An anonymous international LSE student reflects on the struggles and challenges of studying in a different country
It’s been a long time since I felt what it means to be a new student. A nostalgic look at the past brings me 4 years back to the first semester of my BA, which was characterized mainly by multiple panic attacks and a very slow adjustment to the big change in my life. Until now, I had forgotten how all this felt, so the return to student life, plus being an international student (also a new experience) has hit me hard, really hard.
Probably anyone who comes back to academia after some time off can identify with my feelings but I’m here to talk specifically about the experience of being a foreign student. Before talking about the most obvious problem, the language, I want to talk about another problem which is what happens to your self confidence in this change.
We all know (or not?) that being accepted to LSE is not simple at all. All students that come to study here (and especially postgraduates) are students who exceeded in their BA. I for example (well, it’s really the only example I can give because this blog post is about me) used to be the student who explained everything to other students who didn’t understand. I was the student who taught other students (for free! Because knowledge shouldn’t cost money…) and prepared them for exams. Now suddenly, without any warning I’m at the bottom of the pyramid and it sucks. I find myself finishing lectures without really understanding what I just heard, always feeling that I’m running beyond everyone in the class. What is even worse is that I can’t yet express any critical thought. If you do not yet understand what you are learning you cannot critique it.
Occasionally, mostly in seminars (where I get to embarrass myself in front of fewer people), I hear this stupid person talking. Usually it takes me a few seconds to understand that the stupid talking person is me. How is it that expressing my opinion, something that once was so easy for me, has become mission impossible? That leads me to the second difficulty – language.
Without pointing to the obvious (lack of vocabulary, slower reading etc.) there is also the frustration caused by the speed contradiction – my brain thinks really fast while my mouth doesn’t manage to keep up with my brain. I think Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996) could probably be used to analyze my problem.
The last issue (although not less important) is the issue of shame. The shame! How many times in class do you think is appropriate for one person to say, “Sorry, I didn’t understand you, can you explain it again please?” At some point you have to adopt the nodding system. It goes something like this: when you find yourself talking to other people who you do not feel confident to tell that you do not understand a word of what they’re saying, you simply nod your head up and down (not too fast!) and smile. If you feel confident about Step 1 you can also add a few words like “I agree” or “You’re right” – but don’t push it! I really hope that this method is working, because if not, in addition to sounding stupid I also look crazy.
Anyway, rumor has it that in time it will get better. At the moment I continue to run in hope of reaching the finishing line. There is real competition here between LSE and me, and right now the score is 1:0 to LSE.
Luckily, there is still time until the end of the race and as for me, well… I have just started to warm up.