An International Perspective on the Values of American Education

This article first appeared in St. Cloud Times on Monday, May 12, 2014.

Toward the end of the St. Cloud State University school year, I asked on my Facebook page what I should be writing for this last column in the Times. Almost unanimously, my friends expressed interest in my experience as an international student in the United States.

Because I will be graduating graduated from my master’s program this month, this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the educational experience I have had in St. Cloud.

My first taste of America was a microwaved airplane meal served during my connecting flight from Japan to San Francisco. It was August 2009 when I first stepped foot in St. Cloud, and my first thought was, “This is it?”

I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. My dad was a fan of American action movies. Since I was young I have been exposed to the United States as represented by Hollywood. So, it’s no surprise that my mental image of the states is far flashier than my initial impression of St. Cloud.

But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this friendly and cozy community. Upon my arrival, I have received tremendous help settling into a new environment from members of the campus and community. Though many communication textbooks informed me American culture is individualistic, I experienced almost the opposite here. The folks here are rather supportive to non-native students, and they value diversity.

Due to this welcoming atmosphere, I was given the freedom to explore the American education system without feeling like an unequal participant in the learning process.

Rigorous education

What struck me most about the American system was its sheer openness and rigor. I was pushed to think more critically than ever before, and I was surprised to learn asking questions in class was actually encouraged, not seen as disrespectful — as it would be in most Malaysian universities.

I have become more vocal and active in my learning, and I learned to think critically about the concepts professors taught. In fact, being proactive in learning transcends the classroom. The friendly campus has encouraged me to participate in student organizations and committees that serve different needs.

This sort of liveliness is uncommon in many countries, and it is certainly rare in Malaysia, where the focus is on a rigid, coursework-only curriculum. Cliché as it may sound, my experience with some student groups enabled me to learn how to work in teams and with people from diverse backgrounds.

Global understanding

My interactions with my peers in America also challenged me to see the world from different lights.

As a growing adult, I am fortunate to be able to expand my global horizon in the heart of Minnesota by relating to people from different walks of life. In many ways, I was shaped by this community just as I had been by Malaysia in my first 18 years.

As a student in St. Cloud, I have developed a greater understanding of the history of North America and race relations in the United States. Through my friends from 30-plus countries, I have learned the different geographic, demographic and cultural aspects of their home countries — topics bluntly covered in Malaysian textbooks.

Likewise, I was able to share my cultures and traditions with my American and international friends. I introduced them to the unique cuisines we have in Southeast Asia and shared with them the values held dearly in Malaysian society. This was not knowledge my friends and I garnered within the brick-and-mortar classroom, but through genuine conversations and discussions that went beyond academic topics. Such candid interactions played an important part in my professional and personal development.

Overall, my experience in an American education system and community has been transformational. It is undoubtedly the best investment my parents have made for me, and I am grateful for every opportunity I had to widen my perspective.

As I return home for a break this summer, I plan to share with my Malaysian friends the stories of my American life and to encourage those who plan to study abroad to consider American universities.

Changing Times: Meshing Lessons and Gadgets

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This column originally appeared in St. Cloud Times, Monday, March 10, 2014. 

I am among the generation of children who grew up on the Internet. My daily life revolves around different screens, from my laptop to smartphone to music player. I am addicted to instant information. And I am drawn to cultural memes that I consider funny, intuitive and expressive.

But I am also a scholar-teacher. While working on my master’s degrees, I am teaching a first-year writing course where I work closely with college students. The small talk in my classroom often hinges on celebrity gossip, new models of technology and social media. My dual role in the higher education context has informed me about what it means to be a student, as well as how to be a teacher for students of the 21st century. I find the latter part of the equation becoming more and more crucial in my professional development as technology evolves.

Paradigm shift

Most literature on education in the digital age discusses the paradigm shift of the traditional, face-to-face teaching model into network-mediated, nonlinear delivery methods. Cynthia Johnston Turner, a music professor at Cornell University, urged educators to adapt to the evolving digital culture.

“Some of us might find this concept unsettling, disturbing or even dangerous, but a paradigm shift is occurring and educators need to evolve with it,” Turner wrote in USA TODAY.

I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching, I simply recreated what I knew about instruction from my observation as a student: I stood in front of the classroom; I lectured from my notes; and I assigned homework.

Yet during just the past few semesters, I convinced myself I was wrong. I have learned that classroom control is indeed an illusion. Students are probably just waiting for that split second when the instructor is not looking to pull out their phones.

I found myself committing the same transgression in my own graduate classes! I realized in most class sessions, I set my phone on the desk and tap it occasionally. I would scroll through Facebook feeds and check my email.

Just use the tools

Instead of seeing myself as the benevolent dictator, I wanted to change the climate of technology use in the classroom.

I now designate BYOD (bring your own device) days where students do individual and group work in class using their writing technology. During the semester, I introduce applications and software that are helpful for students’ learning management (such as note-taking and vocabulary apps). Outside class time, students can communicate with me and their peers via a closed Facebook group. I have also designed some assignments that center on issues with technology.

As a result, students are becoming more aware of their use of technology. The classroom becomes a site for students to think critically, as well as to reflect and share their experience with technology. Learning hence becomes student-centered.

Students also like their assignments more when they consider what they are working on relevant to their daily lives.

Echoing Turner’s advice, the evolutionary changes that teachers are experiencing in their classrooms today are something that needs to be recognized and respected.

On teaching in the 21st century, Turner remarked, “What can we do about it (technological innovations)? We could blow up the traditional model and start over, including putting a halt to all of the expensive building happening on campuses. Or, we could recognize the problem and start changing how we teach, day to day, class to class.”

While I am not an expert in education, my experience in the classroom has given me useful insights about teaching and learning in the 21st century. That is, we have to evolve with time and technology.

Otherwise, as Turner put it, “we may go the way of the dinosaur.”

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