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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Coke Ad Shows True Beauty of the United States

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This column originally appears in St. Cloud Times, Monday, February 10, 2014. 

If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you should be aware of the controversy Coca-Cola stirred up with its new ad titled “It’s Beautiful.” The 60-second ad featured “America, the Beautiful,” sung in seven languages during scenes of Americans of different ethnicities spending time together.

Soon after the ad aired, outrage swiftly broke out on Twitter and Facebook, as evidenced by a newly created hashtag: #SpeakAmerican. Apparently, many Americans do not think Coca-Cola, as a U.S. corporation, should advertise in languages other than English.

As an international student pursuing my studies in the United States, it is ignorant for some Americans to feel the only language that should be used in their everyday lives is English.

While many who protested against Coca-Cola for showcasing non-English languages in the context of a patriotic song think that such action was anti-American, these critics might not have realized that multilingualism is the reality in America.

According to the latest American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, many people living in the U.S. speak languages other than English, despite the predominance of English as the quasi-official language in America. In the survey, the Census Bureau created a list of 381 languages spoken by Americans and reported that 22 percent of Americans do not consider themselves good English speakers.

Given these conditions, many U.S. citizens are still blind to the fact that the American society is constantly diversifying into a multicultural community.

Reproaching the ad, some tweeters expressed they felt un-American for drinking Coke. Many said they were disgusted by how a patriotic song is sung in different languages. Some even said they would boycott Coke for allowing an American anthem to be reproduced in “a terrorist language.” (It should be pointed out, for anyone confused on the matter, that America’s actual national anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

Without endorsing any Coke products, I stand by the brand’s intention to send out a good message during an event watched by at least one-third of Americans. After airing the commercial, Coke tweeted: “The only thing more beautiful than this country are the people who live here.”

Coke has probably realized how that is not quite true.

To say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder is fairly accurate. As one of the most controversial Super Bowl ads this year, Coke did not rely on usual tactics — humor, terror, catchy tunes or clever wordplay — but captured our attention by simply reflecting the reality of life in America.

That is the real beauty.

Thanks, creators of the Coke ad, for reminding America that multiculturalism and diversity should be valued and emphasized in our society. It’s a shame not everyone thinks this way.

Accept it or not, multiculturalism is what America is founded upon. Coke’s ad did not push that concept down anyone’s throat. Truly, “America, the Beautiful” by any other language is still “America, the Beautiful.”

I am a member of the Times Writers Group. My article appears every second Monday of the month in St. Cloud Times opinion page.

Image: Adweek.com

Keep the Resolutions Afloat

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This column originally appears in St. Cloud Times, Monday, January 13, 2014. This is the pre-edited version of the article. 

As we celebrate the beginning of a new calendar year, quite often we are prompted to make new resolutions and plans to try something new, or to do something differently. Many of us scribble new goals, or rewrite old ambitions – cheering to a brand new year and another chance to “get it right.”

But hey, it’s only the second week of the new chapter, and I have already found myself slacking on my new diet plans and exercise routine. I am pretty sure I am not alone; my friends have tried to avoid the topic when I asked them how they are keeping up with their new plans.

So, it came to my realization that maybe we should try to do better at what we are already doing rather than forcing ourselves to be someone new or different.

While re-evaluating my New Year’s resolutions, it dawned on me that I have always wanted to “be different” every year. I have made resolutions to be an outdoor person, to volunteer at an animal shelter, and to bring world peace. Yet, none of these has happened. Being different has been a cliché that works pretty well in sales pitches, on marketing banners, and in motivational talks. But when it comes to its practicality, “being different” a very difficult shoe to wear.

Ask yourself this: When was the last time you did something completely out of your element? I can’t recall any new venture I have embarked on for the past couple of years. A lot of my endeavors were extensions of my routine. I read more, wrote more, and reached out to more people through various social means; I have been doing these for as long as I can remember.

Hence, to go beyond the pale – to make resolution – is less about being different and more about setting new standards based on current goals – to be more and better than what one already is.

Sleep more. Read more. Run more. Spend more time with family and friends. Do more than what you did last year.

By focusing your energy on aspirations that are grounded in your present lifestyle, you are setting yourself up for success – or at least, a better chance for accomplishing these goals by next New Year’s Eve.

Sure, you would still like to try something different this year, maybe pick up a new hobby of some sort. The key to turning this resolution into a reality is integrating it into your lifestyle, making it an extension of your routine. For instance, if you would like to learn a new language this year – say, French – for personal enrichment, make it a point to bring it into your workplace to increase your productivity or to learn it with your children so you can spend more time with them. That way, your new resolution becomes an amplification of the quality of your life.

With the New Year spirit still fresh on our horizon, we should pause to look back at our grandiose list of all the things we plan to do differently in 2014, and recreate these items in the language of improvement instead of change.

My article appears every second Monday of the month in St. Cloud Times editorial. 

Image by Adventure Time: Be More