Let Your Voice be Heard

Story by

VY Jiang

From

China

Major/Field

Level

Undergraduate

Imagine if you showed up on the first day of class and everyone thought they already knew you. With one look at you, your classmates seem to guess that you are an engineering student, that you are not good at sports, and that a hoard of people that just like you is about to burst in and start babbling in a language that your classmate do not understand. And the domestic students and international students do not interact a lot. This was what my first day was like as an Asian international student.

If you are thinking about one of these students, then you are not thinking about me. Unlike the stereotyped Asian who is quiet and shy, I am outgoing and enjoy sports; I like to challenge myself with humanities subjects in a non-native language; most importantly, I want to make my voice heard by others. I am certain that many of you are the same. We all have insightful ideas; it was just that our English-as-second-language hindered our ability temporarily. You should never let stereotype overshadow you.

This is a story of mine from my freshmen year. As one of the only two international students in a sociology class of 50, I struggled a lot to get my voice heard. Thinking I am an “Asian doll” who knows only smiling and nodding, my classmates constantly saw through me during group discussion as if I am transparent. What was really happening was that I was sort of slow on engaging in small talks such as latest celebrity news ahead of group discussion since I was new to U.S.

However, as time passed, despite the domestic students ignoring me, I utilized the knowledge I learned to examine my situation and overcame it by actively seeking chances to make my voice heard by others. Although English is not my first language, I actively sought chances to talk in class and present my own ideas. During group discussions, although my peer group thought I would not express any opinion like the usual Asian international students, I stepped forward instead of following and letting them put words into my mouth. 

For example, once the class was discussing how has race and ethnicity changed in our family over the three generations and has class status changed – has there been upward or downward mobility, or has class status been essentially reproduced across the generations. This is an assignment tailored to the American society and was supposed to reflect on how the class structure of the entire society has evolved. My class was not expecting me to contribute anything to this discussion, but I believe that theories are applicable universally. I analyzed my family mobility factoring the special history background of China during these three generations. I shared my findings with the class and interestingly enough that the trend echoes with their findings as well. This incidence once proved that there is no boundary or barrier in front of academia.

Eventually, I integrated into the class and expanded others’ as well as my own educational experience.

Change Your Perspective

Story by

Shrutee Shrestha

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

I graduated last month with a master’s degree from a prestigious university and a full-time job on hand at a prestigious accounting firm in Washington D.C.

But I am not sitting down to write about how successful I have been as a student. I want to write about the obstacles that I had faced as an international student.

The problem, however, is that I don’t seem to remember the insurmountable challenges that I had faced during those five years. I don’t know if it has happened to you, but when I see the outcome of a project, I tend to forget how challenging it was, because I get too fascinated by the results. I am in the same phase right now.

When I first joined the university, I faced so many challenges that I even almost broke down. Interestingly, at this moment, the only thing I can think of is that those five years were the most amazing time of my life. I am amazed at where I am today because of those five years.

But as I think harder, I realize how I am forgetting the time when I almost dropped out of school and went off the academic track during my first year in the US. After the first few months of freshman year, I kept convincing myself that I was overwhelmed with everything. I didn’t drop out but I withdrew from the university and denied all of their grants and scholarships because I was overwhelmed and homesick. Then I transferred to a community college a few miles from where my close relatives lived. The quality of education there cannot be compared with the quality of education at the university I had attended. But it completely made sense during my first year. I was lost in the crowd of twenty five thousand students in the university.

Back in Nepal, I was an academic star among thirty students. In the university here, I felt like I was nothing. I felt like I was the dumbest student in the entire class full of amazing students. So, I went to the community college, back to a classroom of thirty students and back to being noticed by teachers. But in spite of all the bad consequences of transferring to a community college from a prestigious university, one good thing happened to me. It made me feel better and boosted my confidence. I am glad that I did not drop out of school completely. I cannot imagine what I could have been if I had done so. I am glad that I continued my academic journey in the community college where I gained my confidence again. After a year, I felt ready to go back to the university and transferred back to the university that I had left a year before.

