpose was not very appealing and the second was that my verbal score in GRE was low. But I didn’t give up because I believed that rejections are meant for perfection. Finally I got two opportunities, one from Institute for Water Education (IHE), the Nederlands and another from Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi both with full financial support. I chose Masdar for my Master’s degree because it offered better financial benefits and had collaboration with many US universities including the MIT.

Though I had a sound academic background from my undergraduate study and work experience afterwards, it was not enough to delve into the world of academic research. One of the reasons for this is that the education system in Nepal is focused in theoretical knowledge rather than in practical knowledge and research works. What I learned in Masdar perfectly complimented my background and made myself further qualified that helped me in transiting to the US University. In Masdar, I learned about how research activities are carried in the academia. I learned about how to find journal articles relevant to the particular research and the importance of reading latest research articles. I even got an opportunity to work in one of the key satellite project of NASA, the soil moisture active and passive mission. Another important thing I must mention is that my English writing and speaking skills also improved greatly during my time at Masdar; no doubt it was my first exposure in an English speaking community.

I continued my study at Masdar but never gave up my desire to pursue graduate education from the US. But this time, I only applied to one university in the US but certainly with strong appealing reasons. I was quite hopeful and it was not a surprise for me when I got the offer letter very soon. I can tell that they made the decision not by looking at my GRE or TOEFL score both of which were, in fact, expired. It was the relevance of the research that I was doing and its similarity with what they proposed to do. In this way, the exposure on cutting edge research work and supporting academic activities during my graduate studies at Masdar Institute ultimately laid foundation for my next academic career – PhD in geosciences from the University of Texas at Austin.

The University of Texas at Austin exposed me to another level of academia where I could interact with some of the best scientists in the world. Though this exposure exerted elevated academic pressure on me, I soon realized that it was a good opportunity and was a necessary condition for success. I also learned that there are no shortcuts to success in academia, hard work and dedication are the only keys.

Success is to be measured from the distance we have traveled but it also depends upon from where we started. From where I started as said before, I can tell that I have gone furthest I could go until now.

Learning to study in America

Story by

Sewa Bhattarai

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Sociology & Anthropology

Level

Graduate

I was the kind of person who practiced the adage “leap the bridge when you come to it.” As a result, before going to the US, I had no idea about the methods of studying in the US. I was only focused on the process of going. I had given a cursory glance to the syllabus, but knew nothing more. Which meant I did not know how important homework was.

Like most other Nepali students, I had given up homework and assignments after school level. There was a certain internal marking in the subject that I did my bachelors in, but it was not given much importance. Me and my classmates were used to submitting them at the end of the semester, or sometimes, not at all, depending on the teacher. So, for me, the weekly homework was the most troublesome things at first. I had never bothered to read the syllabus in detail, which listed out clearly how much weight the assignments would carry. I continued to submit my assignments late, and as a result, got low grades in almost every subject I took. Only in the next semester, when I made friends and started talking to them about studies did I realize the importance of assignments. I then found that assignments made up more than half of the grades in some classes, and the final exam made up only a small part of it. Some teachers did not even like to take final exams, instead setting a long “term paper” of equivalent marks. Only then did I start doing my assignments diligently, and the full weight of the American education system fell on me.

Then I had to say bye bye to carefree weekends, and bye bye to promises of “I will study at the finals.” Every week I found myself doing one assignment after another. But the good thing was that, I learnt more these assignments than from all final exams combined. Going through different material every week, analyzing it, and coming up with my opinion about it forced me to think about a concept deeply, which mugging up had never done.

Another issue was attendance. I was used to bunking classes with friends whenever we were in the mood. I initially did the same in my college in the US. Much later I realized that teachers here take attendance more seriously, especially in the master’s level where there are so few students that the teacher knows each one by name and marks every absence. When a student wanted to bunk classes, he or she would talk personally to the teacher, or write in an email to inform the teacher. I did nothing of that sort. Thinking back, I am sure the teachers must have thought I was a very rude student.

