Student Becomes the Teacher
March 30, 2023
What defines the American college student experience? I’ve pondered this many times throughout my past three and a half years at the U of I. Fortunately, I can say that my experience has been anything but mundane, to say the least. Some of my fondest memories come from experiences I could have never predicted.
When I first came to campus in Fall 2019, I didn’t exactly come out of my introverted shell, so to speak. I spent most of my first few months strictly studying and living in the library. Then, a surprise occurred in early 2020: the pandemic. Abruptly sent home, I spent the remainder of freshman year and all my sophomore year completing online classes at home. With my enthusiasm for learning dampened by COVID-19, I decided I wanted to graduate as fast as possible. So, I was set to graduate at the end of my junior year, which was supposed to be my only full and final year on campus.
I could have never foreseen the drastic change in my attitude once I returned on campus in Fall 2021. It was like a reset of my freshman year, getting to reacquaint myself with students who had become merely Zoom screen names. It was during this time that I realized the college experience was something to be cherished. It was my opportunity to break my bubble and try new things.
After deciding to pursue a construction management career path, I was accepted into the Global Leaders in Construction Management master’s program in Civil Engineering. This unique program provides a global perspective on the construction industry through international construction trips – and starts while you are still an undergrad. I was delighted to know I’d be spending two more semesters on campus – a far cry from my epic, 3-year graduation plan.
Around this time, I was reminded of another goal that had long been buried. When first-year engineering students come to campus, they take ENG 100, an engineering orientation course to help them navigate their time at UIUC. The course is taught by upperclassmen, known as Engineering Learning Assistants, or ELAs, whose personal experiences make them the optimal instructors. I loved taking this course and deeply appreciated the advice and care my ELAs put towards mentoring myself and fellow students. I thought it would be the coolest thing ever to give back to future freshman.
A few weeks after I submitted my application, I received the news that I got the job. I was assigned to be an ENG 398 ELA, not ENG 100, meaning I would teach engineering exchange students. I was ecstatic but a little nervous! What made me qualified to teach students who were coming to Illinois from all over the world? It wouldn’t be until later that I realized how much of a blessing it was to be assigned the exchange class.
Meanwhile, I was preparing to have my very own first cultural exchange experience abroad. My master’s program was set to go to Rome in May 2022. In fact, this was my first time traveling outside the country and going on a plane (Yes, you heard that right. My first time on a plane was a 10+ hour flight to Rome, Italy). The focus of the 8-day trip was to visit the iconic historical sites like the Colosseum, Pantheon, Aqueducts, and some of the active construction sites, like a Metro Station and Mausoleum restoration. It was neat to learn about how the history of a city impacts it in its modern day. In Rome, a common occurrence in construction is to unearth relics of the past, so construction is often delayed. This is not something you need to give much thought to in the U.S., given how young of a country it is, relatively speaking.
What really resonated with me most during this trip, however, was the cultural exposure and knowledge I obtained during the trip. This made me think more about the cultural interaction I’d have with my ENG 398 students soon thereafter.
When I returned to campus for Fall 2022, I was excited to finally begin teaching. My first class had students from Sweden, Spain, Mexico, the Netherlands and Australia, to name a few. I was charmed by the enthusiasm the students had for making the most of their time in the states and on campus. Teaching every Tuesday and Thursday morning brightened my day and always put me in a good mood. I found myself staying up late to spend extra time adding to lesson plans and compiling more advice to share to students, including American culture, opportunities at UIUC, and professional development. Teaching didn’t feel like work to me.
What I also didn’t expect was how much I learned from the students themselves. It was almost as if I was having my own study abroad experience by listening to their comparisons between American life and their home universities and countries. I was able to grow in both my own cultural intelligence and in my instructional capabilities. At the end of the semester, I was fortunate enough to land the position of Lead ELA, meaning I would be teaching more sections and leading the other ENG 398 ELAs for the next two semesters.
As of March 2023, I’ve taught 70 exchange students and will be teaching for the last time in Fall 2023 – my final semester here. I’ve also since had another neat short-term study abroad experience in Panama City, Panama and will have one more exchange trip after I graduate. While I never had a full traditional semester study abroad experience, I sure am grateful that I was able to positively impact the study abroad experience of others. I’ve come a long way from that shy freshman who desperately wanted to graduate as soon as possible. Without a doubt, the cultural experiences I’ve had, both in the classroom and studying abroad myself, have been my most cherished memories as an Illini, and I wouldn’t take them back for anything.