Thursday, October 06, 2011

My First Day at School – Day of Shocks!

I still remember that day vividly. That was my first day of class for my Masters, Civil Engineering, in the US. On that day I was scared, nervous, excited, anxious and tense, all at the same time. I know I was there to pursue my Masters but the path I needed to take was so very unclear to me. I knew from the day I had registered for the courses that the path I need to take is so different and a difficult one. I as a student in India for my bachelors in civil engineering was used to classes that started at 8:00 AM and got over by 4:00 PM with one hour break for lunch. Here for my Masters I had to take only 9 hours of class in a week and the rest of the time I had for myself. 
As I was not used to the directions on the campus, on the day of the first class, I left my apartment early and reached the class 20 minutes before the start of the class. I was the first person to reach the class. I was eagerly waiting for other class mates for the next 2 years to come. To my surprise a middle aged man in his early forties with a back pack on his shoulders and a small cover from McDonalds in one hand and Pepsi in the other walked in and greeted me as if he knew me, took a seat and started eating while reading a book. I got really confused. Only 10 minutes was left for the class to start and here is a middle aged guy walking into the room and eating. “Am I in the correct room” – my mind kept on asking me. I went near this gentle man and asked him if he was there to attend this class and he nodded his head in positive. I went back to my seat. 
Just 5 minutes before the start of the class, a guy wearing T-shirt and shorts with a laptop bag came to the class. He took out the laptop, connected it and checked if it is working properly. I was thinking that he may be some helper, like we have in India who came to connect the laptop for the professor. Around that time 10 students came into the class with most of them having a food packet in their hands. 
Sharp 12:40 PM and the person whom I thought to be a helper – introduced himself; he was the professor who was going to teach us this course. That was a shocker for me. So many thoughts went through my mind – most important was that I never got up when he came to the class and wished him as we do in India – will he take that as an offence from my part? What is he going to tell those students who took food packets inside the class even after he started the class? 
As he was introducing himself another student came to the class. She did not wait to get permission to enter the class rather just walked into the class and took an empty seat. The total strength of the class was twelve by then. The professor was telling that a total of thirteen had registered that course and that is a big number for a graduate course! What? After sitting in classes of over 50 students, I was feeling like a class of thirteen was too small and the professor was just telling the opposite. 
The professor then asked each of us to introduce ourselves. Listening to others I realized one thing – I am the youngest and the least experienced. There was a 62 year old student who just retired from an airline company and joined for this Masters program. There were students from South America, Europe and China. Also I realized another important thing – each one of us were taking different subjects that semester and there is no concept of taking same subjects for the same degree program unlike in India if you are in the same degree program and joined the college in the same year you will be taking the same courses almost till the end of your course work. 
All of them had a lot to talk about while introducing them and when my turn came I had hardly anything to say. Moreover I was getting worried that there was no Indian in the class. As I was finishing my introduction, as if God had heard my prayer an Indian student appeared in the class room and asked “Can I come in Sir?” I could understand that the Professor was not happy seeing a student 10 minutes late and also for interrupting the class by asking permission to get into the class. 
This Indian guy came and sat near me to my happiness. He also did not have much to talk about himself as he also had no previous work experience and had come directly after finishing his bachelor’s degree in engineering. 
After the introductions were over, the professor gave a two page hand out to everyone in the class that had his name, email id and his office phone number to start with. Then it was mentioned “Office Hours”. I had no clue what that was. He told in the class that he had set up “Office Hours” on so and so time on so and so date and asked if any one had any issues with those timings. I had no clue what he was talking about and asked the Indian who was sitting near me. He had blank look on his face too that made me realize that both of us were in the same boat and hearing that for the first time. I did not have the guts to ask the professor what it meant by “office hours” as by the time after listening to the vast work experiences my other classmates had, an inferiority complex had already crept into me. 
Now the next shocker – it was written in the hand out “No need to buy a text book”. Professor told in the class that he would be referring to multiple books and peer reviewed journal papers and he will give hand-out where ever necessary. At that time I did not know what this “peer reviewed journal papers” were and to make things worst I heard “peer” as “beer”! 
Next in that hand out was the grading policy – coming from a system that has only exams and exams it looked so different. One-fourth of the total marks were for the seven home works we needed to submit, 25% for one mid term, forty percent for the open book conceptual final and 10% for class participation. Both of us could digest the home work part and mid term but open book conceptual final and marks for class participation was new and novel. 
Professor explained about the open book conceptual final for this course – one can bring any number of books, notes and even your laptop and there is no time limit. I was thinking – if I can bring my class notes and text books then copy from there, then it should be a very easy exam to write. (Three months down the line when I wrote that open book conceptual exam I realized how wrong I was – it still remains one of the toughest exams I have ever written in my life. Exam started around 5:00 PM and by the time I gave the paper back it was close to 11:00 PM and by the time the entire class finished the exam it was well past mid night. I carried more than 10 books with me and I must admit that I could not get an answer to even a single question from those books. That day I understood the meaning of “conceptual open book exam”). 
Just when both of us were digesting the concept of open book exam, here comes another googly. Ten percent of the marks were given based on class participation – more you participate in discussions and ask good questions to the professors the chances are that you get more marks. With the negative vibes that was building around me I told myself “I am going to get zero marks in class participation”. 
Now the professor gave another handout. It had five fundamental questions regarding the subject. Professor told in the class that he wants to know where each of us stood in the class so that he can design the course work accordingly. Couple of questions I could not even understand and I could hardly write answers to other questions. I looked at the Indian student sitting near me and he was looking at me. Other students in the class were busy solving the questions and we were looking at each other. 
By the time we finished the answers it was 1:55 PM and time to end 75 minutes of shocking moments of my life. Professor and all the students left the room but the other Indian student and I did not feel like leaving the room. Even though we had not met or talked before, last 75 minutes in class made us realize that we had so many things in common and needed to work together if we had to survive. Before I could ask anything, he asked me the question I wanted to ask him “Did we make the right decision to come to the US for Masters” for which I replied with not much optimism “I hope so”. The first day of the class had scared both of us to death. 
Looking back now, both of us went to the first class a decade ago, without any idea of how the education system in US worked. All we knew was the Indian system of education and the very first class made us realize how different the US system of education was. 
Move few years forward, the other Indian guy became my very close friend and he went on to complete Masters and is now working in the US for the last eight years. I did my PhD after completing my Masters. Even now both of us can never forget the first day – a day when we thought we will never be able to get a degree from an US university.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can so relate to it Brijesh :)

October 06, 2011 10:08 PM  
Anonymous Peeyush Khare (VIT) said...

That was fascinating. You have come from a country where I intend to go in a few months from now and what more, for the same purpose. Your experiences help me in conditioning myself for the things to come. It will be fun I guess. :)

October 07, 2011 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Rahul Kalbalia said...

Sir, the article is awesome and I am so fascinated by this. your article reflects the difference we will have when we transcend from VIT to some good school abroad. I can see how vividly you remember your first day

October 07, 2011 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Brijesh,

Nice article. I was curious to know if you get opportunities to implement best practices from US schools in your teaching at VIT.


October 08, 2011 3:11 AM  
Blogger Brijesh Nair said...

Yes I try my best to implement lot of that I studied in US. I think my students who are reading this will be the right people to answer you. Read this one and the comments what I wrote soon after I completed my first semester.

October 09, 2011 11:48 AM  
Anonymous nish said...

ha ha.. God!.. totally went through this in my first class too!

October 10, 2011 6:26 PM  

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