I remember one incident clearly of my problems with the American education system. There was a teacher whose accent I was not familiar with and who I had great difficulty understanding. On the eve of the first exam, he apparently told students that they could bring a cheat sheet to class, which they could refer to in the exam. I did not hear any of it. When my classmates began referring to their cheat sheets the next day, I thought it was an open book exam, and I actually brought out my book from the bag and began referring to it. I don’t know, maybe because he knew that I was new, the teacher did not say anything to me as I leafed through the book. Much later, when I talked to my classmates, I realized what had happened, and that incident imprinted the value of networking deeply in my mind. If there was anything I did not understand from the teacher, friends would always be there to help out!

To all new students going to America for further studies, I would like to say that if the first semester confuses you, it is normal. Nothing can prepare you enough for a different country, I myself thought that as a well read person, I was prepared enough, but I was wrong. It was my first semester in America that taught me what I could never have read about it. After that, I found that I was ready for any challenge that the American education system threw at me, because I now knew how to deal with it. Similarly, every person is bound to encounter challenges that no one has recorded before, but time will also teach you the method to deal with it.

From Being a Consumer to a Producer of Knowledge

Story by

Madhav Kafle

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Applied Linguistics

Level

Graduate

Those of us who have crossed seven oceans, as my grandmother would call it, in search of better education and life opportunities and landed in various western countries might not realize at the outset that we too have unique voices and we too create new knowledge in the process of learning. Just that we may not think about our ideas that way. The idea of voice was in fact inconceivable to me even after being academically socialized for about five years in the US. In this brief narrative I will share with you belated (though not irreparably late) realization about participating in knowledge creation as a graduate scholar.

When I enrolled for my masters’ degree at a US university, I was suddenly in a deluge of resources, which I could hardly handle. Back at home, I had a fixed number of “prescribed” books and manuals, and almost no access to research journals. Even though my university’s library had many journals that I could possibly use as reference, they were rather limited, many of them outdated, and none of them essential for getting the degree. Here is the US almost everything published seemed readily available. Not knowing if I could still access them after I graduated, I started piling personal copies of a large number of books, only to realize that there were too many materials to be handled that way. Once I knew the magic of getting almost any article digitally from the library (and the interlibrary loan system), then I became so greedy that I got even more obsessed with compiling digital copies of any material that seemed relevant in some way (including readings on Foucault and Derrida to syntactic structures in Spanish). I was unaware that in a hyper-literate society, one needed to have a skill of analytically evaluating available materials and then selecting only the most relevant ones as per one’s research (or call them life) interests. I gradually started realizing that I not only needed a lot more skills with finding, evaluating, organizing (rather than piling), and focusing on highly relevant material but also the ability to develop my own ideas and use those sources for advancing my ideas.

Even when I started my doctoral study, I often went back to the old habit of spending too much time and energy in finding and compiling resources, and at times feel paralyzed with the things I’ve collected. Only as I move toward completing my studies, I think I’ve graduated from the amateurish collection of the hodgepodge and learned to be much more canny and judicious about managing existing knowledge toward developing my own ideas.

The first few years of my graduate studies, I used to tell myself that I need to first get a good handle of the existing knowledge and only then I can start thinking about how to contribute to the field. But since this is an almost always impossible aim, I was never able to catch up with the scholarship in different areas I was interested in and thus come out of the abyss of omni-ignorance. I was just being a dilettante, which is not necessarily bad but given the current focus on specialization it is not unusual to get lost in the maze of intellectual resources. Had there been a space where I could turn to when needed, or had I been involved in the active collaboration earlier, my course of graduate study would have been totally different. I would have known how to do a selective reading, how to take and organize notes, and how to keep doggedly pursuing a topic irrespective of the actual realization of the depth I was in (no sarcasm intended). I would have figured out earlier how to negotiate the system better and earlier. But as it is said, better late than never.

