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.

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.

Take initiative! Get Connected!! Get involved!!!

Expert post by
Uttam Gaulee

From
Nepal

Field
Higher Ed Admininstration

This is something that I wish somebody told me in the very beginning of my academic career in the US—take initiatives. An international student’s academic journey begins with a seemingly disadvantaged situation as compared to that of the local students because you begin with adjustments and settling in process. Inherent in this process is a danger that you may just buy into not being “able” to do certain things. I am writing this post to guard you against that insidious element.

Just keep in mind that life’s adjustments never end. So, it is advisable to start taking steps toward academic and professional development early on. If you want to truly succeed in the university and build for success when you graduate, you must start thinking about more than just maintaining good grades. Of course, as I see in some students’ stories on this site, you may find yourself hardly catching up with coursework (and for graduate students, assistantship responsibilities as well) during the first semester, but how long should you wait? Until the second semester— the third— ? But then the time to graduate will knock on your door before you are ready! So, you should start looking at the bigger picture of professional development right when you join your program. Yes, you may want to gradually increase the time for getting involved, but there is no need to wait in order to start at least thinking about, learning some ideas, and taking small steps.

Also, everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning! You may even feel like an odd person wherever you go, whatever you say or do. But if you think about it, that is also where you are special! So, please do not seek safety in silence. Sure, there will be some risk of making mistakes. But it is by daring to make mistakes that you create opportunities for yourself, for learning and connections at first, and then for contribution! The day will never come when everything will be settled and you’ll start your “big” initiative with confidence. If something goes wrong, you’ll learn a lesson. You’re here to learn after all, aren’t you? By speaking out, you’ll be grateful that you added your unique perspective to the conversations. Be shocked, but do not get shaken: tenacity matters!

Research shows that most important elements of student success as self-efficacy and involvement, which reinforce each other. Even though it may seem like a non sequitur, involvement outside the classroom is extremely important for your success. Such engagement outside not only pays back ultimately but is almost essential to academic success and necessary for professional development in the long run. Student Integration Model developed by Tinto (1975) emphasized a student’s involvement in the community. In his subsequent search and publications, Tinto followed up on the idea of involvement as an important element in students’ academic persistence and success (Tinto, 1993, 2010). Two more researchers highly involved in student learning and development have also highlighted the importance social involvement apart from the classroom activities. They state:

What matters is the nature of experiences students have … the courses they take, the instructional methods their teachers use, the interactions they have with their peers and faculty members outside the classroom, the variety of people and ideas they encounter, and the extent to their active involvement in the academic and social systems of their institutions. (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 642)

While none of these models were specifically developed to account for the international students, evidence suggests that the importance of involvement is vital for various minority groups. There is relatively limited research on engagement in the community on and off campus among international students; however, general research does indicate that international students can greatly benefit by being involved both academically and socially. For instance, Trice (2004) found that interacting to Americans and other international students helped international students succeed in many ways. After an outstanding review of theories and existing literature, Trice established that international students who socialize with host national students are the “most satisfied with and the best adjusted to their experience abroad. Nevertheless, it appears that relatively few international students spend substantial time with Americans” (p. 673).

As Trice tells us, international students tend not to get socially involved. But we know that it is hard to be successful academically and professionally without developing a whole range of “soft-skills” that help you become a well-rounded scholar, professional. It is by such involvement that you begin to gain social and networking skills for leadership. However, if the idea of social engagement sounds a little daunting to you, then just start by working closely with your professors on top of taking the class and completing the assigned work.

Even if you are still trying to focus on maintaining a certain GPA, you can get “involved” by at least trying to get support from the professor rather than waiting until the deadline and trying to address the challenge without support. Trust me: it is okay to show your ignorance to your professor—he or she is there to guide you after all. You can impress him/her by showing how you learn rather than by pretending that you already know a lot. And trust me, your longer journey toward academic, professional, and community/social engagement could be starting in a great way as you build stronger relationship with your own professors. There is a high correlation between academic success and social involvement because, as I previously mentioned, these two reinforce each other.