After transferring to the university, I made a list of things I would not do again like leaving university again, staying quiet in a corner of the classroom, ignoring the events that were happening around me and much more. This time, I took a different approach. I focused on what I needed to do and what I could do. Soon I realized that many people were there to help me out. My advisors helped me enroll in the classes that were being offered to first year students to help them transition to a university. I took some amazing classes that first year like International Cinema, Public Speaking, International Development etc that helped me have fun with other new students, learn as well as participate actively in the classroom activities. In Nepal, I grew up with the concept that participating in other activities not related to my field will distract me from my studies. But in the US, I figured out it was just the opposite. Such classes helped me broaden my perspective, understand the material from the students with different academic background and have fun at the same time. Tutors were available to help me with my papers. I was surprised that my professors were ready to listen to my challenges, even the ones that were not related to the class they taught and were ready to help me get over the challenges. The career services help me get appropriate jobs related to my major and my employers did their best to adjust my job responsibilities as I completed more classes related to accounting. I was amazed at all the facilities available at the university and even more amazed at the fact that the university invests thousands of dollars every year in creating and updating the facilities. I always felt I was bothering them and kept avoiding them as much as possible only to realize later that these people were genuinely interested in helping me out.

As I recall my academic journey, it seems like everyone wanted me to achieve what I have achieved today. My professors cried when my class of 175 students graduated with their masters’ degree. They knew each one of us by our names, they knew our personal stories, obstacles, strengths and weaknesses. They took care of us as their own children. My family, friends, relatives, roommates, employers and tutors have done their part in teaching me life skills.

Over the course of the following five years, I learned one basic lesson that everybody knows and has heard of: everyone faces obstacles. What looks like an obstacle for one person might be viewed as an opportunity by someone else. So, all we need to learn is to change our perspective and be in that someone else’s position by seeing obstacles as opportunities as soon as possible. That is the biggest lesson to learn in life. Without the positive perspective, everything, small and big, would seem like it is dragging one down when in reality, it might have an important lesson to teach us.

When I first came to the US five years ago, I would complain about everything. I felt like I was the only person who was homesick, overwhelmed, scared, lost and ignored.

But once I learned to adjust my perspective, I saw opportunities. I saw how the entire university had planned for my success and I used those resources to the fullest.

If you are struggling at a university right now, just look around. Use the counseling center if you feel like you cannot handle the situation by yourself. Look for other resources that can help you build yourself. Never ignore a class thinking it is unrelated to your field. If you can fit in extra classes that will teach you useful life skills in your schedule without overwhelming it, take that opportunity.

Looking back, I wish I had started looking at things differently much sooner than I did. I wish I had time to take more fun classes during those years. I wish I had taken interior designing, gardening, skiing classes when I could.

One more thing, I wish I had enough words to describe how it feels to get done with school. If only I knew how I would be spending my time after I graduated (this wonderful summer with family and friends and the days ahead of me), those five years would not have been as stressful as I had felt during those years.

If you are struggling, or almost giving up, change your perspective. You may be actually fine.

Two Lessons From My Academic Transition

Story by

Mahyar Ghorbanian

From

Iran

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benefits of Discomfort

Story by

Yeongmin Ahn

From

South Korea

Major/Field

Humanities

Level

Undergraduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Discovery to be a Student

Story by

Julia

From

Ukraine

Major/Field

Other

Level

Undergraduate

Have you ever thought how an education system of a different country might have to open new capabilities in your personality? Many people don’t expect that studying abroad could teach them not only new ideas and skills, such as a language and culture, but also open a new dimension of their individuality. I have never been a shy person and always had my own opinion. However, in Ukraine, I shared my thoughts with my friends or family but never with professors because of an invisible rule, in which a student isn’t allowed to do that. Being a foreign student in the USA has taught me to be a successful student by using critical thinking skills and an open mind in my academical life.

First, I was never taught to express my opinion and I was shocked how at first that influenced my grades, relationship with a professor, and my personality in the American university. As a student, who already had a bachelor degree in chemical engineering from Ukraine, I was surprised how the ability to be active in a class can changed my opinion about studying. When I came to the USA to do my second bachelor’s degree in August 2011, I couldn’t imagine how different American education system is from the Ukrainian system and how different I will be become. Education in the Ukraine is based on a kind of hierarchy between professors, who are always right, and students, who shouldn’t have their own opinions; in addition, a student is not allowed to express his/her opinion, thoughts, or ideas because a professor has only his/her correct and wise judgment. As a result, Ukrainian students are trained as listeners of only “one truthful belief,” not as an active interlocutor with new and fresh ideas as it happened with me in the USA.