Another ill-conceived idea about learning and knowledge that I took time to discard was what constitutes knowledge. As someone who grew up in the South Asian culture of Nepal, when I was a student I was only a student, and when I was a teacher I was only a teacher. My mind must have been mapped with mono-focus frame. In the US, I was expected to juggle at least three balls simultaneously: student/learner, teacher, and researcher/scholar. And all the balls seem to have their roles in the process of knowledge creation directly or indirectly. I’m not saying that I got this revelation straight from day one. In fact, I thought in the beginning that US had a quite liberal culture of assessing learner performance but only to find that I was wrong as assesment works in very subtle ways. In Nepal assessment was explicit and ranking the students from a class was the norm and it mainly meant computing the numerical scores students earned in a handful of exams. As in most of my courses, I kept thinking I was fine and did not worry about improving the general approach I took about learning and intellectual development. It took me several years to realize that only getting As was a sort of a feel good for nothing approach. Multiple other things were necessary in the broader “academic socialization,” which one might have to figure out on one’s own. One of those other critical needs for a graduate scholar was to find a voice and start making a splash in the field. There is no need to wait until one learns everything about one’s specialization before one starts speaking up.

Another mistake that held me back for very long was that I think I continued to buy into the misconception that “anything western” is inherently superior to what I knew about the same issues of my specialization that I had learned in a different country and my direct experiences and ideas about the issues. I kept my mouth shut and refrained from taking part in what seemed to be a mad race of winning the game in the class discussions. I opted for the suppression of my own voice. It was hard for me to fathom that I could be one of the persons sharing the ideas with others at a professional level. While reviewing what experts have said seemed easier to me, the step of telling what is missing from the equation was a daunting task. How could I possibly know that some scholarly articles that I have not already managed to read have not dealt with what I think is missing? Alternatively, what if I had misread the article? While it is still hard to transcend the “graduate student mode” now I’ve come to realize that those of us who have come from far away (or now close) world should learn not to undermine our own perspectives and double visions. If I somehow sound arrogant, I would love to hear other international students’ and scholars’ thoughts. Collaboration and sharing ideas play a key role in the process of academic socialization. I hope that the conversations that happen through this project will help us learn a lot from one another’s experiences.

And I hope that you will remember this: “YOU too can be a Knowledge Creator while still learning the ropes of your field!”

From “Journal Writing” to Writing “Journal Articles”

Story by

Bal Krishna Sharma

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Applied Linguistics

Level

Graduate

In my earlier story, I shared the experience of my initial days of learning to write academic assignments in my university in the US. In this one, I will share how I started getting published in refereed journals in my field– applied linguistics. Getting published in academic journals was an easy thing in Nepal, my home country. We did not have a peer review system for an ELT journal in Nepal until around 2005. I would send an article draft; if the content seemed okay, the editors or the chief editor would fix minor language flaws and stylistic errors, and publish my manuscript. After I spent my first year in my new university in the US, I came to know that there were actually “rules” and established conventions of academic writing. I found that there were textbooks and other resources for learning and teaching academic writing. Learning these rules helped for my academic transition better, but contradicted with my previous experience of publishing academic articles. I now realized that getting published in the Western academic world, particularly in the refereed journals, seemed to be a huge challenge. I was shocked to find out that prestigious journals only publish a small fraction of the articles that they receive.

But as a Ph. D.-minded graduate student, I wanted to get published. I learned that publication is important not only to get noticed by the professors in my department but also to meet the competitive demands of the job market. I now have the following types of publications published in some prestigious venues. I share my own experiences and also provide some useful advice to other international graduate students.

Book review: Some professors warn that writing a book review is a daunting and often risky academic endeavor since good book reviews go beyond summaries but succinctly evaluate and articulate the strengths and weakness of the book or book chapters. Book length monographs or edited book volumes are written or edited by authors who have an expertise in the topic they write. As a result, graduate students have a hard time to write good book reviews. I, however, would encourage my fellow graduate students to go ahead and publish book reviews for several good reasons. I have published reviews of four different books in four different journals. First two of these reviews were first written for my graduate courses. I first had a peer review from my classmates, and then had feedback, often two rounds of it, from my professors before I submitted to the journal. In all four cases, book review editors helped me not only to better organize draft, but also provided specific questions and comments to revisit the reviewed book and writing and address some important issues. For example, for my review submitted in Journal of Academic Writing, the book review editor asked me “since this is an a co-authored book by three writers, do they make their stances and voices explicit?”, “are the chapters well-balanced?”, etc. For another book review submitted for TESL-EJ, the review editor commented that I was unnecessarily critical, highlighted only the weakness but missed some important strengths. Thus, to in my experience, writing and publishing a book review was never a single-author project, but, in an indirect way, was a collaborative process. I learned how to write good summaries and how to balance book’s strengths and weaknesses in my writing. I had to go through several drafts, editing and revisions. I had things taken away, added on and expanded on to my initial drafts. Although book reviews are smaller projects than the journal articles, they nevertheless gave me a wonderful experience of the publication process. So, writing book reviews was a low stake way to start getting published.