Conventionally, there are two things that most people pay attention to when it comes to international students: language and culture. These are the “barriers” they know about and they may unknowingly convince you that you just need to overcome these two in order to be successful. But there is a lot more about becoming a successful scholar in a new environment and getting ready for the professional world within a few years. Get involved in the community within and beyond the campus.

Every university has a diverse range of student organizations, each trying to achieve a special goal by bringing together a certain group of students. Based on what support you need, search from the list of student organizations at your university/college. If you do not find one that caters to your needs or interest, find out how to establish a student organization yourself. Design some programs and seek funding, invite members, you’ll love the process, they’ll thank you and you’ll be noticed. Nothing will go in vain! What you do on campus today will go a long way into your future life and career.

Beyond the classrooms and your professors’ offices and within the campus, there are many opportunities for academic and professional development. Start visiting the Career Development Center early on; they will help you plan and execute a career development plan so that when you graduate you are ready to go on the job market with confidence. Use the library, Writing Center, and other academic services in order to boost your learning. Go to workshops, guest lectures, and other events on campus in order to boost your professional growth. All the above services and events may not seem “necessary” for getting a degree but they will help you learn very important skills and more fully understand the broader context of higher education. They will help you prepare far better for when you graduate than if you limit to being a straight A student.

Among other methods of engagement, volunteering is highly effective in social integration because this also develops a sense of belonging with the community, and thus increases a self-recognition and self-efficacy among students (Manguvo, Whiteney, and Chareka, 2013). These experiences can be extremely useful for international students to thrive in the academic as well as social life.

Talking of student involvement in US universities, there is an old culture of fraternity and sorority-life, which often creates an insider-outsider dichotomy.  Few international students go to these conventional places in order to learn American culture. As far as I know, these organizations may not be the best places for enhancing your academic and professional growth. However, you may want to learn whether these organizations can provide you with opportunities that you can benefit from. The point is to seek out places, events, and people in order to create opportunities for you to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.

Remember that you should not just assume that you are the outsider who needs to learn about the local cultures, institutions, and people. In today’s world, you should go multidirectional rather than unidirectional. For example, many local students are willing to learn about foreign cultures, so you can share your culture with them. Invite them to your cultural organization.

Let me add at this point that conventional views, even research/scholarship, about international students tend to be based on the idea that they are “outsiders” trying to gradually become insiders, or “legitimate” members of the academic, social, professional, and discourse communities here in the US (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This framework has some value, because we do try to learn how to perform like insiders. However, in today’s world, this view can be quite often inaccurate and unproductive. If you think about it, in a globalized world, you could be the “insider” in a variety of ways, as when you are helping local students understand social issues from your part of the world, add a more global perspective on an issue, play the devil’s advocate when local colleagues seem to consider something local as universal, etc. Even academically, you may be an expert in a subject area due to your past education or experience. In all these cases, the insider/outsider model becomes rather problematic. Indeed, one of the purposes that American universities admit international students is for the cultural enrichment of local students. I’m sure you have a considerable amount of knowledge about the world that can help you flip the outsider/insider positions, which will benefit both parties. Try it and you will like it!

But don’t limit your engagement within your department and the campus. Even if you can spare a small amount of time, find ways to engage with people outside campus whenever you can. Meeting people in places such as local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations will help you understand the local society and culture at large. Being connected to local people and understanding their lives and ideas can be extremely helpful in the long run, not only because the education system you are in is “situated” in that larger society but also because you are very likely to start doing your academic and professional work with the people outside the campus.

Whether it is within your department, in the campus community, or with scholars in your field at large, networking is extremely important. Never eat a lunch by yourself. This is what one of my mentors told me years ago and this mantra has proved to be a blessing. On campus, or in a conference, I approach to people, take interest in them, and find connections. You can save time, enjoy conversation, and build networks—while making your lunch taste better!

