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  • Writer's pictureElisha Bae

Finishing the First Semester of College

A big white lawn chair and a small white lawn chair on a green meadow

School's out! At least for the next month or so. I've come to the end of the fall semester of my first year at Swarthmore. So much has happened that I can't believe that it's only been about four months. There is no way that during 120 days I settled down at a new home, made so many new friends, found love, got new studies going, and partook in a lot of different activities on and off campus.

Since I've talked about all the fun I've had at college when I'm not studying, I thought I would focus more on the academics of my college life this time. More specifically, reflections on the classes I took, how my very first finals went, about workload and managing stress, and my plans for next semester.

Even before I got to college, I was browsing through the course catalog, trying to figure out what courses seemed interesting and what I needed to take in order to meet the division distributions (because Swarthmore is a liberal arts school, it is a graduation requirement to meet the requisites of the three divisions as well as the major requirements -- the divisions are Natural Sciences, Social Studies, and Humanities). This took a while, but I had figured out a pretty good plan to fulfill the division requirements fast so that I wouldn't have to worry about it when I commit to a major.

As per my plan, I mostly took introductory lectures in subject areas that I knew I would want to delve deeper into. I didn't want these to stop me from taking higher level classes in the future when I wanted to just because I didn't have the pre-requisite. For example, I took 'Intro to Psychology' and 'Stat 11 (introductory statistics class)' because I knew I'd be doing some more classes on these subjects later on. I loved the professor for Intro to Psych -- he was such a jolly soul who made the basics of psychology a very approachable and fun learning experience, even for people who might not have any prior knowledge coming into the class. I, on the other hand, had two years of prior experience in psychology. This meant that I sometimes had to really try not to zone out when the whole lesson was about something I learned thoroughly. Still, I liked getting a recap of the important bits of psychology. The midterms and finals for this subject were quite easy since it was a multiple-choice test with 50 problems. Although there were some tricky ones, a read through the textbook and paying attention in the class got me far.

Stat 11 was more difficult than I thought it would be because I was used to using my graphic calculator to do most statistical computations. But in this class, we dived into the core mathematical concepts which required me to do the calculations myself using different formulas. The professor I had was great, however, and really tried to make it easy for us to understand everything. One hurdle I had to get over was learning a new statistics computer program language called R. For a while, the statistics homework would take me hours upon hours because I couldn't figure out a way to get the program to work. But once I got the gist of it (and since we were only learning about basic commands), I found it easier to get R to compute the statistical elements instead of trying to do it myself.

The stats midterms and finals weren't too bad, but I felt like I needed to figure out a new strategy to study for tests in mathematics since I wasn't able to show my best work. We also had a final statistics project. In a group, we came up with a real-world problem that we wanted to explore in terms of statistics and data. My group chose the topic of 'how nutrition affects children'. We did a meta-analysis of different studies showing how children who are from low-income households may have a disadvantage at school because they aren't always getting the nutrition they need. We had to do some statistical analysis and figure out the mean and standard deviation, as well as approach the whole thing from a critical perspective. Our presentation and poster seemed to have impressed our professor!

To fulfill my lab credit requirement, I took 'Cellular Biology'. I knew I had to take an NS division class anyway, and it also gave me writing credit. Three requirements in one, now that was a bargain! I knew most of the stuff anyway from doing IB biology. It was a very big lecture class with three different professors rotating to give lectures. The course was... okay. I had a lot of friends in that class so studying for the tests and doing homework wasn't too bad, but the course was laid out in such a way that you had homework basically every day. There were so many little assignments that I needed to be on top of, and that just stressed me out constantly. However, I will say that I really enjoyed the labs. They were very long and sometimes, doing experiments for 3 hours straight drained my energy, but it was good to do some practical work. I had quite a bit of fun writing those lab reports, too, because I had a fine specimen (my biology IA which got a 29 out of 30) to refer to. This was when I felt that IB had done well for me.

I also took 'Intermediate French', partially because I wanted to see what my French level was like and partially because I wanted to make sure that I would pass the language requirement. Since I'm an international student, I should be automatically excused from having to meet the language requirement at college, but there was no harm in getting a little more practice in French. The French department (actually, the whole language department) had so many dedicated professors, so I really enjoyed the classes and came out more confident in my speaking and writing. These were the two areas that I thought I needed to work on, and having a language class three times a week with homework to do between the classes boosted my skills immensely. There were little assignments for every day, too, and some of them were on an online program which made it more tedious. I did like the oral assignments because I would always be complimented on my pronunciation. The tests were the easiest part of the course, and I would never drop below an A+.

Come to think of it, I guess I really liked what I did for IB since 4 out of the 6 subjects I did in IB, I also did in the first semester (French, Statistics (maths A.I.), Biology, Psychology). The only 'new' course that I took was a First Year Seminar. All first-years are encouraged to take at least one FYS during the year because it gives them an idea of what classes are like higher up in the year. It's comprised of a very small number of students -- usually from 5 to 12 students. This gives students a chance to explore the subject and discuss it with the professor and fellow classmates. I took one called "Psychology In Schools". This one was a very interesting one for me because it combined two things that I'm intrigued by: children's learning and psychology! We had a lot of great time discussing strategies for learning based on the psychology of the human brain, as well as thinking about the best practice for both students (when self-learning) and teachers (when teaching). There was a final presentation on ways of safeguarding school children amidst the problem of gun violence. Doing this made me realize just how severe the issue is in schools in the US. It was a very eye-opening experience, to say the least.

What's great about Swarthmore is that the grades given out in the first semester for freshmen are all CR/NC (credit, no credit). The college does this in order to help students transition into the college style of academics more smoothly without having to stress out about their grades. It helped a lot in my case because the system gave me a chance to take a 5-credit load semester instead of 4. I have that extra credit and an extra credit from getting a 7 in IB Biology stored up in case anything happens and I want to take just three credits one semester.

Although I can't be too sure about what classes I'll be taking next semester in the spring, I did make a list of courses that would intrigue me. First off, I know I want to take an English literature class called 'Literary Roots: Tolkien & Pullman'. I've been re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and when I knew that there was a course dedicated to learning about Tolkien's works, I was so excited! I also want to take another psychology course now that I've fulfilled the pre-requisite which is Intro to Psych. I wonder if I'll need to take another Natural Science subject and if so, which one. I got scared to take the 2nd level of statistics, but maybe I will try that in the end. Oh, and also I want to take a philosophy course since everyone I meet who's taken one seem to have had a great time. I guess now it's time for me to relax and recharge until I go back and start the Spring Semester!

finishing the first semester of college

finishing the first semester of college

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