Monday, 20 May 2013

An Exchange Student's Academic Experience

So in the post below I talked about the greatest thing the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC) gave me, friendships that changed my life. However, at the end of the day I'm still a student, exchange or otherwise, so it'll be irresponsible of me if I didn't talk about the academic side of these last semester.

Now future exchange students from Singapore or other major Asian universities, there is a grand rumour of how easy studying is going to be if you go on exchange in USA. I learnt the hard way that there are exceptions to this rule, even outside the set of legendary universities known as the Ivy League and other similarly prestigious colleges. I spent my semester in UNC, a university that no one outside of the US has even heard of, and I got my ass handed to me by the workload. Back in NUS, most lecturers gave students a week or two to settled down before ramping up the pace. Here in UNC though, you hit the ground sprinting. Within the first week, the first of our numerous assignments comes in and the pace doesn't drop at all till the end of the semester.

Sure if you intend to coast right through, you could forget about doing all the coursework and attempt to barely escape a failing grade to get your credits transferred back but you could very well do that in your home university. If you wish to get a respectable grade however, you're going to have to work hard for it. And work hard I did. I was stuck in the drawing studio till at least 3am no fewer than twice trying to finish off an assignment and countless more times in the comfort of my own room.

Those of you who were closely reading that last sentence would've noticed I said drawing studio which brings me to my favourite part of UNC's academics. UNC boasts its own studio art department, together with its own art museum. Now I'm a computer science major but graphic design has always been a point of interest for me, so much so that there was a point in my life where I actually considered the possibility of pursuing a BFA instead of a BComp. NUS does not offer anything remotely close to digital art or studio art so when I found out that UNC had a studio art department, I immediately jumped on the chance and took two studio art courses. Doing studio art was certainly a refreshing change of pace from my coding-intense 2.5 years. Considering that this is the first time I've ever done art properly since forever, I'm actually quite proud of what I managed to produce.

Nevertheless, being a Comp Sci. major, it's impossible to completely avoid coding so I took a serious game design course because that was the closest thing they offered to game design course. Let's just say that it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. The lecturer spent half the semester covering game design topics that I was already familiar with and spent the second half making all the students present 'research topics' which were essentially 10 minute guest lectures by the student in the class. The second half was mostly hit and miss to say the least. However, what took the cake was my final project group. Since the course was a special course which non-computing students could take, we had one person in our four man team who was an English literature major and fellow Singaporean exchange student so the remaining coding had to be managed by the remaining three of us. The kicker was that the two team members who were supposed to be the most likely to go AWOL ended up being the two who had to carry the entire workload of the team. I'm not asking to be given my regular coding team from back in Singapore but at least give me a team that could do work. When 95% of your code base was contributed by the one person who's grade doesn't transfer, you know you should either reconsider your field or some of the life choices you're making. Needless to say, our final product was lacklustre at best, salvaged only by the design document which was written almost entirely by our non-coding team member.

To sum it all up, this exchange experience taught me a couple of lessons which I feel should be shared . Firstly, for all you software engineering folk and other similarly team-oriented majors, never ever underestimate the importance of team dynamics. If you find a team that works well with you, never ever let that team our of your sights. Secondly and by far more importantly, don't just treat an exchange as a semester long holiday. I'm not saying that one should forsake experiencing the country for a regime of book bashing in the library nightly but do not forget that even if your grades don't transfer back, you're here as a student and nothing else. Choose to study things that aren't offered back home or at very least things that would interest you greatly. If you find an intersect between both sets, it's as good as finding gold.

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