Being an international student in STEM

New International Students’ Officer for the Students’ Union, Molly McCrory, considers her experience as an international student

▲ The Hamilton Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Science is something of a universal discipline. Math (or maths, as the case may be) is the same in every country, and gravity works the same whether you’re in Ecuador, Finland, or Australia. Water is still made out of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom no matter what country you’re in, and everyone has DNA.

You would think that studying a STEM subject internationally would be no big deal, especially if you, like me, came from one English-speaking country (USA) to another. There are some noticeable differences, however. Nothing too stark or miserably confusing, but certainly enough to make me take a step back and ask the person next to me, “Wait, what  the heck is going on?”

For one thing, you guys call it “maths”. My entire life, it has been called “math”, and that took some getting used to. Now it means that I go home, and my friends and family look at me in confusion, wondering where my word-specific lisp came from.

There are lots of little words that are pronounced differently than I’m used to, and that has a spectrum of difficulty to deal with based on how often I used the word before coming to this lovely little green island. Capillary, for example, is one I quickly got used to (CA-pill-ar-y), but I will say H-R Diagram like an Irish person only under pain of death. Why do you say the letter “R” like the word “or”?

I have recently learned the exact nature of the uniformity of the Irish secondary level education system, and oh boy was that a shock. Compared to America, where I went to something called a “charter school”, this is a lot of structure. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a charter school is “a tax-supported school established by a charter between a granting body and an outside group which operates the school without most local and state educational regulations so as to achieve set goals”. This basically means that I didn’t pay tuition but my school was allowed to experiment with my education in a way that public schools are not.

So if you were to ask me, “Molly, what are American high schools like?” I would not have an adequate answer for you. My school didn’t allow cheerleaders but we did have a biannual nightlong continuous reading of The Iliad. My education was vastly different from those of my fellow American students. Heck, my education was vastly different than that of my sisters. We all came in with something slightly different, but we, hopefully, each got an education that worked for us.

I came in to first year as one of 3 people who had done matrices in high school, and my understanding of integrals, while on par with my classmates now, started out a cut above the rest, just because of what I learned in school. On the other hand, my chemistry education was woefully lacking, and I regret taking that course with at least 60% of the fibres of my being.

I came in to everyone else saying relevant words and phrases seemingly in unison while I was mostly sure what a mole was but not quite sure why it was important. It was certainly disconcerting coming to college with not just a certain amount of assumed knowledge, but with very specific things I was expected to know. Looking back, that is one of the reasons I was so lost in first year: I couldn’t be completely sure where the gaps in my knowledge were, so I didn’t know how to catch up.

On top of content, it was a strange experience adjusting to the style of education in Ireland. Memorization was never something I was particularly good at, yet so much of my success in school now depends on my ability to memorize things. All of the “write an essay in a night” or “derive the equation from a basic understanding of where it starts” skills I developed in high school pale in comparison to “reignite a glowing splint” or whatever it is you learned in school.

It definitely took some adjustment, but if it’s so horrible, why am I still here? Well, for one thing, I haven’t taken any general education classes while I’m here, so I would probably spend two or three extra years at an American college just to make up for that, and I don’t have that kind of time. Also, being an international student is actually pretty great.

I’ve met so many people I otherwise never would have, and I have grown so much as a person and a student over the past three years. Living in a foreign country is hard, but I love Ireland, and living here is one of the great experiences of my life (other than going to Disney World; I love Disney World).

Learning all of these weird ways you have of doing things has not only taught me to look at problems in a different way (even if that ultimately leads to me knocking my head against a book in frustration) – it has also given me valuable skills in communication. I have had to learn physics surrounded by people, and from people, who have had a different education than I had.

Luckily, we can still talk about physics with no problem (other than the occasional teasing about my accent). All in all, being an international student in STEM is difficult. But I wouldn’t give it up for the world.