Cai: Personalize your study experience

When I was talking to a fourth-year student this semester, I learned that her friend was just four credits short for graduation, which really put him in a difficult situation. The best solution that instantly popped into my mind was doing an independent study. Not only because that was a practical way for him to get the credits, but also because it’s truly enjoyable.

I learned about independent study as an option in my first semester. An upperclassman in my political science class was taking one with the professor of the class. I learned that the basic process was registering with a teacher, reading and researching on a designated topic and meeting with the teacher routinely to get advice. At the end of the semester, the student presents a product to record a semester’s findings. As a curious first-year student who was interested in research and independent exploration, I signed up with my professor immediately. Now that my project is halfway through, I can honestly say that it’s more fun and rewarding than I expected.

What was most attractive to me about independent study was that I got to choose my own topic. For example, when we talked about an incidence of political turbulence that took place in Beijing during my Chinese foreign policy class, I was hugely intrigued by the topic. I wanted to dig deeper into that topic, but unfortunately, there were no courses specifically focusing on that topic. That’s when an independent study came to my mind. As far as I know, students have been exploring various fascinating programs from China’s One Belt One Road Initiative to international NGOs.

There’s no reason to give up an appealing topic even if no courses on it are offered. Through
independent study, the scope of our learning can be expanded. It’s not a stretch to think that successful independent study projects could even inspire new courses.

Besides the flexibility in picking topics, independent studies offer a truly personalized learning experience where you have plenty of chance to talk to the instructor one-on-one. During my weekly meeting with my instructor, I got to hear his personal opinion on incidents that I wouldn’t have been able to hear otherwise.

As it was my first time writing a research paper, he guided me through the method. More importantly, I got to know my teacher as a person, not just someone who reads my assignments. It was very interesting to talk to him about his research and his own academic dedication. When I was taking his class, he was intimidating as some figure of authority. However, when I saw the excitement in his eyes talking about his opinion of Deng Xiaoping’s policy, I felt a mutual passion and excitement about intellectual inquiry.

Such personal contact is precious in that it really helped me think about my future path under the mentorship of a well-established researcher. It also convinces me that we are in a tight academic community; we are allies with our faculty members in the process of exploring the universe.

In the end, what I love the most about my independent study experience is the fun of problem-solving. Independent study is like unfolding a map. You can only see the truth at the end. In the process you may encounter doubts, but you may also enjoy the excitement of discovering something brand new. The joy of discovery, I believe, is a crucial part of our college experience. Besides, this kind of independent project is excellent practice for writing a senior thesis.

For those who are interested, each department usually has its own independent study courses. Talk to your professor and find out what you want to study, and you will be ready to go.

Yingying Cai is a first-year anthropology major.