Second, my ability to listen and never express my own opinion, which I learned during my study in a Ukrainian university, was regarded as shyness. Two years ago, I began to learn English as a second language at Stony Brook University. During my first semester, I was so excited about a new school, international students, and a language but something was wrong. Something made me nervous, stressful, and lowered my scores and that was participation! This word scared me out of my wits because I didn’t know how to do it. Although Ukrainian universities have 30-40 students per class, a professor doesn’t have a time to ask everyone’s opinion and thoughts. The main goal of a Ukrainian student is to listen to his/her professor, take notes, and express professor’s point of view in the exam. On the contrary, American universities begin to train students to contribute their thoughts in small classes. My learning of how to share my ideas began when I took ESL classes at Stony Brook University, which I started in August 2011.

The class consisted of fifteen international students, which is the smallest group of people I have ever been with. All the desks were arranged in a shape of a rectangle and professor’s table on one of the sides. So, everyone was sitting in front of each other. When my professor asked me for the first time what do I think about the campus, I was very nervous to answer. All I could say at that moment was, “It is ok.” I mentioned nothing about nice fountains, colorful flowers, and friendly staff. I had never been in a situation during my studying in the Ukraine, when someone asked me about my opinion, and almost 15 classmates looked at me with the desire to hear my thoughts. I didn’t know how to do it not because I am a shy person, but because I’ve never been asked to do it before by Ukrainian professors. In addition, because of a language barrier I couldn’t say what was in my mind. Most importantly, I couldn’t imagine that somebody needed my opinion and if I expressed it, I wish someone would judge me because it is different from the professor’s point of view.

As a result, I sat at a desk very quiet and never took part in discussions during the class because of my background experience. Moreover, I knew that participation in the class was 20% of my final grade, but I was still speechless. At the end of semester, all my classmates and professor thought that I was a shy person, who didn’t pass this class and should retake it. At the time, I hated to be an American student. I couldn’t figure out how the ability to express my opinion could influence my grade, and I decided to change my mind because I couldn’t allow myself not to pass the next class.

Third, both extreme fear of being judged by others and a desire to be successful fought inside me. I promised myself that next semester I will do everything possible to get a higher grade, and one point of my plan was participation in class. From the first day, I began to express my opinion, answered professor’s questions, and took part in discussions. I will never forget the feeling that I had at the time when I first began to say what I thought about an article from a school newspaper: my heart almost jumped out of my chest, my throat became dry, and my body felt that everybody’s eyes were turned at me. I was shaking inside because of uncontrolled fear but I had a very confident look on the outside and kept talking.

At the end of the class, my professor was so appreciative of my participation and my classmates made a small talk with me and about how they enjoyed listening to what I had to say. When I came out of the classroom, I smiled. It was my first victory against my “shyness.” For the entire semester, I kept doing the same thing in the class – I participated as actively as possible. Moreover, the more I participated the more I felt confident, relaxed, and less stressful. As a result, at the end of the semester, I got the Award in Recognition of Outstanding Performance and Commitment to Excellence. Also, I was chosen as a president of the class by my classmates, and I got one of the highest grades in the class.

In my opinion, both American and Ukrainian education systems have positive and negative sides. I recognized how to use the skills of learning from different countries and overcome difficulties. On the bright side of Ukrainian education system, I have learned how to follow strict instructions and nowadays, I feel comfortable about due dates, requirements, and an academic schedule. One of the positive aspects of American education, it is a new way of communication between me and people, such as professors and classmates. For example, I understand how to express my opinion and how to be respectful to other people’s point of view.

Thus, once I overcame the challenges, I realized that because I have been a student in two different countries, I have some privileges to those students who receive their education only in one country. Studying in two countries allowed me to learn not only a new language, culture, and traditions but also taught me how to deal in new situations, how to be successful, and how to effectively use my skills in different environments. Education systems in these two countries are different, and it helped me to fully develop my abilities.

A Transition with very little to complain about

Story by

Ankita

From

India

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipline Required: A Harsh Lesson I Learned

Story by

Rajeev Verma

From

India

Major/Field

Natural Sciences

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

So all in all a very harsh lesson learned indeed.

Examinations in the US

Story by

Rajeev Verma

From

India

Major/Field

Natural Sciences

Level

Graduate

One of the biggest features of the flexible US education system is the variety of exams that a student encounters and thus for someone from South Asia this is one of the biggest transitions in education as an international student. The exams I faced during my undergraduate years were once in a year and it was mostly memory based.

Unfortunately, I was never really good with memory based study back home but I excelled in lab exams that required application more than rendering information from memory. The former really used to bring down my grades and I felt like an average student. I never really asked for the professors’ help because at that point I knew that their response would be a statement that was repeated over the years which was, “The exam you faced was the same one hundreds of other students faced, just work harder and you’ll be fine”.

