…to quote Professor Albus Dumbledore. Although there are no Azkaban criminals or huge snakes to fight at Columbia, as an international graduate student, life hasn’t been easy. It is my first time in the United States, and there’s simply too much to handle: personal finance, transportation, putting up furniture, discussions on Canvas, getting social security numbers, looking for internships. Fortunately, at Columbia, you will never be helpless, as long as you ask.
There is no such thing as a silly question
I heard those words at my international graduate student orientation. It was such a relief when I realized it’s OK to ask questions, because I had assumed asking simple questions without looking them up first might be considered rude or dumb. However, you don’t necessarily have to know everything. It is totally normal if you don’t know how to reply to discussion assignments, which building your classroom is, where to tap the student ID, or what “Kahoot” is. Trust me, I’ve been there.
But at the end of the day, you should take care of your needs, not other people’s judgments. Once I realized that I am (literally) an alien in this country, I embraced this identity and asked questions whenever I didn’t understand. Surprisingly, people are actually excited to help, and the fact that they help you will also make their day. Asking questions makes life so much easier.
Make connections so more people can help you
Connecting with people is hard for introverts, I get it. It’s even harder when you add language barriers and cultural differences. As an introvert, I always hesitate to randomly start conversations with people or mingle at mixers. I actually don’t know how mingling works. Is there a book that teaches you how to do that?
But to navigate grad school, you need as much help as you can. When you don’t know who to ask, it’s helpful when you make connections with people around you and talk about those issues with classmates, faculty, TAs, or Career Center staff. You will find their answers can connect the dots within the bigger picture, directing you to some person or resource that will actually help you solve your problem.
Be patient, be like water
In real life Thor doesn’t always come down from the sky to help save the day. Sometimes when there’s a huge problem getting in your way, and you can’t help thinking, why is this happening to me? You can easily drown in negative emotions while the problem itself stands like a rock.
It is really important to notice when you need help, as well as to understand the exact problem you need help with. To quote Bruce Lee, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.” When we don’t have the power to change the environment, we always have it within us to change our way of dealing with it, to adjust to it, and that can eventually change the status quo.
As an international student, I found empowerment in talking with people and asking for help. At Columbia, help will always be given.