My Academic Journey So Far

Story by

Asma Malik




Social Science



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.

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