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Lessons from my college experience

A woman graduate in hijab in front of trees
Photo: iStock

People often ask me, “How’s your college experience in the USA?”

My college experience has been really great, I would answer. Challenging, of course, but great! Why particularly do I enjoy going to college? Here are a few of my reasons.

I started to think out loud.

Before coming to the USA, I was not familiar with a classroom environment in which people would raise their hands—to ask questions or to argue with the professor. Back home in Burma, we are taught to be obedient and quiet in the classrooms. The experience of seeing students here questioning the material, or disagreeing with the teacher, was completely foreign and strange to me.

Of course, I love and embrace that Burmese culture teaches us to be respectful towards the elders, parents, and teachers. But lately, I’ve started to wonder if this has unintentionally led students not to speak out their thoughts or questions in classrooms. Studying in the USA has been showing me that questioning our teachers is not necessarily rude or disrespectful. It is just how learning should work: we question, we reason, and then we share our opinions and thoughts. Over time, I find myself slowly raising hands in both classrooms and in real life. I find myself trying to think out loud.

I wanted to become a well-rounded person.

Regardless of their major, students in the USA are required to take the core courses which cover the multi-disciplinary basics of creative arts, sciences, and humanities. I am majoring in neuroscience, but at the same time, I am learning about Greek mythology, public speaking, or international film history in these university core courses. It is a very varies college experience.

I was impressed with this curriculum. It broadens my horizons and lets me see the world from different perspectives. I was also meeting people and being inspired by how good students don’t just perform well in school—they also ski/snowboard, or dance, or lead small clubs outside of classes. That’s when I realized that I wanted to be more than a studious person.  I wanted to be more engaged in new experiences so that I learn more about myself and about the world.

For my primary interest in science and medicine, I work in a developmental biology lab on campus. But, during my free time (however little it is), I joined Zumba dances and yoga classes, and I volunteered for the free dental clinic for homeless people. To my surprise, taking a break from studying actually helped me to study better because I was getting less stressed and enjoying my life more.

I learned to take the initiative.

You know how people tell us to take the initiative at school, at work, etc.?  Learning that advice, I had thought to myself “what a cool thing to do!” without understanding how difficult it can be.

I learned that taking the initiative means leaving our comfort zone and choosing to take risks. I am not a great example of a person who takes the initiative. But looking back, I realize that college has helped me to do this at my own level.

To me, that meant on the first day of my science course, approaching the lab instructor and telling him, “Hi, I am from a very different country and education system, so I will be coming up with clueless questions this semester—please bear with me?”

Taking the initiative meant emailing a professor from a prestigious medical school and sharing my thoughts on her research—which led to receiving an internship offer from her last summer.  

Taking the initiative is about calling employers to ask for jobs they had posted. It is about building connections and sharing ideas. And, it is about offering myself to serve the world around me.

Being in college taught me that being initiative is not just taking the first step, and taking the roles of leadership.

It includes—it especially includes—reaching out for help from people and resources when necessary. I used to be shy or uncomfortable asking “I don’t know how to do this, can you help me?” But, I now think that it is totally okay, and in fact, totally necessary for us to admit the things we don’t know so that we can learn from the ones who know and the ones who can help us.

The whole college experience is not an easy one for international students like me.

It is consistently packed with challenges, rejections, heartbreaks and sleepless nights. But at the same time, it is also full of surprises, rewards, and friendships. I would not trade these experiences for anything. I will be graduating in four weeks, and to tell you the truth, I have never been excited and ready for my future as I am now. So, how has the college experience been going for me?  I have to admit: it’s been really great, thank you for asking!

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.