Sunday, January 23, 2011

Notes from UCLA

Re: College 101

From a high school of 1,000 to a college of 26,000, my greatest fear of the transition was finding my place in the vast student body. Despite my insecurities, UCLA has become a second home to me, as I’ve swam through the crowds, dived into the courses and found my niche in the pool of people.

Currently, I am majoring Environmental Science and minoring in either Environmental Engineering or Environmental Health. As it falls into the life sciences category, my prerequisites consist of math, chemistry, physics and biology classes, while my upper division classes are more specific to my minor. As UCLA is on the quarter system, time goes by pretty fast. A quarter system runs on a 10 week cycle, where midterms usually occur during week 4 and week 7 and finals occur right after the 10th week of instruction. Although it goes by quickly, I find the quarter system allows me to take various courses because I have the opportunity to switch classes three times a year versus twice on the semester system.

Each quarter I take about 3-4 classes and in a typical prerequisite class lecture I am surrounded by about 250 other students. Although I was intimidated with huge classes and a less personal teaching method, I’ve become accustomed to the large lectures. Along with an hour lecture three days a week, discussion sections held once a week provide a smaller setting to learn the material. Amongst about 25 students, discussions break down the lecture material and provide a supplementary lesson to further learning. For the first time, grades are no longer determined primarily from homework, pop quizzes and participation. Instead, grades are comprised of midterm, final and paper scores. Also, many courses are graded on a curve, so grades aren’t always determined by raw scores. , but rather how well you did in comparison with the rest of the class. Whereas high school was comprised of chapter tests, college has cumulative exams and this was definitely something I had to take seriously.

During the transition between high school and college, I’ve learned to reach out for help if anything is unclear of if I am ever in doubt. Studying with friends, questioning classmates, emailing TA’s or visiting office hours are options I find the most helpful if I’m confused about something. I’ve also found that going to tutoring sessions is not frowned upon at all and can be very useful if any subject is difficult to understand. A lot of classes expect you to listen in lecture and learn the material on your own time, however, its important not to forget to that there are people around that are eager to help. Everyone says time management is the key and it’s true. Everyone has their own ways of learning and studying. Sometimes studying in the room works best, sometimes it’s the coffee shop, the library or the study lounge. Whatever method works, organizing my time has made things a lot less stressful.

Academically, college has been a really humbling experience. Practically everyone is determined to do well, strives to be the best and does all they can to get ahead. Truthfully, some people are intimidating and almost everyone is exceptionally smart. In taking classes, I’ve learned that I can’t always be perfect in every subject and that I am not always going to love every course I take but I still need to try my best in all that I commit to.

Besides academics, I was pretty reserved in my extracurricular activities during my first year. I was afraid that if I took on too many extra things I wouldn’t be able to focus on school. Now in my second year, I’ve become more involved in a couple of clubs and activities. One is called Climate 411, a website based initiative to encourage an interactive learning space for the student body to ask questions about climate change and receive answers from expert professors on campus. As the club was established last year, most of our efforts have been concentrated on building the website, networking with professors and spreading the word around the school. This year I joined the Association of Chinese Americans on campus. It is a cultural club, but a social club as well. We are split up unto “families” of about 10-15 people and we participate in activities, go out to dinner and have other get-togethers. Although I am not able to attend all events and activities, it’s nice to have a place to spend time with people, take a break from studies and have fun. Music has always been a part of my life and I tried my best to stick with it in college. I don’t have the time to commit to joining the symphony orchestra or a larger ensemble but I’ve found a chamber music course that still allows me to grow musically.

During my first year, and now my second, I’ve lived in a residence hall on campus. In my co-ed dorm building there are 100 people on my floor with two RA’s that keep things in check. I lived in a room with two other girls last year and now I am living in a double. Of course, dorm life was another adjustment from living at home. With communal bathrooms and a lounge, as well as many different personalities on the floor, living in a hall is a pretty social experience. There are hangouts in the hallways, study groups in the lounge, floor outings to the mountains, and holiday socials. Although it’s not the cleanest or the newest building, hall life is like a community and a second family away from home.

The town surrounding the campus is relatively safe. In just a 10 minute walk from my dorm room, there are grocery stores, drug stores, restaurants, a cookie and ice cream shop and even red carpet events for movie premieres at the local theaters. For the most part, I feel safe walking around by myself or in a group. If I ever need a place to take a break, a shopping mall and a beach in Santa Monica is just a 30 minute bus ride away. Although public transportation has been a bit of a challenge, it has definitely taught me how to be street smart and how to navigate through a new city.

As for my future, I have no idea what I ultimately want to do, nor do I know if I’ll be switching majors or concentrations. For now, my goal is to get a feel for what things I may want to pursue. This year I was lucky to get an internship with the California Environmental Protection Agency. I am in the stormwater unit and though I am only able to do simple tasks, I am amongst people in my field that can offer advice and teach me many skills. Perhaps, I may find myself doing something completely different in the future, but for now I’m just trying to get a feel for the environmental science field.

Overall, each day I step on campus I am happy I decided to go to UCLA. Its close enough for me to hop on a plane and come home, but far enough to encourage me to explore new things on my own. Although it is still a challenge to balance between academics and social life, the school is everything I had hoped for in a college experience. Who knows what I’ll be doing in even a year in the future, but for now I am enjoying college life as it comes.


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