So you’ve been admitted to Chalmers University of Technology – congratulations!! For many of us (myself included!) this was a dream come true. However, coming to Chalmers, my biggest fear was that my South African bachelor’s degree would not measure up to the Swedish education standard. I was worried that my knowledge would not be sufficient for me to pass the courses that I had signed up for. Or worse: that I would have to spend all my time working to keep up and pass the course, missing out on all the other experiences that make being an international student worthwhile. Many of my previous teachers and professors had warned me that pursuing a master’s degree in Europe would be challenging and not for the faint-hearted, and those words haunted me in the months before my departure to Sweden. The fact that my previous university did not have a high ranking, particularly when compared to Chalmers, did nothing to alleviate my worries.
In that time, I held onto one piece of advice which meant a lot to me: upon choosing the students for his study group, my South African study leader had said that a career in academia is not about intelligence, but rather about curiosity and courage. I had always been curious, and by pursuing this degree in Sweden, I hoped I was being courageous. Nevertheless, I prepared myself for a time in which my resolve would be put to the test.
However, eight months later as I near the end of my first academic year at Chalmers, I am pleased to say that I was completely unprepared for what awaited me – and that was a very good thing! The education system and work culture at Chalmers was wildly different to anything I had experienced before. Each study period consists of eight weeks of class in which a student needs to earn 15 Credits (typically two courses are sufficient for this). The limited number of courses per study period gives students the freedom to really deep-dive into the subject matter. At my previous university it was typical to juggle five to six courses at a time – not great for a productive workflow, as you inevitably end up skipping from one subject to the other based on which deadline is coming up next.
Even the approach towards academic achievement at Chalmers was completely new to me. Great emphasis is placed on learning, participation and understanding rather than on performing. Although the deadlines for assignment submissions were strict, we always had the opportunity to resubmit work that was improved based on comments from the lecturers or teaching assistants. As long as the original report was submitted timeously, these resubmissions could take place even after the set deadline. Having grown up in a system where you had one chance to submit and one chance only (often with the success of the entire course hanging in the balance) this was a breath of fresh air! It felt like Chalmers lecturers were allowing us to make mistakes while on the road to understanding, instead of expecting us to already know everything on our first try. Their classes were filled with pauses where students were encouraged to think, speak up, share and question. Complex problems were tackled as a group, where we often came up with a creative solution that even the lecturer had not considered.
A similar approach is followed in the exams - I remember the first time I read on the front page of an assessment that “constructive, creative and valuable approaches are also rewarded”. In other words, even if you present a solution that is different from the one that the lecturer had in mind, you could still earn marks for it. Whatever effort and work you put into your education will be matched by the lecturers and teaching assistants around you. They will go the extra mile to understand your solution and approach, consider its validity, and then comment and guide you if necessary. Never once in my time here have I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work or the difficulty of a problem, because I know that help is only a Zoom call away.
Chalmers provided me with the opportunity to overcome my “Imposter Syndrome” and instead reach a space where I allowed myself to explore and make mistakes. Without the constant pressure of performing, I found I was learning more, working faster, and ultimately achieving better marks than ever before. I have seen the truth of my supervisor’s words in action – if a student is curious enough to learn and brave enough to ask, they will find success at Chalmers.