Monday, February 8, 2016

All I need is a little help from... my TA!

When I came to Penn as a freshman in the fall of 2012, I was a professional at not studying for quizzes, tests, or exams. Coming from a small private school in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, school was never the thing that stumped me. Sure, I had my fair share of homework and stress, amongst college applications, sports practices, rehearsals for the band, and Model United Nations research. But the foundation of my stress was in the time management department, not the content of my academics. I was confident in my ability to succeed on an exam, as long as I had done the appropriate homework, listened in class, and glanced over the material as a refresher the night before.

Coming to Penn and majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, however, was a whole different story. My peers were just as smart, driven, and accomplished as me. And it took completely bombing the first Chem 101 midterm a few weeks into the semester, a class I actually felt strongly about, for me to have a real wake-up call. My no-study days were long gone. But what was I to do? I had never studied before, I had no strategic skills to fall back on, and no one to teach me the study habits I desperately needed.

After some frantic phone calls home, then a brief period of denial, I was at dinner one night with a group of friends whom I’d grown really close with during AWE Pre-Orientation. One of my friends suggested I go to the TA (Teaching Assistant) office hours with her that night. The concept baffled me; wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show my face in the “supplemental help” meeting, where the under-achieving students went when they were in trouble? But I ignored this train of thought and let my friend convince me to go, chalking it up to new experiences and getting out of my comfort zone. We walked down to the Engineering Quad together after dinner and both timidly knocked on the door of our TA’s office, totally unsure of what we were going to encounter.

The door swung open and, to my complete shock, nearly half our class sat in the tiny office. Most kids sat on the floor, legs and backpacks and notebooks and laptops sprawled all around, some kids even eating dinner while they were working. Everyone, from the kid with the highest grade on the midterm to the kid with the lowest grade, was working together on the most recent homework assignment. It turned out pretty much everyone was just as confused as I was, and we ended up tackling that week’s problems as a team. I went home that night and texted my mom in disbelief. I had figured out my first major problem on my own.

From that night forward, throughout my four years at Penn, I have had to constantly remind myself of the amazing resources available to undergrads when the going gets tough. Many of the TA’s for Engineering classes are phenomenal; they are always willing to meet with you either in office hours or by appointment if your schedule conflicts. Professors are equally receptive, answering emails (often in the middle of the night), and encouraging students to ask questions when they’re confused, instead of falling behind and then trying and failing to catch up later.

Penn is bursting at the seams with smart, driven, accomplished kids, but the faculty and grad students are even more driven, accomplished and smarter. We must always keep them in mind as the amazing resources they truly are. We must not be timid or afraid when it comes to asking for help. Learning how to ask for help is just as important as learning from the help that is received. If I could go back to freshman year and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to take even greater advantage of my professors and TA’s. Never again will you be surrounded by such brilliant people who are so willing to help you. Take advantage of these endless opportunities, ask for help, and learn a little bit about yourself in the process.

Rebecca Michelson CBE ‘16

        Then and Now