Journal article: Many professors suggest that graduate students can start publishing articles by developing their ideas from MA thesis or equivalent research reports and seminar/term papers. For my MA, I wrote a research paper as part of my research requirement. My professor suggested that I write the research paper in the format of an article to be submitted to a journal. She also told me that Classroom Discourse was looking for manuscripts for its new volume. I wrote my MA research paper in the format of the manuscript required for the journal. I learned that professors are a good source of information regarding where to send the manuscript and whether my research paper has a potential for publication. Another article that I published was in Linguistics and Education. I developed my article from one of my seminar term papers. Here again, I first went through several revisions based on my professor’s feedback. First I submitted to a different journal. Three anonymous reviewers reviewed my paper with their ‘revise and resubmit’ decision. Rather than resubmitting to the same journal, I submitted it to a different journal. The manuscript was finally published to the latter journal with very few changes. Other opportunities for publication are symposiums/ colloquia/ panels at conferences. Panel organizers may work on a journal special issue. I just turned in my manuscript for Discourse, Media and Context for a special issue on the theme of ‘superdiversity and digital literacy practices’ to be published in April 2014. This special issue will be a collection of articles that developed from Sociolinguistics Symposium in Germany in 2012. So, again, even while you are a graduate student, if you can use effective strategies and get the right type of support from your mentors, you can (and should) start trying to publish standard journal articles. The worst that will happen if your attempts fail is that you will learn how to write and how to go about getting your work published.

Book chapter: I have published one co-authored book chapter with a graduate student who worked at a different university in the US. This colleague told me that his professor was planning to publish an edited book volume on the theme of ‘digital literacy across cultures’. We wrote an ambitious proposal. We proposed that we would tell unique and very different narratives of literacy practices by colleague youth in Nepal. It was my first co-authored piece. Co-authoring is a wonderful experience. There were a lot of differences in opinions and negotiations in framing and writing up the chapter. I learned how to negotiate voice and content in collaborative writing projects. I learned that academic writing is not only an individual, cognitive process, but a social and collaborative process. I also think that it looks good in my CV when I have a co-authored publication. Collaborating with other scholars can be another way of getting over the hesitation of trying to publish your work, and this can be particularly helpful for international graduate students.

It is not unusual that graduate students, particularly doctoral students, want to get published before they go on the job market. I am also planning to do that. The first thing is to have a motivation and passion to write for publication. I know that getting your work published is not a one-shot activity, but a long, arduous project consisting of multiple stages of revisions. Potential authors have to be ready for ‘rejection’ letters from the journal editors. It’s so natural. It is not unusual that even senior professors’ manuscripts get rejected. I often consult my professors regarding whether my paper is publishable, possible publication venues for it, and sometimes ask if my professors can go through my drafts.

The most important tip I would offer to other international students—because we tend to struggle with the lack of time more than local students do—is that you should try to write research papers for class considering how you can further develop into publishable material. As a doctoral student taking several graduate level courses, I never had the time to write ‘separate’ manuscripts for publication; all of my published articles were developed from my course papers in one way or another.

Public Speaking

Story by

Tanzeem Choudhury

From

Bangladesh

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

One week before I wrote this story, I delivered the commencement speech for the business school at a prestigious university in front of a large audience. I think it went really well, at least in comparison to how well I did in my first classroom presentations as an international student just a four years ago.

In my second semester, I took a geology class with concentration on natural resources. Its final project was to choose an energy topic (e.g. oil, gas, hydropower etc.) and to present their applications, advantages and disadvantages to the class, followed by a question and answer session. The instructor hinted us that he would be grading on the quality of presentation and the interaction as well, besides the validity of information in the presentation.

