Studying Abroad: Do You Speak English?

Do you speak English? That’s the question that most of the people ask when you tell them that you want to study abroad. However, studying abroad requires more than having good foreign language skills. That’s what I learned since I arrived Blacksburg, VA to pursue my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. In this blog, I will share my experience so far. Just to give you an idea, everything was new for me, so I had to learn pretty much the whole thing and guess how did I learn? Making mistakes all the time!!

Let’s start! I went to my first class and I was ready to take notes in my notebook as usual. Then, I realized that I was the only student who did not bring the laptop to the class. I was wondering to myself, did I miss the announcement of bringing the laptop? It turned out that this is the way how most of the students take notes in class. In Colombia, we use binders all the time mainly because in most of the civil engineering courses there are a lot of equations and problems. I tried to use my laptop several times but I just gave up, this is not comfortable for me.

Then, I was expecting the professor to use the board to give his class, but guess what? He did not use the board for the entire semester. Professors have prepared their entire class in slides and they do not mind to share those slides with students. In Colombia, if a professor has slides, which is very unusual, he/she is very reluctant to share the material. To be honest, I have no idea why? Here, classes pass so fast that you cannot even notice. In Colombia, classes are 120 minutes long meanwhile here, classes are, on average, 55 – 75 minutes long.

Let’s talk about exams. When I was about to start studying for my first exam I did not know what I should study. I felt that I knew and understood all the topics. This feeling was very weird for me because, in Colombia, you have to look for the copies of the exams proctored in the last 10 years so you have enough material to practice. In addition, students do around 100 exercises from the books. Even, sometimes students invent potential problems that they may have on the exam. After all that work, students feel kind of well prepared for the exam. What is the difference?

First, professors of public universities in Colombia always want students to fail on the exams. Do not misunderstand that expression! But this is the way how I see it. Students always have to solve the most difficult problems during the exams. They may spend hours working on that and sometimes the problem does not even have a solution! Second, assignments are not something common during the courses. That’s why we are not well prepared when the time of the exam comes. Here in the United States, assignments are part of the courses. On average, students have to do one assignment every two weeks. That’s why I was prepared for the exam without having to study so much. Also, professors want students to do well on the exams. They do not add tricky questions or problems. Everything is pretty much the same to what students did on the assignments.

The question that you may have is, why do professors not provide assignments as part of their courses? The answer is quite simple. We do not have the figure of teaching assistant well developed in Colombia. So, they would have to spend a lot of time grading the assignments plus the fact that they also have to grade the exams. Professors have, on average, 40 – 50 students per class and they have to teach, at least, two courses per semester. They can not do it. Do not forget that they also have to “try” to do research!

Two things really surprised me here. First, how quickly a professor answers you an email and second, the fact that they are always available during their office hours. Even, if they cannot make it, they notify students of their absence. In Colombia, students have to spy professors so they can find them. It means that you usually do not find them during their “supposed” office hours.

So, if somebody tells you that you need to speak English or another language to study abroad, tell him/her that you need more than that if you want to succeed there! You have to learn the culture, the education system, and so on..


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