In a little more than a month, I will start my second year at Mount Holyoke College. I have learned a lot in the past year, both about how to succeed in the U.S. education system and about what I want out of my education. Here the five biggest lessons I'm taking away from my experience so far.

1. Talk, but only if you have something to say.

pouring water
In Russian, there is a popular expression (literally, ?to pour water?), which means saying or writing about something that does not add anything new, but keeps the conversation going or fills in the space on paper.

Students often use this technique when they want to make the impression on the professor that they are involved in a class discussion but when in fact they don?t understand the material or don?t care about the topic. Professors, for their part, try to spot students using the technique and discourage them from doing it.

In my first semester in the US, in one of my 300-level seminars, I found some topics very challenging, but since a big percentage of the grade depended on class participation, I still made attempts to speak by ?pouring water.?

But what happened in this situation was that other students would challenge my statements.  I was forced to explain my statements or defend them with further evidence, and I soon realized that pouring water would not get me through one of these discussions.

2. Writing is a process, not an outcome.

In my previous academic work, when I wrote a term paper I would always start by asking myself: ?What?s the conclusion I want to make I would have a clear statement with which to conclude my work, and only after that would I start formulating my arguments and collecting evidence. So, I would choose my side in the debate even before fully reviewing the evidence.

My experience of academic writing in the U.S. is quite different. Here, when I pick my topic for a paper I am not supposed to know yet where this work will take me, or even what side I will eventually take.  For many papers I was expected to submit an outline or a draft in advance to the professor, but even then I would be allowed to change it completely by the paper submission deadline if I wanted to.

My American professor said she understands that as students narrate a piece of writing, they learn more about the issue at hand, and sometimes new information becomes available to them in the middle or the end of the writing process.  She encouraged us to continue revising our writing and our ideas all the way until the last moment.  I appreciated this perspective.  I feel that this way my work is shaped more by evidence than by my own views and beliefs that I automatically bring to any writing piece.

3. Thinking differently than the rest of the group doesn?t mean that you are wrong.

In the U.S., in many of my class discussions I would state my views, but if other students challenged them, I would feel as if I had said something totally wrong. Sometimes I would even feel guilty for holding views that are so incompatible with the views of the majority of students.

However, a conversation with one of my professors has changed my perception completely.  She said it is natural that sometimes my opinions are radically different as I come from a very different background. She explained that our opinions are shaped by our identities, and our identities are influenced by our backgrounds.

4. Critical thinking can be a life strategy.

In U.S. classrooms, critical thinking seems to be a pillar of education. American education is not only about how much you know (as Russian education is), but also about how you interpret and relate to what you know.

The U.S. education system attempts to integrate critical thinking into learning in a way that it becomes more than just a tool with which to interpret learning materials. In the U.S. classrooms, I have learned to use the benefits of critical thinking for success in my everyday life.

5. Neither stubbornly sticking to a plan nor absolute flexibility leads to success.

Talking to my academic advisors regularly in the US has changed many of my views regarding career planning and, I believe, put me on the right career track.  I came to Mount Holyoke with a clear plan in mind ? I was going to graduate with a degree in international relations.  A year later, I?m now majoring in economics and math after realizing my mind prefers more rigid, scientific pursuits.

It was hard for me to let go of my plans.  I like having something to pursue and stick to.  But I now know that while planning your life is important, if you are not also open to new opportunities it will not lead you to success.  There is no ?right? balance between planning and flexibility - the ?right? balance is right for you only.  But I think this year I found my right balance.