Friday, September 26, 2014

A Glimpse of an American Graduate Classroom

By Yixin Zhao
MA Candidate, Columbia University

Known for its developed higher education system and superior education resources, America has attracted millions of students from all over the world to study here. As one of many Chinese students who is currently studying in America, I have experienced the freedom and diversity in the classroom of Columbia University, which is not quite as I had expected yet influenced me beyond my expectation.

Free Classroom Indeed

Compared to how I was educated back in China, class in Columbia University offers more space for students to creatively learn and communicate with the instructor and their peers. It’s interesting that in graduate school we call our teachers, instructor or professor. Although it’s just a title difference, it actually indicates a completely different interaction and class dynamic. As opposed to lectures, graduate classes focus on discussions and problem solving. Through this, the instructor plays a role of guiding and inspiring students. In addition, my relationship with peers is more about corporation than competition. Absorbing myself in such a free academic environment; I constantly think about how timid and limited I used to be. After all, regardless of our roles in different social situations, we are humans, and humans instinctively need communication.

However, does this freedom come with a price? The answer is absolutely yes. Freedom is there, but you have to earn it on your own. One of my friends complained to me that her professor is lazy that he only summarized at the end of the class and most of the time in class was a discussion between peers. Lots of classes in my program, or generally programs in liberal arts, require intense reading before the class, and, mostly, class time is when you talk and ask questions about the reading. If you did not do them, then you may feel confused, bored, therefore have less take-away than others in class. In another scenario, you may have read the articles, but, as many Chinese students would do, remain silent in class; it is another example of not making most of your presence in class. This might take some time for you to change, but believe me once you have the courage to raise your voice, another door will open. In a nutshell, meaningful and free interaction with your instructor and peers need to be traded with your hard work outside the class.

Learn From Diversity

Not only is the diversity of students in Columbia University a current situation, but also being appreciated. First week of a semester is jokingly called personal introduction week by us, because everyone has to give a self-introduction at the beginning of a class. Sometimes people who have several of the same classes with you end up hearing your speech again several times. As funny as that is, you get to know people from all backgrounds in the classroom. Meanwhile, I discovered that most people came to a certain class with their own needs and specific interests, which I found missing in a lot of Chinese students.

At the very start of my first semester, I was having a difficult time of figuring out how to be around and work with people who are much older than me in class. Especially when grouped with three or more people. For instance, two people had more than 15 years of work experience and spoke up a lot. At some point, I was unsure of what I should do to be more involved and had a conversation with one of my professors about this. She suggested me to learn from them and ask questions when I am confused. After accepting the fact that students in class do not necessarily share the same background with me, I adjusted myself and found a way to actively participate in class. In the end, it is more interesting to have a diverse crowd to study with.

Accepting new things can never be that easy. I believe that if you find yourself in an uncomfortable and weird situation, you are being pushed to improve. So, keep your eyes, minds, and hearts open. There is a whole new world waiting for you to explore.

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Yixin Zhao is a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, majoring in Communication and Education. She previously studied Communication in Beijing Jiaotong University. In the pursuit of becoming a storyteller in media industry, she is currently an intern in SinoVision English Channel.

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