Three lessons in how to make the most of your time at American grad school. By Shuang Gou
Some years ago, a young girl, sitting on a couch, dreamed about studying in a country she had never been to - the USA. She had been sitting on that couch, watching American movies for years before then. As you may guess, that girl is me! A year ago, my dream finally came true after I landed on this sunny land - California. Prior to coming here, I'd read many stories about Chinese students studying and living in the US. These fascinating stories attracted not just me, but many others before me. American culture, shown in all sorts of movies, TV shows and music still holds the attention of many Chinese students.
Now after a year of exposure to American culture and life as a graduate student, I have collected some survival tips for fellow students who are planning to study here in the near future.
1. Be prepared for academic challenges.
I still remember the first day I walked into the classroom and was told we had to finish almost 80 pages of reading for our homework assignment. I was surprised, almost speechless. As an international student who just arrived in this country two weeks prior, honestly, I was not at all prepared for this kind of assignment. Academic demands became even more challenging after a few weeks, and it made me start thinking about dropping out of school. Luckily, my dear friends gave me a hand and pulled me out of this desperate situation. The huge amount of reading and writing in American graduate school will surely be the biggest challenge for many international students, who are not native English speakers.
Therefore, I would like to remind fellow international students who are planning to study here to be prepared for what you are going to encounter. Start reading large amounts from English text books at home before you come so you are better prepared for the rigors of graduate school. This type of academic challenge will be encountered everywhere around you. The better prepared you are, the easier and more quickly you will adapt and succeed. And always remember, when assignments or project may seem overwhelming, to calm down and seek help from friends or school advisors whenever needed.
2. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself, speak up!
Another thing you may not anticipate is the amount of group work that goes on in graduate school. I clearly don't remember how my first group project went, but I will never forget how quiet I was during the group meeting. Lack of confidence with English was standing in my way, and stopped me from contributing to my group. Nervousness and shyness were always holding me back until one day someone came over and said to me: "You gotta stand up for yourself!" and I took this to heart.
You may encounter the same situation. I am certain that most Chinese students are not familiar with the concept of working as a group. But you will soon discover a lot of assignments need to be done by the joint effort of a group instead of by yourself. Getting used to the idea of team spirit will surely take some time. You must prepare yourself to be open to different perspectives, especially from those you do not agree with. Get accustomed to this now, before you enroll. This will save you a lot of energy and stress later on.
3. Take advantage of cross-cultural communication opportunities.
The U.S. has a much more diverse culture than China. The moment I got off the plane last summer, I already noticed that people around me were speaking different languages. Later on, I started rooming with a girl from Kazakhstan. I started hearing my Chinese friends talking about me and my roommate. "How could you share a room with a girl from Kazakhstan? This is so strange!" "How could you live with someone that has a completely different culture from you?" This discussion continued for a while. My advice to fellow international students, "Open your arms and welcome in all the different cultures." Being in an international educational environment is such an amazing experience, you just can't imagine. Don't ever be afraid to take advantage of cross-cultural communication. One day, a fellow student came over to me with an excited look on his face. "I attended a group meeting today with ten students from my program, and I found out they were from eight different countries. Isn't that amazing?" he said to me. The cultural diversity we are exposed to prepares us for more such opportunities in the future. We are here because we are seeking international careers.
My adventure is not finished yet. But after spending one year in the USA, I've experienced all sorts of exciting and bizarre moments. I always remind myself to keep my mind open for things I've never experienced before. All these experiences will help me prepare for a future I am not able to foresee just yet.
Shuang Gou is a 2nd year MATESOL candidate at Monterey Institute of International Studies