The main idea I am trying to suggest here is this: develop professionally, and for that, start early, be strategic, take one step at a time, and actively seek opportunities. Start working on your writing skills, both academic and other types. Start working on your presentation skills. Start finding and attending conferences in your field. Start proposing papers to present. Start networking with experts in your field. Start sharing the experience and expertise that you bring from your previous educational/professional career. Never tell yourself that your professional skills—writing, using technologies, communicating, presenting, networking, and so on—are limited “because” you are an international student. Tell yourself that if they are limited it is because, like any other student, you haven’t seriously committed to improving them yet. Start doing what you can. Plan and reach your goals, however small. With the support, resource, and opportunity that you now have—which you can reinforce with your passion and perhaps anxiety—you can turn any deficit into strength very soon. If you only look at the deficits, you’ll dampen your own aspiration. Look at your positive sides—you are resourceful. Dare! You can!

References

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Manguvo, A; Whiteney, S; & Chareka, O. (2013). The Role of Volunteerism on Social Integration and Adaptation of African Students at a Mid-Western University in the United States. Journal of International Students 3 (2), pp. 117-128.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2010). From Theory to Action: Exploring the Institutional Conditions for Student Retention. Smart, J. C. (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, PP 51-89. Springer Netherlands.

Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 671-687.

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.

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.

Learning to study in America

Story by

Sewa Bhattarai

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Sociology & Anthropology

Level

Graduate

I was the kind of person who practiced the adage “leap the bridge when you come to it.” As a result, before going to the US, I had no idea about the methods of studying in the US. I was only focused on the process of going. I had given a cursory glance to the syllabus, but knew nothing more. Which meant I did not know how important homework was.

Like most other Nepali students, I had given up homework and assignments after school level. There was a certain internal marking in the subject that I did my bachelors in, but it was not given much importance. Me and my classmates were used to submitting them at the end of the semester, or sometimes, not at all, depending on the teacher. So, for me, the weekly homework was the most troublesome things at first. I had never bothered to read the syllabus in detail, which listed out clearly how much weight the assignments would carry. I continued to submit my assignments late, and as a result, got low grades in almost every subject I took. Only in the next semester, when I made friends and started talking to them about studies did I realize the importance of assignments. I then found that assignments made up more than half of the grades in some classes, and the final exam made up only a small part of it. Some teachers did not even like to take final exams, instead setting a long “term paper” of equivalent marks. Only then did I start doing my assignments diligently, and the full weight of the American education system fell on me.

Then I had to say bye bye to carefree weekends, and bye bye to promises of “I will study at the finals.” Every week I found myself doing one assignment after another. But the good thing was that, I learnt more these assignments than from all final exams combined. Going through different material every week, analyzing it, and coming up with my opinion about it forced me to think about a concept deeply, which mugging up had never done.

Another issue was attendance. I was used to bunking classes with friends whenever we were in the mood. I initially did the same in my college in the US. Much later I realized that teachers here take attendance more seriously, especially in the master’s level where there are so few students that the teacher knows each one by name and marks every absence. When a student wanted to bunk classes, he or she would talk personally to the teacher, or write in an email to inform the teacher. I did nothing of that sort. Thinking back, I am sure the teachers must have thought I was a very rude student.

I remember one incident clearly of my problems with the American education system. There was a teacher whose accent I was not familiar with and who I had great difficulty understanding. On the eve of the first exam, he apparently told students that they could bring a cheat sheet to class, which they could refer to in the exam. I did not hear any of it. When my classmates began referring to their cheat sheets the next day, I thought it was an open book exam, and I actually brought out my book from the bag and began referring to it. I don’t know, maybe because he knew that I was new, the teacher did not say anything to me as I leafed through the book. Much later, when I talked to my classmates, I realized what had happened, and that incident imprinted the value of networking deeply in my mind. If there was anything I did not understand from the teacher, friends would always be there to help out!

To all new students going to America for further studies, I would like to say that if the first semester confuses you, it is normal. Nothing can prepare you enough for a different country, I myself thought that as a well read person, I was prepared enough, but I was wrong. It was my first semester in America that taught me what I could never have read about it. After that, I found that I was ready for any challenge that the American education system threw at me, because I now knew how to deal with it. Similarly, every person is bound to encounter challenges that no one has recorded before, but time will also teach you the method to deal with it.

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!”