It was going to be my first time taking part in a public/ classroom speech in front of a group of students. I did perform in public before, but that was limited to Koran recitations in my home country when I was younger. Hence, I did some practice runs and the results were not encouraging at all. I was either speaking out of memorization like a parrot, or losing a hold of my speech when I looked at the crowd in order to be interactive. Based on the practice, I was horrified. I did not know what to do, and I did not know how to curb the fear of failure that was building up inside me with each failed attempt.

I researched the Internet and talked to my mentors for advice. Finally, I found some of my pressure points that gave me some relief before the speech.

First, I talked to my professor before the speech. I went to his office hours, exchanged experiences and views. After all, he would be my main audience and I was going to mainly address my presentation to him. Hence, knowing that he had confidence in me helped a lot.

Second, music gave me a burst of energy before the presentation. Music works my soul and polishes my brain. Listening to motivational tracks like ‘eye of the tiger’ makes me fired up for at least the 10 minutes of the presentation, if not more that that.

Finally, I reminded myself that I had nothing to lose. I looked at the harsh reality that I was a nobody in that class. Nobody knew me, I didn’t have to be the smartest person in the room, I had no reputation and certainly did not have a dignified accent. When there’s nothing at stake, it is just worth trying for the fun/ heat of the moment. These three pressure points helped me to do well in that presentation. In fact, they have helped me to do well in every presentation after that.

Back to my graduation, as I walked down the stage after giving the commencement speech, I thought about that first, terrified attempt to speak in front of my geology class. As we work to make ourselves better for the future, I thought we often forget where we started and how much progress we have made. If we recognize the distance we have travelled, we students can be more inspired and optimistic about the future. Even international students who are scared to death as a class presentation is approaching can be.

Write Like a Bee

Story by

Uttam Gaulee

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Higher Ed Admin & Policy

Level

Graduate

Thank you if you read my other story titled “Read Like a Butterfly.” If you did, yes, you’re right, it was not just reading that was challenging when I first joined a U.S. university. Writing was even more so because in the academic culture where I come from, writing was just an annual ordeal. What happened back in South Asia (please do not generalize though) is you only wrote during the final examinations (once a year!). You would neither know who would read your papers nor would you get any feedback. You just got a grade—actually, not even a grade, but “marks” starting from zero, so most students got below 60 out of 100 points.

Doing it only for extremely high-stakes exams made writing the most absurd activity in itself because it was done just to “pass” an examination. You never found out what worked and how to do better next time. It also made writing an act of adventure, but a terrifying and stressful one. If you’re lucky, you pass; if someone didn’t understand your style, you were doomed to failure—and often, even talented students failed. I always felt pity about one of my friends, who often had great ideas and wonderful logical framework in his papers, but unfortunately he failed almost every exam (at least his first attempt) because he had a bad handwriting!

So, most of my previous experiences made writing feel like something to be avoided whenever possible, rather than a part of the learning process, a practical skill that I would want to develop for academic and professional growth. Taking great risks once a year and waiting for months for the results didn’t prepare me at all to do a completely different type of high-stakes writing in graduate school in the U.S.

Once in the U.S., I had to write several papers for every course every semester—not just once a year! Hmm… what did that mean? Well, it was first very, very difficult to start writing. I would often wait for a great idea or vision to begin writing with. When I had to write, due to the pressure of the deadline, I would hysterically write something, but the product would not be as good as I would love to see as my final piece. Since the deadline would be right under the neck, I would have to submit what I had, and, hope for the best. I felt like writing perhaps was not for me! It appeared like I might not be able to continue my graduate journey any longer. But no! That was not an option at this point. I had to do something.

