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.

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.

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.

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.