If you are an international student, you may be used to thinking of instructors as authority figures. In a US university classroom, though, American professors expect you to interact with them — inside the classroom and out.
Part of the value of attending an American college or university is the rich discussion that happens inside the classroom between students and professors. You can hear from other students who have had various life experiences and share your own. These conversations help deepen your learning.
Going even further, some of the most important connections happen outside of class. Your professors can become lifelong mentors and even advocates who connect you with other professionals and opportunities that you would not otherwise know about.
Interacting with American Professors in Class
For many international students, the typical student-professor relationship consists of receiving instructions from the professor, nothing further. But that is not the case in US classrooms.
In fact, professors expect you to speak up, and class participation is often a component of your final grade. Class participation means both contributing to the conversation when a professor asks a question, as well as raising questions when you do not understand a concept or want to dig deeper into a discussion.
“A lot of times students think asking a professor a question is showing a sign of weakness, but it’s actually a strength,” says McCahl Murray, assistant academic director, LSU Global at Louisiana State University. “You want to communicate. You want a conversation to have some back and forth. It shows that you are open to communication and you care about your education.”
Murray acknowledges that you may be nervous the first few times — and that is completely normal. While the best way to get over the fear of asking questions is to do it and participate more in class, it may be easier said than done. What it helps to remember, stresses Murray, is that if you have a question, chances are at least one other person has that same question. “You are helping someone else who is not going to speak up,” she says.
As a former teacher, Murray appreciates when students ask questions. “Sometimes they will ask me something I thought I explained well. But clearly I did not explain it well if everyone is having an ‘aha’ moment from that student’s question,” she shares. “It really gives me hints as a teacher of what I am doing well and what I am not doing well.”
Scheduling Office Hours with Professors
While some of your professors may get to know you from your class participation, many of them will truly get to know who you are — and your goals — when you have a one-on-one conversation. Office hours allow you to develop this deeper connection with your professors.
In fact, studies show building relationships with professors improves students’ academic performance.
As a first step, Murray recommends students write an email to a professor. “You can introduce yourself, ask to come into office hours at a specific time,” she explains, noting that office hours are often by appointment only.
She also recommends coming prepared with questions and a notebook to take notes during the conversation. “You may be talking the entire time, but too nervous to remember what you or your professor said,” Murray explains. “If you write down notes as you have the conversation, you will be able to go back and reference them.”
Some professors may require you to attend office hours to see your test scores or get specific grades. “You do not want to just see your score and leave,” emphasizes Murray. “You need to sit down, have a conversation, and look at what you got wrong before you leave. You may say, ‘I know I made this mistake because …’ or you may ask why you got the question wrong.”
You may also use office hours to clarify questions you have about the course material. That is how Shorelight product marketing manager Linh Tran used office hours with her professors.
“I was not aware of professors’ office hours until I came to study in the US, since it’s not a common thing in Vietnam,” she explains. “I strongly believe that meeting with professors can be very beneficial for students, especially international students. As for me, I was able to ask questions that I didn’t have a chance to ask during class or get more clarification of my assignments to ensure I was on the right track.”
Developing Long-Term Relationships with Professors
Part of the benefit of getting to know your professors is being able to develop long-term relationships with them. While you may talk with professors even after you have finished their classes, you may also continue to stay in touch with professors after you have left campus.
Your professors are often professionals who can offer mentorship and advice, particularly if they work in your field. But even if they do not work in your same industry, you may develop a connection with a professor who offers general career advice or who can help connect you with people who are doing jobs that you want to do, too.
Murray shares that she asked a professor she had in her first year of college for a letter of recommendation for graduate school — more than two years after she had graduated. “The relationship I had with that professor was strong enough that I could go back and ask her for that so many years later,” she says. Similarly, Tran’s professors offered to write her letters of recommendation to graduate school because of their strong connection.
Murray also points out that, beyond writing letters of recommendation for graduate school applications, professors often connect students with on-campus jobs, recommend students for jobs, and make connections between students and other professors and professional mentors.
Professors can also connect students with research opportunities. Murray shares a story about a student majoring in chemistry who arrived on campus in August. “He told his professor what he wanted to do and that he was interested in research opportunities. A couple of weeks later, he demonstrated in class [that] he knew what he was doing and [now] he is already in a lab as a freshman.”
She stresses that not everyone is going to arrive in August and know exactly what they want to do — and that is fine! But the story illustrates how quickly opportunities can arise just by having a conversation. “They are now applying for more funding so he can be paid as a researcher next term,” she adds.
Similarly, Murray shares how an industrial engineering student developed a relationship with her advisor by going to office hours. When funding came up for an opportunity, the advisor recommended her student. The better that faculty know you and your goals, the more they will be able to connect you with the right opportunities as they arise.
“It is about going one step further to set you apart from everyone else,” she says.
Ultimately, your education is an investment. The more effort you put in, the more you will get out of it.
Shorelight advisors help you thrive at your US university >