An international student’s perspective on American academic culture and collaboration

It’s been a while since my last post, and the semester has been in full swing (excuses, excuses… I know). It’s great to come back rejuvenated from the fall break, but I have to say the day before fall break was pretty great as well. As part of the GLFP we get the opportunity to do a knowledge sharing activity, and with guidance from Lorelle and Bridget, we came up with my topic and setting. I spoke about the American academic culture from the perspective of an international student, reflecting back on my experiences as an international undergraduate at NC State. The best part was that I got to share my experience with fellow international students from the MEM/MEng conversation club. The focus on my talk was on team collaborations, something that I hadn’t experienced prior to my undergraduate education. One of the biggest changes I had encountered was the shift from a “I am competing to be the best” attitude to a “I am working with team members to be our best” attitude. It wasn’t easy, but I definitely learned a lot.

But before I delved into this aspect of my education, I provided a quick overview of my background and shared some memorable aspects from my birth country (India) and country of residence(U.A.E.). It was great to share this; it felt like I was giving a mini cultural presentation at the end of Friday seminars. I tried to capture audience interest with (attempted) humor, and then moved on to more serious matter – my experience in an American academic setting. I really appreciate being able to get a more hands-on experience by applying theoretical knowledge to practical applications; it definitely provided me with an enriching engineering education. I was also surprised by the choice we had as students in our curriculum. It may seem strange to domestic students, but this was totally new to me. I actually got to choose courses, based on interest or on career aspirations. To be really involved in your curriculum also highlighted the proactive approach encouraged here. It’s important to take an initiative; it’s encouraged. This could be in your course, and even in your job search and later, your career. It’s an indicator of motivation and true interest.

Working in teams definitely meant I had to learn to become flexible, to accommodate changes not only in my schedule, but unanticipated changes in my team mate’s as well. It meant understanding our strengths and maintaining a positive attitude, even when facing challenging situations. It also meant learning to give up the control of doing every aspect of the assignment, and learning to trust my teammates to give our collective best efforts to the project. Through all this, motivation is important, and to take things a step further, purpose is important as well. Finding the purpose in collaboration, it’s what takes us through the challenges. Why do they make us work in teams during undergraduate study and during grad study as part of the MEM/MEng programs? It simulates the work environment, in which global collaboration is increasingly prevalent. So to prepare one’s mindset while going into an academic team project could be learning to better contribute in the workplace as a team member. I don’t have work experience, and that importance has still not set in my mind. “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson, changed that for me though. Creative collaboration is emphasized throughout this great read. Isaacson shows concrete examples of great strides made in technology as a result of teamwork (and effective business acumen, collectively, to turn an idea into an innovation). So I can see these products: computers, smartphones, and even medical devices, like MRI scanners or pacemakers, and know that these great advances are a result of collaboration. It drives me to do better in teams, to learn and build my skill to better contribute in a team that could perhaps produce the next big product, the next big thing. So finding a purpose and having a positive mindset would get the team getting off to a good start and maintains this even when going through a rough patch.

Some practical steps to consider: Set up a team charter; come to a team understanding on addressing potential conflicts that could come up during the course of the project. It also helps to find out what motivates you to work well in a team. Go into the project with a positive attitude. During the project, it’s important to have an open communication, where you can voice your view, while maintaining a respectful attitude. Communication is key! Take initiative and take the first step out of your comfort zone. Get to know your teammates, their strengths, how you can complement for what the others may lack and try to find out what motivates all as a team. Get more out of your college team experiences. It may be uncomfortable at first to work with people who you don’t really know, but that’s reality as well. You may not know all your co-workers at first, but you learn to build that trust, and you won’t believe why you didn’t get to know them earlier on in life. Be open to the experience, stay positive, and maybe you just might be in the winning team that creates the next big thing.

Thanks to my wonderful fellow international students who took the time, just before fall break to actively engage in this session! Shout out to fellow GLF, Laura, who came out to support me during this activity. Her work experience and views on overcoming common collaboration challenges were very valuable to this session.

Best wishes for happiness and prosperity for everyone this Navratri!

About Rajalekha Manjakuppam Rajamahendiran

Hi! I am Rajalekha Manjakuppam Rajamahendiran, a Master of Engineering student in biomedical engineering at Duke University (House Babenclaw). I was born in India and spent most of my life in Dubai, and completed my undergraduate study in biomedical engineering at NC State. My passion lies in improving healthcare accessibility and affordability globally through innovative and improved medical device design.
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