Paying Attention to Detail

Story by

Shailendra Gyawali

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Undergraduate

One thing that I’ve always found intriguing as an international student is how absolutely important even the smallest of things can be for us, especially when we are new to the American university. Local students will certainly face many of the same challenges that I faced as someone coming from the other side of the world, but I thought there were too many things, including the too small things, that were at first very challenging to me. Let me describe a few.

Finding the right building and the right classroom was a big deal at first. The day I joined a college in the US, September 4, 2007, was a very exciting and important day in my life. When I entered main gate, I felt minuscule compared to massive buildings around me. Each department had its own building and I was looking for the Mathematics department. I did have a detailed pocket map of the college that was given out at the orientation program, but even after I located the correct building, I was still lost. A student nearby looked at my desperate face and asked if I needed any help. I said yes, but when trying to describe the help I needed, I had to repeat myself several times because she couldn’t understand my accent. Finally, she understood me and took me to the right classroom, even though she was running late for class herself.

The next challenge was understanding the details about a course. The first week of class, I found it very interesting—and this time, it was also very useful rather than confusing—that each of my professors handed out a “syllabus” that contained a lot of detail about the course. Most of the professors talked the entire 45 minutes about the syllabus and course outline. For the local students, much of the details of the syllabus may have been obvious or just a formality that the professor includes in the document, but for me syllabuses were an absolute blessing. They worked even better than the campus map I had the first day of class because they provided a concrete timeline, distribution of credit points, and description of the work to be done. For me, the syllabus was like a reference book. Without the detailed syllabuses and schedules, I would be lost, and I might not have become the successful student as quickly as I did. I was astonished and grateful to realize how helpful the syllabuses and schedules were. I had never seen something like this in my life before. The well-organized course outline and dedication shown by professors helped to overcome my apprehension of studying in a different academic system.

Moving on to the many and mostly new academic activities, I was at first overwhelmed by large assignments. Because in my previous academic training back in South Asia, I had never learned how to read, write, or research in the way that was being demanded here in the US. So, even a five or seven page paper was overwhelming for me. In most of the courses, I could handle the content itself, but when it came to the skills for researching, reading and writing, it felt like I lacked basic skills. I could not find the right references because I didn’t have research skills. I couldn’t read enough materials because my reading was slow and incompetent. And I couldn’t write well because I didn’t know where to start or how to develop my own ideas, because I had not learned how to write. Back in my home country, I never wrote or learned to write as a part of education. Writing was only required for taking final exams, and that did not help me develop writing skills. I answered questions and didn’t remember anything that I wrote. I never did any research or wrote anything extensively.

But, again, as a new student in the US, I gradually started being able to tackle the big challenges by paying attention to tiny details. I read the assignments very carefully and underlined the words I didn’t understand. I made appointments with tutors at the Writing Center to get their help with writing. Soon, I realized that everything was more systematic here. There was more support and people were willing to help. I could take small steps for making bigger achievements. I actually liked the academic system and environment here.

As I paid attention to and learned one small detail after another, I soon began to feel that I was headed in right direction of learning and I was a step closer in the process immersing myself in another world of knowledge and deepening my personal and academic understanding of science. If you are a new international student, I would reassure you that if you pay attention to small details, you will soon begin to gain confidence. You should take in the experience of studying in a different country and academic environment with interest to the little daily things. If you are serious and interested, your understanding will begin to make you no different than anyone and perhaps better than the average student.

So, my best lesson learned as an international student in the US was perhaps this: pay attention to detail.

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.

Believe in Yourself

Story by

Yimo

From

China

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

“Well, let us do the presentation next class, and this is our first time to do it. The topic is to talk about a kind of disability. Please be careful.”

When I heard this instruction, I felt nervous. What kind of disabilities did I need to choose? How could I do that? I asked myself. This was my first time to give a speech in the IEC class which was taught to international students. I had no idea how to speak and how to prepare it. When I studied in China, I had never done the presentation in the class. We focused on writing and reading in China, and we spent a lot of time preparing for the written exam. Therefore, Chinese teachers didn’t pay attention to our speaking abilities and listening skills. That is why I felt anxious when I heard that I would do the presentation in the front of the class.

Because the presentation was due in two days, I lose my confidence. I sat down to write the draft but I had no thoughts and ideas to complete it. However, what I needed was not just ideas but spiritual support. So, I called my mother. She told me that I could’t sit still, and I needed to do something. Furthermore, she said that I could not give up and I could not do something before I tried it. After I talked to my mom, I also decided to send an Email to my teacher for help. Several years later, she responded to me and gave me some suggestions, such as: relaxing myself, writing down what I thought and organizing my thoughts. I just followed her instructions. Then, I collected and selected my information about disability. Two days later, I had prepared my presentation completely. In the class, although I was still nervous because of my poor pronunciation, I was full of self-confidence about my presentation details. Along with music, I used my computer to show some pictures about my topic. Finally,I did my presentation successfully. This experience showed me that to be academically successful, students need to believe in themselves. They need to know where to get the emotional and spiritual support, as well as academic help, when they need to regain their self-confidence.

