The world is our oyster. The correspondents on this site who have shared tales from Ghana, South Korea, England, Scotland, and France are only a small sample of the more than 850 Gilman Scholars who are having life-changing experiences all over the globe. While we chose our host countries for a variety of reasons, one common draw was the challenge and adventure of navigating a foreign culture far from home.
With that opportunity comes risk. Setbacks are an inevitable part of any journey. Some can be anticipated, others take us by surprise, but all can be overcome with the right attitude. That’s what I’ve learned these last three weeks here in New Zealand.
One difficulty I saw coming was the different testing and grading style of a big university compared to that of a small liberal arts college. At Pomona College, my professors know me personally. They know I don’t cheat, and when I submit work that is incorrect, they can compare my answers to what they know about me as a student to figure out exactly where I went wrong. At University of Canterbury (UC), my Physics 101 professor can’t possibly learn the names of all 700 students in my class, much less trust them on a test. Similarly, graders faced with a foot-tall stack of Statistics 101 assignments don’t have time to dissect strange-looking answers.
I was confident going into my first Physics 101 test. After studying for seven hours, I aced the online practice test with time to spare. I had so strong a memory for the material that I didn’t even bother with the reference sheet I was allowed. Instead of filling the sheet with important equations, I thought it would be funny if I made a colorful crayon drawing of a boy flying a kite. So, that’s what I did.
I got a four out of ten on the test, not for lack of a serious cheat sheet, but because the strict testing procedures made me nervous. I had to show my ID and calculator at the door, leave all my belongings at the front of the room, then sit with empty desks on both sides of me to discourage cheating. Once told to do so, I opened the booklet and had exactly one hour to finish the machine-graded, multiple-choice test.
As soon as I hit one small stumbling block, I panicked! I remembered the formulas, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to work the problems through from start to finish. It made me miss Pomona’s casual, take-your-time approach to testing. Fortunately, it was only worth a small portion of my final grade. I’ll be ready next time.
My first Statistics 101 assignment was a similar story. I submitted it assuming I’d get an A. Despite doing all my calculations correctly, I got only half credit because I didn’t display my data in the correct format. For example, I lost points on one of my graphs because the values on its y-axis were expressed as absolute values instead of percent values. It seemed so nit-picky, but that’s the attention to detail that’s needed here, and now I know. For my next assignment, I’ll print it out in advance and ask for feedback before I turn it in. Problem solved!
If only all problems were so straightforward….
My girlfriend and I had been dating for two years. We planned to marry each other someday. This month, she broke up with me.
Long distance was nothing new for us. That’s how we had spent most of our relationship. But once she started graduate school last semester, she started to make new friends and see new career opportunities. Without either of us realizing it, she started to drift away from me. At some point, our long-distance relationship stopped being a buoy for her. It became an anchor. She didn’t want to put her life on hold for a future with me that was still two years away, so she cut the rope. I don’t blame her.
I had a good cry the night she broke the news to me, but she said she did it for both of us and I understand that now. The longer we had been together, the more reclusive I had become. It’s hard to be present when half your heart is hundreds of miles away. Instead of engaging with those around me, I used to busy myself with solitary pursuits like reading and video games. It got to the point that I hardly had a social life outside my girlfriend. I made little effort to stay in touch with old friends, and no effort to make new ones. Not anymore!
I had an epiphany recently that I’m afraid of putting myself in situations where I must compete for peoples’ attention. So, what am I doing now? Exactly that. I’m joining clubs left and right, chatting up strangers, making new friends, and accepting invitations I normally would have turned down. Basically, I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone and seeing what happens. I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing, but at least I’m doing something, and it seems to be paying off.
So far this month, I’ve joined six student clubs and attended 13 meetings. I’m cycling with UC Bike Club, speaking with UC Spanish Club, tasting with UC Wine Club, grooving with Defy Dance, and doing community service with the Student Volunteer Army. Through these activities, I’ve made several friends who I never would have met otherwise. I’m also growing closer to my flatmates, who continue to impress me with their friendliness and consideration. Things are looking up.
I’ll end with an update on my cycling, and mention one ride that perfectly sums up my experience these last three weeks.
After weeks of searching, I finally pulled the trigger on a 2014 Trek 1.1 road bike that was listed online. My patience paid off. Although it’s three years old, it hadn’t been ridden at all before I bought it, so I basically got a brand-new bike for a 40% discount! In my three weeks of ownership, I’ve ridden 250 miles all over the city.
My most memorable ride was on a Wednesday night. It started as the sun was setting and continued past dark. So many things could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t. I won’t list all the near misses here, I’ll just share the one that best describes my mood right now.
I was on my way home riding through downtown when I became distracted by a giant neon sign outside the Christchurch Art Gallery. In colorful, all-capital letters, it proclaimed EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. That’s when the front wheel of my bike slotted into a streetcar track, flinging me sideways. (For added irony, this happed right in front of a street sign warning cyclists of this very hazard!) I fell, but I got up again. The bike was undamaged, I was uninjured, and I have a feeling that everything is going to be alright.