US classroom is informal but rigorous
On the first day of my Master’s (Civil Engineering) at an American university, I feel nervous and all the more diffident. Being the first to arrive in the class, I wait for others to join me when a man carrying a rucksack, a McDonalds pack and a Pepsi walks in. He seems to be in his early 40s, greets me, takes a seat, and begins to eat while reading a book.I ask him if he is there to attend the class. He nods his head in the affirmative. I am puzzled.
Next enters a man wearing T-shirt and shorts and carrying a laptop. As he connects and tests the laptop, I find myself guessing he should be one of the technicians like the ones we are so used to in India. Around this time about 10 students march in, most of them carrying food packets.
At 12:40 pm sharp, the ‘technician’ introduces himself as the professor! I think uneasily that I had not stood up to greet him on arrival as we do in India. Won’t the professor take that as a sign of disrespect? And what will he tell the students who have brought food inside the classroom? The professor makes a cool remark that 13 students registering for the course is a ‘big number’ for a graduate course. I have never heard even a class of 50 students being described as a ‘big number’ in India!
The 10 books that I will be carrying with me will not result in ready-made answers to any of the questions. The exam will be starting five in the evening and by the time the last examinee will have finished it will be well past midnight. ‘Class participation’ turns out to be participation in discussions and asking questions, leaving us more daunted.
Here comes another handout in the form of five questions about the subject to be answered by the students. The information is needed to design the course-work appropriately. As usual, we Indians again find ourselves struggling like anything.
The class is over at 1:55 p.m. Students and the professor leave the room but we the Indian pair are too out of our depth to think of leaving immediately. We both wonder if we made the right decision in coming to the US for our Master’s. We also decide that we need to work together if we have to survive.
A few years later, the other Indian became a close friend. After completing his Master’s, he has been working in the US for eight years. I did my PhD and currently work in India.
The two of us can never forget the day when we thought we will never be able to get a degree from a US university.
Brijesh did his Master's and PhD from Arizona State University, Tempe, US.