From my experience, I learned that you can’t go on well in life until you let your past failures and heart aches go off. Because of cultural differences and languages, I always lose myself in academic life. However, I found my spiritual support, namely my mom and my teacher. They gave me encourage. Therefore, believe in yourself as a light to illuminate my life, gives me self-confidence.
Believing in yourself is also useful in other academic aspects. There is another experience that I had in the US which cannot forget. This involved finding my own voice. One year ago, I took an economics class. When the professor asked some questions in that class, everyone could answer the question at anytime. They just wanted to show what they thought and what ideas that they had. As for me, I was shy. I did not like to answer in class, because I had never done so in China. In addition, I was an international student. I always acted as a listener in each class. Not only was my habit, but also my spoken English was not very fluent. In this situation, I had no self-confidence to answer the questions by myself.

Once, my professor asked a question about the Chinese economy. All students in the class did not know the answer except me. For that question, I knew the exact answer, but I could not speak fluently, so I just said a key word in a low voice. At that time, the professor heard my voice, and he point at me and wanted me to speak loudly. Suddenly, my face went red when all the classmate looked at me. Actually, I felt a little afraid. “No, you have to stand up, this is a good opportunity to build yourself.” I told to myself. Although I had no confidence, I had to overcome this difficulty. Therefore, I just said clearly what I knew. After my answer, my professor gave me applause. I knew he wanted to encourage me to take part in the class, and practice expressing my own opinion. I was also quite pleased with myself. After this experience, I changed my habit and tried to answer more. I tried my best to answer questions that were asked by my professor, and I attempted to discuss with other American students. After that, I found that my spoken English had an obvious progress. Once I was able to find my own voice, my self-confidence greatly increased.

Both those experience were memorable for me. Although I was shy to speak my opinions, I changed myself and practiced to speak a lot. Because of my professor’s praise, I became more and more self-confidence. Although my spoken English was not fluent, I believed that I could speak quickly and clearly likes other Americans through my exercises. In China, I developed a bad habit that I never stated my own opinion in the class. However, I challenged this bad habit after taking this economics class.

In America, I became more and more self-confident when I gave a speech or communicated with others to regain my confidence. Although I faced many obstacles here, I tried my best to overcome the challenges. These difficulties would improve my abilities in many ways. In addition, being a listener is a way to improve myself. However, being a speaker is a good way to collaboratively study with your classmates, and this is important part in our academic life. Furthermore, finding spiritual support helpful, but we still have to learn how to become independent. A part of self-confidence comes from finding a supporter.

Especially, for international students, we have to learn that nobody can helps us, we need to do everything by ourselves and believe in ourselves. Spiritual support that others give, helps me to gain the self-confidence that I need to become more independent. All in all, I think that no matter how terrible problems we face are, we need to believe in ourselves. This is the most important lesson of my academic study in the United States.

Plagiarism: A Constant Challenge

Story by

Rajeev Verma

From

India

Major/Field

Natural Sciences

Level

Graduate

With the difference in implementation of education in Asia and USA, it takes an international student a while to realize the education system. It also involves a bigger effort that is required to bring in a change of habit to adjust to the difference in the system.

Where I pursued my undergraduate study, plagiarism was not encouraged but it was not really punished. Since the exams were conducted only once a year and the homework was not really good enough to judge if plagiarism has occurred, students used to copy down notes from peers, seniors and from solution manuals. This useful ‘trick’ was advised by seniors and similarly I also advised the same to my juniors.

When I reached the US, during my graduate school orientation I was made to take a test on plagiarism which tested me on various levels and instances where I as a graduate student and a teaching assistant can identify that plagiarism has occurred. The exam was tougher than I thought because it was hard for me to identify instances which can be considered as plagiarism. It was then I realized that rote writing or even speaking without reference and quotations was a serious offense in US academia.

Following this, I was assigned scholarship in the form of teaching assistantship (TA). My instructor for the course gave me the access to software that recognizes plagiarism if and when an undergraduate student submits an assignment online. The software then scans the content available online as well as assignments submitted in the past the software then and present. It then gives the percent of content that has been plagiarized in that particular document. Anything below 15% is considered to be safe and is usually class average for every assignment.

My university is known for diversity and has lot of transfer student from Asia. While grading for the course I realized that many transfer students had submitted assignments that showed plagiarism rising more than 25 percent which was well above the restricted number. I knew that the students were exceptional when they performed in the lab but didn’t actually realize when they plagiarized while submitting the assignment.

I understood that something as serious as this this would really create a lot of problem for them and might put their future in jeopardy. I personally met up with them during my office hours and explained them the seriousness of their mistake. I explained to them that copy and pasting from a website should be strictly avoided and told them to paraphrase the statements followed by referencing it at the bottom of the document. I was really happy that they heard me out because since that meet up they were really careful in their assignments. What made me happier is that it’s been almost a year since that incident and my students still email me about how my meet up was really helpful to them in other courses as well.

My motivation to help them out was purely due to the fact that it could have been me (if I had been transferred from to an undergraduate school) at that moment and that incident could have ruined my future.

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.