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Learning from professors

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APRIL 16, 2015

I found myself fidgeting in front of a professor’s office, ready to burst into tears at any second. The door was closed, and the entire hallway was silent. I had missed my morning final exam when my alarm failed to go off. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone knows you automatically get an F if you don’t take the the final exam. Gathering all the remaining courage left in me and clinging on to the last bit of hope, I raised my hand and knocked. The professor swiftly opened the door and invited me to come in. I had sent an email earlier, and of course, he recognized me. Who else would be knocking at the start of summer break? In the following moments, I was the most nervous and scared I have ever been during school.

Instead of consisting of him demanding answers from me immediately, our conversation started off with him asking me how I was feeling and telling me that I must have felt awful. I was surprised by how nice and reassuring he was. After I explained what happened, we moved on to my future plans. He told me that all of us college students are still young and that no one is better than others.

He said, “Don’t compare or strive to be No. 1, because you’re never going to be happy. Numbers don’t define you. Also, study what interests you and find a career that matches that. Most of all, never give up on what you want.” In the end, after a lot of talking, I left with the message, “It’s not the end of the world. Everything will be OK,” and I was given the opportunity to make up the exam. Granted, not all professors are this generous, and it was only because of my performance on the previous midterms that I was given a second chance.

In a perfect world, professors would chase you down, and your inbox would be filled with advertisements for the most lucrative job positions possible. Because that is not the case, you must be the one to initiate. After all, getting to know your professors is for your benefit. They can guide you through the most memorable four years of your life, help you learn the course material and, of course, write you a letter of recommendation that can make your postgraduate career.

Like many other students, talking to professors did not come naturally to me — especially as a scared freshman. The thought, “go to office hours,” kept popping up in my head, but I either quickly invalidated the idea before it could manifest itself or spent the next 10 minutes imagining every possible scenario that could go wrong. What would I say? It was going to be so awkward and nerve-wracking. Then I came to the verdict that it would be a mistake and continued my day.

Fortunately, I have moved on since then and am on my way to breaking the world record for logging the most number of office hours. It took me a while to register how silly I was once I realized professors are just normal people, too. They eat, sleep and get stuck on problems, just like we do. As hard as it is to imagine, they were once college students, struggling through the same things we did. They understand the way you feel, and they’re here to help. As for me, the most precious thing I discovered is that I have someone to go to when I need advice, whether it’s about the major, career or even this column. And honestly, it’s nice to have a professor or graduate student instructor who knows you by your first name, instead of as a passing face, soon to be forgotten the moment class ends.

Now, stop this nonsense, because it’s time to throw all of your worries and feelings of intimidation out the window. Go ask a question in office hours, go write an email, or introduce yourself after class. This could be the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship — one that requires you to initiate and develop it but that is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.

You can’t, however, show up empty-handed to office hours and expect magic to happen. Have questions prepared about assignments, lectures, research, career options or even about the professor. How did he or she come to study in his or her respective field? Why did he or she decide to teach?

Besides clarifying your confusion and gaining words of wisdom, you potentially have someone who will be happy to write you a letter of recommendation without causing any last-minute panic or feelings of guilt because you contacted them only because you needed something. The more the teacher knows about you, the better. It’s important to understand that professors are not letter-of-recommendation machines that provide beautifully written letters as long as you have money on your Cal 1 Card.

I started by introducing myself after class. In that moment, I became someone, instead of an anonymous student among hundreds of others. Then I showed up to office hours as the semester progressed. When midterms approached, I started to email the professor, always making sure to include a polite greeting before stating the questions that I couldn’t figure out. By this time, he began to reply to my emails with “Hi Stephanie,” instead of simply stating his answers to my questions. In addition, I took the time to give him my thoughts on his lectures after class when he asked for our opinions, which he greatly appreciated. I had acknowledged that he was also a human being with an interest beyond this class, rather than an answering machine for my own interest.

Believe it or not, professors are here to help and not sabotage your grade. Of course, it’s not a common occurrence to walk out with a research position, but they might hold other surprises, such as ideas for senior theses or job opportunities. No matter how nervous you are beforehand, keep in mind that you have nothing to lose. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no, and you move on. On the contrary, you have many things to gain. So go introduce yourself, and get chatting.

Lastly, stay in touch. Remember, it’s a relationship for you to maintain, not to break off once class is over. Write your professors a quick email once in a while to update them about your progress. You would be surprised at how happy they will be to see emails from a former student.

Contact Stephanie Wang at 

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APRIL 18, 2015