But before arriving in the US, I was told by my education counselor that the education system here is very flexible and I might actually end up enjoying studying there. The concepts of ‘open book exam’ and ‘take-home’ exam were alien to me, and when classes started, I also became further overwhelmed by the graduate student life and the fact that I absolutely needed As in the following semesters to continue my education in that school. So, I consulted my advisor and I mentioned to him that I don’t generally do well in exams that require memorization of information. It was then that he suggested me to take up two graduate level courses that allowed open book exams as well as take home exams.

When the exams were assigned, I was told that I had an entire week’s time to complete the exam. It was at that moment I realized my true potential as a student. All the questions I answered were based on every detail that was explained in the class by my professors and access to wide variety of scientific books and articles. The relaxed atmosphere at home only helped me do well in the exam. I allotted several hours for a single question and worked on the exam until I felt I could not improve it any further.

From that exam onward, I did not look back. It really boosted my confidence since I topped the class with scores of A and A+ in the exams in a highly competitive environment. When I told my advisor about my progress he was clearly delighted but mentioned that it was not a surprise since he believed that I would succeed in an environment which required application of knowledge. That was exactly the morale boost I needed.

The point of my story is that many like me coming to the US for education would feel the way I felt, like an average student. But I personally feel that many of you will realize their true potential when you come face to face with educational structure that offers as much flexibility as the US education system. This, along with an internship will be an ideal recipe that will shape and prepare you for real-world professions.

What Every International Student Should Remember

Story by

Mia Lee

From

South Korea

Major/Field

Social Science

Level

Undergraduate

A lot of posts in this website share international students’ valuable experiences regarding academic issues such as English and their majors. However, my story and the lesson that I learn from my experience are somewhat different than the other stories in this website. Before we get into my story, I want you to think what is the most important, fundamental and necessary condition that allows you to pursuit your academic career in the USA. If I ask this question to my fellow international students, many of them will say that the most critical condition is the fluent English skill. It may be true. English proficiency may be the most fundamental condition in order to study in the USA. However, I think your legitimate F-1 VISA status (student VISA status) is much more critical condition for you in order to keep studying in the USA. Some of you may criticize me being too cynical, but I learned this lesson from my painful experience last winter.

I transferred to my current university in the USA after I finished my sophomore year in previous university in my homeland. Since my major is linguistics and my previous university offered very limited number of courses that directly teach linguistics, I decided to transfer to study linguistics in depth. At the beginning of my first academic year in the USA, I also had lots of troubles just like other international students. I can certainly explain what those problems were with more details in this essay, but I would rather not since they are not the point.

In my first semester, I tried my best to overcome those problems and finally got fairly great score at the end of the semester. At first I was glad that I could get such a great scores even in the USA. However, I became so obsessed with the score itself and starting to lose interest in linguistics. As time goes, I wasn’t sure that I should keep study linguistics. At that time, I was so confused about my future, my major and even myself. Sometimes people go through personal crisis just like I did. At that phrase of life, they need to stop doing what they are doing, step back a little bit from their own lives and take a break, give some time to think about yourselves and your future. I think break like this is very important to succeed academically or professionally. Therefore, I decided to take a break, take a leave of absence more specifically.

The process to get the permission for leave of absence and the process of coming back to USA was not easy. However, the real problem arose a few weeks after I came back to USA. At that time, I came back to school little early in order to take a winter session. The class was great. The professor was enthusiastic and passionate about the class. My classmates were also having fun. On the other hand, I felt so hard to keep up. I thought I was ready, but actually I wasn’t. Since I couldn’t keep taking classes, I dropped the class and promised myself that I would take this again in the next semester.

A few days after I dropped the class, Visa and Immigration Services contacted me and said that I was in trouble. It turns out my student visa status was in danger because I dropped the winter session class. I panicked and asked my professors to take me back to the class. I got into the class again and my visa status was no longer in danger. However, I went through really tough time when I got back into the class. If I wasn’t international student who need a VISA to keep studying in the USA, I could have just dropped the class and take that again in the following semester or whenever I’m ready. However, since I was international student, keeping my legitimate student VISA status in the USA was my urgent priority. Therefore, I had to hold my pain back and keep taking the class. If I look back from now, it is a great thing that I got back to the class and finished what I started instead of giving up.

Even though I had a tough time in the class, I learned lots of valuable lessons from my experience in that winter. Consequently, I learned two significant lessons out of my painful experience last winter. The first one is that no matter how difficult and hard it is, you can overcome it if you tried with your best. The second one is that international students tend to get less freedom in making choices in the university.

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.