What I did is I took chunks of texts from a few articles from the internet and put them together as my paper. While this looked like a last straw at this critical moment, my inner self was not happy at all. I did have the paper ready but is it going to work? I knew it’s not going to work for two reasons. First, this is just the beginning of my graduate schooling. And second, I wouldn’t be happy even if I completed my degree this by compromising with my own values. Above all, my goal is ambitious—I want to become a researcher in the field of global higher education. I would rather decide to give up than submitting the plagiarized paper. I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept looking for options. There was only one option left–-writing center. I had heard about it but had always thought that it was for the undergrads. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to tell them I needed help with my writing? Graduate student, I am! But my conscience said, “You’re here to learn after all, Tom! Go ahead and try everything that is at your disposal.” I checked online. Yes! The writing center website said it was not only for graduate students but also for faculty! Cool! I went to bed at 6.00 am after setting an appointment to writing center via the online appointment system.

A sweet lady greeted me at the writing center at 11.00 am that day. I now forget her name but the meaning of her name had something to do with flowers.

“What brings you here today?” asked she. I was a bit nervous and felt awkward and tense as it was hard to say, but she was welcoming.

“I am not happy with my paper,” I handed over the 10-page paper to her. She took a couple minutes to skim over the paper, while I waited for her to get mad at me and probably tell me how foolish I am.

“It looks fine. Why are you not happy?”

“It is only the first two pages that I wrote myself. Rest is copy-pasted from other articles.”

“Okay in that case, I know what you need.” She stood up and went away.

I had no clue whether she was going to call the police, or to bring something to help me (hopefully). My second guess was right. “Here,” she handed me a few green pages neatly stapled together.

“This is a copy of a book chapter. It gives examples on using quoted materials. Using others’ works for your own work is okay. The only thing is, you need to cite properly. This chapter tells you how to do that. Read this at home. But for now I want to you to do something.”

She wanted me to mark whether I agreed, disagreed, or partially agreed with the ideas of all the authors (other than my own ideas) on the paper.

I quickly did so, while she read the first two pages that I had written myself.

“You don’t have any problem in the sentence level,” she said.

“I know how to write a sentence. I have been an English teacher! But the problem is I am not a good writer!” I said under the breath.

“Did you say something?”

“Yes, I said I am not a good writer,” I articulated this for her.

“Well, you can be a good writer. You just need to work on organization and flow of your writing. I have some great tools for you to use. But you need to set another appointment. We’re out of time.”

“Really? But I have my assignment due tomorrow!”

“What? You cannot finish by tomorrow. Ask for an extension, make an excuse! See you in the next appointment!”

Since I felt like I was pretty much on track, I didn’t make excuse. I honestly talked to my professor and told him that I needed an extension. I explained that I had found some good sources lately and that I wanted to write my paper really well. My professor agreed. I got a week’s extension.

I set several appointments with the sweet lady. She gave me one lesson at a time. She gave me lots of photocopied materials to use as reference while writing. Most useful was the list of transition words grouped into several categories such as agreement, opposition, limitation, contradiction, cause, condition, example, emphasis, consequence, conclusion, etc. She also gave me resources and walked me through the process of making an outline and mind-map, showed me how to divide the whole assignment into several parts so that I could work on one part each day. She also gave some practical suggestions such as having another “pair of eyes” to read before you turn in your paper. I jokingly asked how to find a pair of eyes and she also jokingly said, “Go to a church!” That suggestion worked well too. I found a substitute teacher, who agreed to go over my writing to make sure everything I wrote made sense. She would mark if something didn’t and I would rewrite that part. I also reciprocated by helping her with her project report.

Along the way, I learned that writing is not a one-shot enterprise. Writing becomes better and better with every revision and with revision comes a clearer vision! So it is extremely important to set aside regular chunks of time dedicated for writing and then write regularly. I learned not to worry about clarity, grammar, or even ideas while writing the first draft. The key was to revisit the drafts and edit for improving clarity, correctness, flow, and organization. If this sounds familiar to you, you’re lucky! You probably had good teachers who guided you to become a good writer. I did have a wonderful teacher who taught a course on “reading and writing” back home. But what he called reading and writing techniques was actually the “definition” reading and writing. That was pretty much about it.

