All I know about American high schools I learned from High School Musical and all those other Disney movies. In other words, I know close to nothing about what it’s like for students here before college, but I definitely know that high school life in Ecuador did not prepare me for this.
It’s not exactly an academic problem— though that came up too. They would ask me what level of Math I had passed and I couldn’t explain that we don’t call them Precalculus or Algebra II, we just had “Math Class.” I’d learned it all; I just didn’t know what “it” was supposed to be called besides just “math.” Similarly, there were certain things that students were supposed to know that I didn’t know, such as parts of American history or books, but that was relatively easy to catch up on.
Besides that, I didn’t really feel academically “behind” the rest. I just had different expectations, because universities in my country don’t work the same way. And, as it turned out, I knew a lot more about world history and geography than most of my peers. That’s one of the perks that other international students and I found out we had in common—a lot better sense of where countries in the world are and what languages they speak.
When I was in high school, I was told that university professors would never give you an extension; I was told when I went to university, I would have to learn to look into things I don’t know because the professor is not going to go out of their way to explain something just because I don’t get it. I was basically made to believe that university professors would be terrifyingly strict robots and that there was a heavy sort of hierarchy between them and the students.
In reality, it’s not like that at all.
If you’ve been preparing to go to university in the U.S. and are starting to feel intimidated by what that is going to be like, here are three things I wish someone had told me to consider before I started classes.
1. They won’t make the schedule for you, so think about how much stress you can handle as you organize your class schedule.
For a lot of classes that you will need to take, of course, there won’t be a choice. You’re going to have to take them even if they’re at 7am and you’re not even a human person at that time of day. Yes, I’m talking about myself. But for a lot of other classes, you get a choice! For all those electives, you get to pick the times. Especially if you’re in a bigger university, there will most likely be more classes to pick from, so plan out your schedule with time.
A lot of this is knowing yourself—one of the worst parts about high school for me was taking classes I couldn’t handle at early times in the day. So, every single schedule I made for myself began at 9:45am at the earliest. I also knew that I work better if I get a few breaks, so if I could help it, I left an hour for lunch in between classes. Later on, I was getting too stressed so I managed to organize my schedule in a way that I always got Fridays free, giving myself a three-day-weekend every week.
At least when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to schedule in your breaks when you’re taking classes. Moving to another country is a big change in itself, it’s okay to let yourself take it slow.
2. You can build a relationship with your professors. They can be your mentors.
There is no way to generalize this one—it depends on the professors.
There were times when I felt that it was easier to be close to my high school teachers than these university professors; some of them felt a little condescending, and I had to get used to calling them by their titles: “Professor This” or “Dr. That.” In Ecuador, we treat everyone on a first-name basis and show respect by using the formal word for “you,” which is usted instead of tú.
However, once I got past that, I realized that while some of my professors thought they were the most intelligent person in the country, most of them were just happy to be there for students. A very large majority of them.
My first three years of university, I very rarely visited a professor’s office hours, as much as they encouraged it unless I absolutely had to. This was until I had a conversation with another friend of mine who was a year older and about to graduate.
I asked her, “What is one thing you wish you’d done more as a student? What is something you regret?”
Without even hesitating, she told me she wished she’d gotten to know more of her professors. “Not just for grad school recommendation letters, but just as a sort of guidance, or because I respect them. I wish I’d talked to them more outside of class.”
I can’t stress this enough, professors really are there to help you. My senior year, I emailed my professors more often, asked them questions during the fifteen minute water breaks and told them some of my thoughts on the topics we had just discussed in class. It was a bit hard for me because I’m so shy, but it’s because I did this that I was able to have inspiring discussions that went beyond our class material. I was even able to find an internship through my professors and present a paper at a conference in my university.
Talk to your professors, it doesn’t necessarily have to be about class. Talk to them about your doubts, what you want to do in life, and if you’re kind of close with them too, ask them for advice. Most likely, they’ve been where you are now and can share their experiences.
3. If you’re smart about it and have a really good professor, you can make assignments your own.
This is closely linked to my previous point—if you are able to build a relationship with your professors, they can understand you and your goals better and help you achieve them even if it means stretching the limits of what an assignment or a paper is supposed to be.
Senior year, taking my friend’s advice, I started talking to one of my English teachers about how much I loved Young Adult (YA) Fiction, and how I thought some of the topics we spoke of on Gothic Literature really could be studied in some of these contemporary pieces. For my final assignment, she shared some of her books with me and pointed me in the right direction to analyze a contemporary YA novel in a way that would fit in with what the class wanted us to accomplish with Gothic Literature. Now that paper is part of my writing portfolio, and it’s the one I was able to present at that conference.
I think a good professor wants you to take what you learned in class and apply it in your own way; they just have to understand you before they let you do it because that way they can help you.
Go beyond what they expect not for them, but for you. University classes are interesting that way, because everything you’re doing, it’s not because someone is forcing you to. It’s because this is what you chose to study, so create works you can be proud of with the things that you learn.
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