Monday, January 02, 2012

Notes from the reunion: "College changed me"

Padma was one non-stop laughing machine.  At one point, Sreenivas walked over to the table where I was seated with Padma and a few others, and tried to see if he could get her to be serious at least for a minute.

But, as he walked over, Sreenivas himself started laughing.  Such was/is the nature of Padma's infectious laughter.

Sreenivas composed himself and told Padma to look straight into his eyes.  But, again, he cracked up almost in an instant.

As Sreenivas walked away, I told Padma that I did not recall her being such a laughing person when we were in school.

"College changed me" she said.

The transformative powers of college!

In the US, we routinely advise students about the importance of college years, for content acquisition as well as to develop a sense of who we are.  The best experiences, then, bring out the best in us.

While it might be true that whatever didn't kill us only makes us stronger, my undergraduate experiences were far from pleasant.  It was graduate schooling later on that provided that transformative experience.

I recall one experience in my first semester as a fresh-off-the-boat graduate student.  It was in the planning theory class, with Martin Krieger as the instructor.

Having shifted from engineering to a completely new field, in a new country, where the educational system was completely different, I never ever felt out of place like I did in that classroom.

A couple of weeks in, we were discussing the readings.  I had something to say.  But, as I started speaking, I started sweating out of sheer nervousness.  I bet the class looked at me with sympathy.

A couple more weeks later, we turned in the first of the papers in Krieger's class.  Again, never having written essays all through the four years of college, I had no idea how to write papers.

When Krieger returned the evaluated papers back, I had earned a gentleman "C."


I felt crushed.  Not that I was chasing the magical 4.0 GPA; I was, after all, the same old high school student who couldn't care about grades.  But, a "C" was a shock.

I worried that I had erred in ditching electrical engineering and getting into intellectual areas that were far beyond my abilities.

There was nobody to talk to about this.  But, the wonderful aspect of being an adult, as opposed me in my teenage years, was this: I was able to work it out within me.

Now, when I write opinion pieces in newspapers, for instance, I get appreciative remarks about my writing.  In my classes, when it comes to students making presentations in class, I often share with them my own experiences at having been awful as a student.  I go one step more, and tell them, "if you think I am a bad teacher now, well, you should be glad that you were not in my classes a decade ago."

For me, the transformation that began in graduate school continues even now.  I wonder how I will be a couple more decades from now.

Maybe I will get to share such stories at the next reunion with my high school classmates.  As I say these, perhaps Padma will keep laughing throughout.  Sudha will laugh along.  Yasmeen will also laugh throughout, but a lot quieter is her laugh.  And, we will all laugh with them.

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