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.

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.

Share Your Opinions Freely

Story by

Shrutee Shrestha

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

Language Transition in the US

Story by

Jing You

From

China

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

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

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

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

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

Public Speaking

Story by

Tanzeem Choudhury

From

Bangladesh

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Like a Bee

Story by

Uttam Gaulee

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Higher Ed Admin & Policy

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you say something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Like a Butterfly

Story by

Uttam Gaulee

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Higher Ed Admin & Policy

Level

Graduate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting up to Speed in Freshman Year

Story by

Tanzeem Choudhury

From

Bangladesh

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

Before starting my first semester, I was overwhelmed when I came across the many advertisements about productive and leisure activities that were a part of campus life. At first, I planned to play sports, take part in undergraduate clubs, and visit nearby cities. But a month into the semester, these expectations were just pushed aside by the harsh realities of my academic workload.

As deadlines for assignments, class works, and projects approached every other day, I found myself sitting at the library all day and struggling to finish up my studies. There was no time for leisure activities. I started thinking that I was not enjoying college life at all. If studying at the library all day and every day of the week were a requirement to attain my degree, I thought I might need to rethink my life objectives.

However, I soon began to realize that things would change. After the first two semesters, I found myself able to finish up my assignments ahead of schedule. It is worth noting that my academic commitments did not decrease (indeed they increased), but I just became more efficient. I thought and worked faster, researched and read more efficiently, and wrote better as well. As a result of the increased efficiency, I started to find the leisure time on campus life that I was longing for.

In contrast to my development, some international student friends who started at the same college with me did not have the same experience. Faced with the academic pressures of freshman year and frustrated with studying all day, they succumbed to the workload and dropped out/or took semester breaks.

As a result of this experience, I have learnt that the intense workload is natural for all new international students. We come from different education paradigms, knowledge conventions and cultural contexts, this even makes it harder for us to adapt to the change. But we should not let these pressures break us down (like it did to some of my friends). Instead, I think we should embrace the initial challenge. Embracing it will force us to forego the fun of college life in the freshman year, but in the long run, it will bring us up to required speed. The pressures might even groom us to work faster than the pace of our curriculum. Once we reach that stage, a lot of free time for activities, such sports and cultural events, will open up.

Waatar, Wota, Wadr?

Story by

Shyam Sharma

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Writing Studies

I’ve spoken English since I was four or so, and I have spoken at least five distinctive varieties of world Englishes. I know that it is okay to speak with an accent, because even “native” speakers speak with an accent that they’ve picked up from their national, regional, and sociocultural locations and backgrounds. And I know that as long as the content of my speech is meaningful, I should not worry too much.

But this “knowledge” about language does not prevent me from worrying. Part of this worry is a desire in me to speak the way other people do wherever I go. I don’t fully accept the argument that there is no such thing as a “native” version of English. I think there is such a thing as native-like proficiency. Nor do I fully buy the idea argument that there is no such thing as a standard English. I think there are a number of standardized Englishes in the world and there is much value in gravitating toward the standard of the majority of other speakers with whom you communicate.

Part of my worry about my accent, however, comes from the desire to blend in, to be not looked in the face too intently by other people–like when a woman at a local store in Tennessee did when I pronounced the word “water” in a way that she didn’t understand even after repeating four or five times.

Me: What aisle is bottled water in?
Storekeeper: What aisle is what in?
Me: Wo-ta, I mean wa-da.
Storekeeper: Sorry, what do you mean?
….
Me: W-a-t-e-r.
Storekeeper: Oh, water. It’s in…
Me: I’m sorry.
Storekeeper: Oh, you’re fine. And you’re gonna be okay.

I had just come to the United States and joined a graduate program in English, of all discipllines. In fact, I had been an English teacher in my home country for many years. My grammar, vocabulary, and knowledge of the language (and literature and literary theory and whatnot) was good. But whenever I moved from one place to another, the most basic parts of my English language proficiency suddenly malfunctioned. Like the word “water.”

When I returned to my apartment, I used my recently bought (fancy and, for a student on a stipend, expensive) language learning gadget–the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s pocket electronic device–to listen to the pronunciation of the word “water.” The voice said, “waadr.” I thought I had pronounced almost exactly like that at the store. Maybe not.

It was then time to go to my linguistics class (titled Culture and Language). With the electronic dictionary in my hand, I set out on the 15 minute walk. With the vivid memory of the woman at the looking into my face in her attempt to understand my word, I started giving myself an intense practice as I walked, something like this:

Okay, “waa-dr.” Wait, I gotta be careful: the first syllable must be the American wa-, not British wo-, and not ua- as I used to do in Nepal; and yes, the second is dər- not thə- as in British, not the shrill-sounding tər- of Indian English, or with the interdental-voiceless-stop -tə like in that of the variety in east India; then, the last consonant must be the American palatal-liquid-voiceless -r (though they practically make it voiced), not the Hindi type of alveolar-flap or Nepali trill; ok, now try the whole: ‘wader’—oops! it didn’t work, stupid, the whole is not the sum of the parts—try again: ‘waarerr’; that sounds even more ‘foreign,’ belonging nowhere (and most people silently hate those who speak “accents”); ok, try once again: ‘warer’—not too bad, though it sounds crazy when the t- changed into a mixture of ‘d’ and ‘r’ rides into the final -r, as if the vowel between them were not there—‘warer,’ yes, that sounds funny but slightly better or ‘baedrr,’ though it sounded too Southern—oh god, this is Helen Keller trying to learn words by feeling the mouth and throat of the speaker!

I saw a colleague outside the class and asked how he pronounced the word “water.” He said, “What? Why are you asking that?” I said that a woman didn’t understand me at the grocery store and I was trying to pronounce it correctly in the accent of the South. He kindly did it for me. And I wondered once again if my pronunciation at the grocery story was not almost exactly like my friend’s.

For a few months after the incident where the storekeeper didn’t understand me, I kept a list of words that I wanted to practice. I listened to myself while pronouncing those words, breaking them up into phonemes and syllables. I rehearsed how to use idiomatic expressions in my head before I used them in conversation with others. At times, I felt nervous about whether I would learn, even in the next six years, how to pronounce thousands and thousands of words in ways that people around me in that city would understand me. Of course, I never dared to pick up the slang, not even the daily colloquial language, for months and months after I arrived.

I wondered what to do with the theories of culture and language in relation to my disconcertingly jumbled linguistic development in the past, and at the time. At times, I felt as if I was split into fragments and I almost forgot where I properly belonged, what I can properly express, and with whom. I spoke several languages as a child but half of them were becoming increasingly like a child’s painting left in the rain, blurred; I saw my career in English but this source of my “power” not only ironically seemed foreign to me, it also came from a jumble of sources, accents, even errors that I had acquired in many different locations.

I don’t remember how the panic phase ended. Well, I don’t know if it “has” ended, in the seven years since then.

What do know is that I must try to worry less about whether I say “wathər” or “waadr”–as long as I have done my homework of thinking, reading, researching, writing, and having the content of my sentences clear and strong in my mind.

And I tell other nonnative speakers of English who seem worried about their accent (or about other areas of their language proficiency) that there is more to language than how we pronounce or put together our words. I tell them that if the idea that they are trying to express is good and clear, they’re gonna be okay.