School life in the US (First semester of the Master’s program)

I’ve just got time to finalize this blog because my second semester has been intense. This is a story of my life in the first semester of my Master’s program after I graduated from the Pre-Master’s program. In case you want to read the story of that, there’s another blog here.

First of all, after I graduated from the Pre-Master’s program, I moved out from my host family house to an apartment near the campus. I made this decision mainly due to the distance. Now I can walk for only 7 minutes and arrive at the campus. I like everything about my apartment and really would love to stay at the same place if it was a little cheaper, and I could find a new roommate.

Before I got to the program, I had conceived of joining clubs at the university in the US for a long time. After I went to the involvement fair of the university, University of Southern California (USC), I was overwhelmed by several interesting clubs and organizations that I wanted to join. Nonetheless, I can’t just join all the clubs I’m interested in because I would end up participating in a ton of clubs (if not all) and not having enough time to study haha. I’ve, eventually, attended two clubs including the archery club and the club called Corpus Callosum(or in short CoCa). For the archery club, apparently, we do archery, and I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. It’s a little different from what I pictured because we focus more on consistency than accuracy at first. Though I really enjoy it. For CoCa, we gather students from different majors and do some cool projects that combine art, science, and technology based on the members’ ideas. And in this semester, my group expanded our project based on the topic “diversity” (such a broad topic right?!!). We decided to create a survey that asks college students questions that reflect their interests in the past, present, and future. And we visualized the results by developing a website. And here are some pages from our website (It’s on a local server though).

Figure 1. first page of our website (Introducing: US)
Figure 2. a timeline page showing a result of each responder

We hold a final showcase every semester. It usually takes place in the last instructional week. So, definitely come to check us out if you can!! Here’s a newly published website of our club (http://cocausc.org/). And it’s super cool!!

About the courses I studied in this semester, I took 2 courses consisting of Analysis of Algorithms (CSCI570) and Foundation of Artificial Intelligence (CSCI561). They were quite enjoying to me despite a load of work and rather harsh grading schemes. For the algorithm course, we had weekly homework although it doesn’t count towards our grade. Still, we better be prepared for the exam because the difficulty level is not just a myth. However, the thing I actually learned from the course was a different way to think about problem solving. This course brought me to another place to see the problems that we’re trying to solve algorithmically and computationally from a different point of view. I might not be an excellent problem solver, but I appreciate what I learned from this course. For the AI course, truth be told, I’d been looking forward getting into this field for a long time. But this course is just the beginning. Artificial intelligence is an extremely broad area of study. So, this course helped us explore this field. My research focus now is data science. So, I enjoyed the last part of the course even though it was the toughest Lol.

Anyway, my journey doesn’t purely consist of school life. One of the new experiences for me here was watching a football game. I know that the football game is very popular here, and it just happens to me that my Taiwanese friends like it too. They asked me to go to watch a USC football game with them, and I had no reasons to say no haha.

Figure 3. USC vs Utah state game

Even though I’m not a sport person, it was pretty fun to me. When you sit there watching the game on the side of the stadium, you feel the energy flowing throughout the game (It would be more enjoyable if it wasn’t hot though). Besides the football game, I also went on a retreat with CoCa. We went hiking at Sandstone Peak. It was beautiful and a lot of fun.

Figure 4. CoCa retreat at Sandstone Peak

And it’s not done yet because after the hike at Sandstone Peak for 2–3 hours, we went back to Santa Monica beach (How crazy was that? Lol).

Then my Halloween and Thanksgiving in the US had arrived. A lot of people had been waiting for these moments to come. But I had no idea what to do for these occasions because we didn’t celebrate these much in my country. Before I tell you what I ended up doing, let me introduce a nice organization called XAi first. It’s basically a christian organization, but don’t get scared too soon. They are very nice people. I’m not a very devout person myself. I was a buddhist, but I’m sort of an atheist now. Anyway, the thing about this organization is that they’re not about bringing people into their belief system, but rather connecting to people. They are from UCLA, but recently they’ve branched out to USC as well. The first event I got involved with was an American picnic on USC campus. Thus, when Halloween and Thanksgiving had come, they also arranged the events for international students to join. I got a chance to carve a pumpkin on Halloween and try traditional Thanksgiving food (too bad I didn’t take a photo of the Thanksgiving event).

Figure 5. Jack’O lanterns

The leftmost one was mine. I spent so much time carving it Lol. And it was a lot of fun joining their events. Moreover, I also went to carve a pumpkin again with my archery club. My Taiwanese friends also cooked some food on Thanksgiving, and we ate it together (Gotta say it was delicious and I have some photo this time).

Figure 6. Thanksgiving meal

One more fascinating event that I attended in this semester was TEDxLA — Imagine. I’ve been a big fan of TEDTalk for a while. I’m invariably impressed by how fluent and smooth the talks are. I couldn’t help but think that those speakers have to practice for a thousand times before they go on a stage. And every talk gives us an interesting idea of something in the world even something that we normally ignore. By the way, during the break of the event, my friend and I were approached by the staff. They asked us to share some opinion about the event. I was surprised and didn’t know what to do. I gave them some opinions of how I liked it, but I couldn’t really remember what I said Lol.

Figure 7. TEDxLA — Imagine (source: https://goo.gl/EziJSn)

To this point, I’ve been talking a lot about fun stuff on my journey. But life has its ups and downs. Nowadays, not many people show the dark side of their lives on social media. Well, it’s actually sensible. One reason is that we don’t want to spread negativity. Nevertheless, I want to nurture empathy in the society by letting people know that we all suffer from something. Hence, I’ll tell you some of my struggles in my school life at USC that many international students also might experience.

Originally, my problem was that, despite all the language courses and practices that I went through, I didn’t feel that my English was fluent enough. Moreover, since I was here in the US, I felt like I was supposed to make some American friends right? Therefore, my choice was that I had to get involved in USC communities as much as I could. And in order to that, I needed to avoid communicating with Thai people and avoid speaking Thai altogether. This probably sounds like bifurcation fallacy, but believe me many people are experiencing this. Humans are not very rational. Once we get into a comfort zone, we don’t want to get out (Or at least I know that I wouldn’t). But now I got out of my comfort zone; the next step was to get involved in my target communities (Sounds like I was doing some kind of missions now Lol). I joined couple clubs and went to as many events as possible. What I had discovered was that there’s an enormous gap between me and people here. Our cultural norms and backgrounds were too different. The language wasn’t a problem now, but social conformity became a huge obstacle. When we feel uncomfortable, we lose the ability to express our thoughts. Consequently, we lose confidence. And, finally, the only thing left is the feeling of isolation. It happens to us all the time. But what I did was that I kept pushing because I felt that I had come this far, so I would not give it up. I had to admit that I was depressed for a little while though. But things got better in the end. I got more comfortable with a lot of things here and learned to have a different type of friendships. Serendipitously, I got a deeper insight into learning a language.

And this is a story of my first semester, I hope you enjoy it and may get something useful out of it (if possible Lol). I’ll publish the story of my second semester soon because it’s almost summer now, which means I have time to write the blog!! And I’ll also possibly publish some side story of the time I went back to my country during the winter break.

Important note to some nerds and geeks: I have a plan to start writing more technical and AI-related blogs. Those will be more difficult to craft though. But wait for them!!!

Thanks for reading :)