My experience with writing had kept me away from realizing that writing is a regular activity, a habit, a regular recurrence. Realizing this made me think differently about myself. Whereas I used to think I am not made of the writer-clay, it was liberating to learn that good writing is an outcome of several steps. It is a persistent enterprise like that of a bee’s work. I did have to struggle to find myself in the writing regime. But I did crack the code: What I was doing wrong was that I was handling reading and writing in a wrong way—I was reading like a bee and writing like a butterfly.

What does a butterfly do actually? It dilly-dallies on the flowers that it finds nectar in. Reading is like that – enjoy what you like. But when it comes to writing, you have to act like a bee! As I enjoyed the taste of a good reading, it would also give me an inkling of how I would write something similar myself. I started collecting my favorite words, phrases, expressions, structures, etc. to fit them into my own writing as a bee collects nectar from various flowers and brings back bits and trickles into its honeycomb. With some practice, reading about writing, and imitating the styles of writers I read, I was gradually able to get myself into the regime of writing. I no longer hated my own writing. Though I did not start loving my own writing very soon, learning one strategy after another started giving me a sense that I was moving away from the great impediments that I experienced initially. I started hearing appreciation from my professor about my “good” writing. A shocking sense of joy hit me when I received a strange request from an American colleague before I completed my master’s degree and joined the doctoral program: “Tom, can you review my paper? I love the way you write.”

To cut a long story short, now that I know the nature of the beast, I just “write like a bee.” I focus on details, return to drafts, and take small steps to continue improving it—laboriously and carefully. Yes, there is a lot of labor involved in it, but what has now changed is the feeling that sustains along the process—a tinge of joy.

Read Like a Butterfly

Story by

Uttam Gaulee

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Higher Ed Admin & Policy

Level

Graduate

It took me quite some time to figure out the right way of handling reading when I first joined a graduate program at a US university. Due to the academic culture I came from, I was used to reading like a bee rather than a butterfly. And this created a huge challenge.

In the first semester of my academic year in the US, I was simply overwhelmed by the amount of readings assigned. Because English was not my native language, I was only used to doing intensive reading, focusing on each sentence and often stopping to look up meanings of unfamiliar words. It was simply not possible to finish even half of the readings assigned, so I frantically flipped pages as the time to go to class approached. Then in the class, I often had to pretend that I had read everything but in fact in some of the cases I could read only 10% of the assigned reading. I often felt awkward because this acting wouldn’t always be successful.

For the entire first semester, I only contemplated on how to smartly pretend to have read everything by strategically jumping in (participate) when the professor is talking about the portion of readings that I was able to cover and keep silent or look other way when he was talking about other stuff that I didn’t manage to read. I would hope that other colleagues in the class would discuss and I would probably understand what the rest of the reading was. I would definitely catch up something from listening to others but result of this strategy was paltry.

Also, since I knew that I hadn’t completed my work, I felt inferior to my own colleagues, and even worse, I couldn’t concentrate in reading whatever I was reading. I would be worried about what I was going to miss in the reading. Hence, I couldn’t even enjoy the part of the reading that I could comfortably cover. That semester was horrible!

Once the semester ended somehow and I completed all assignments, I decided to utilize my free time before the start of another semester to find a solution to my problem. During that time, I tried to do some research on how to improve my reading skills and speed. Fortunately, I found many resources including texts, presentations, and even videos put up by the university to address such problems. From those videos, the first thing I found most satisfying was that I was not alone! They talked about statistics that showed that a fair number of students suffered from the lack of apt reading techniques and often stumble along the way. So they had prepared such presentations to address these issues. I felt good—I was not alone. Well, what then? Another important lesson that stuck to me from one of those vides was: “be here now!” This meant that I should divide the chunks of reading and plan ahead when to read what. That helped me concentrate on what I was reading at the moment and not worry about missing other things. Also, while reading, there is a lot which we can strategically skim, or just skip. Even more important was having a cursory look at all the readings assigned for the week and then trying to find the connections or relationships between them.

Once the “big picture” of the readings came to mind, it became much easier to decide what to focus on or what to strategically skim or skip. This was immensely helpful. Thus, I quickly began to learn the tricks of dealing with the readings. I started learning exactly what they meant by “read like a butterfly” (i.e. pick and choose, then focus on what is necessary or useful!). I will share my experience of learning to write better in another post.