A Good Student

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Statue of Erik Gustaf Geijer outside Uppsala University's main building

Statue of Erik Gustaf Geijer outside Uppsala University’s main building

My attitude toward academics has been consistent since I entered the American public school system in 4th grade. “I should get A’s,” was the thought. No one pushed this on me. I wasn’t punished for lower grades. I just didn’t see a reason not to do the work required to get an A if I was able to do so. The higher the grade, the better.

There are no A’s at Swedish universities. There is pass and fail and pass with distinction. Naturally, I see “pass” as “failure to pass with distinction,” but the general attitude seems to be that a passing grade is absolutely fine. Students are here to learn and develop skills and if they succeed at that, what more could they want? As satisfying as it is to get an A, I have to admit, it’s rarely a reflection of whether or not I’ve worked up to my full potential. It’s often an empty signification that I know what a professor wants to see, not that I’ve learned anything or pushed myself. There’s something to the Swedish way. I think it leads students to take responsibility for their own education.

The differences don’t end there. I’m taking a full course load here, three courses in a semester, one of which is worth twice the credits of a typical American course. One of my courses will end in late October, the other two continue to mid-December. Each meets just once or twice a week, which means I only have classes Monday to Wednesday. Though no one shows up to class in sweatpants here, the classroom atmosphere is very informal and personal. All of my professors have asked to be called by their first name. Discussion and collaboration are standard fare.

Moving from the hyper-competitive, time-intensive, employment-focused American higher education system to this one has been a welcome adjustment. At first I felt like a kickball gone flat; I didn’t know how to be a student without the pressure of the grades and constant papers and assignments and nonstop lectures of five courses at once. My whole understanding of what it means to be a “good student” was predicated on fulfilling as many externally imposed requirements in as little time and effort as possible. In the American system, I didn’t feel I had the time to give each course the attention it deserved when I had four others, plus extracurriculars, work, and a personal life competing for my limited energy.

I’ve only had two weeks of classes so far, but I think I’ll continue to appreciate the differences here. The Swedish system gives plenty of time to absorb course materials, and plenty of opportunities to investigate your own academic interests. One of the major reasons I chose to come to Uppsala was to study the relationships between economic development, quality of life, and environmental impact. My coursework in that area has been engaging, stimulating, yet not overbearing. I’m not just receiving information and taking tests; I’m learning how to navigate the sea of information related to my field, how to examine it critically and integrate it into my own perspective. There’s less hand-holding here, which can be challenging, but it’s remarkable how much more capable I feel with my hands free.

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