The experience of coming to Columbia from a small-scale high school was different, but also eye-opening. The two episodes of my education contrasted, and I especially realized how the approach to asking questions had changed. It was a lot easier to voice a question in high school than it is now.
With 15 people in the classroom, I knew my classmates and the teacher very well. In my first few years of college as an engineering student, my schedule was mainly composed of general requirement classes, which consisted of at least 60 people with only a few familiar faces.
I discussed this thought with friends to see if they feel the same way. Some didn’t and associated this with being shy versus loud. Some were honest enough to admit that most of the time they didn’t pay enough attention in class to have questions to ask. Others agreed on my thoughts and shared possible reasons to why this is true.
At Columbia, we are not fully comfortable with asking questions because we see it as a vulnerability---something that can expose us as not being perfect. Going through a competitive process to be a student at Columbia, we perhaps can’t escape that competitive mind-set and thus bring it to the university environment. We, however, are not here to compete with each other. We are here to learn, and not only from our professors---we learn from our peers, too. In order to maximize our time as undergraduate students, we must be aware of all channels for learning.
What your classmates are going to think about your question should not prevent you from asking it. Experiencing negative encounters in the past, when someone judged you for not knowing something you are here to learn about, might have been intimidating. But the truth is that no one is in the position to determine how appropriate a question is. If someone asks you a question, see it as an opportunity to share your knowledge rather than as an opportunity to prove how much more knowledgeable you are.
We need to understand that asking a question is a positive act. More importantly, we need to requite questions with tolerance. Columbia has received criticism in the past for not having as much school spirit or sense of community and for cultivating individualism---contributed to by the vastness and diversity of New York City. Part of fostering a sense of community is an open environment where people should feel free to not only ask, but also answer questions---an act that is equally challenging when you could get the answer wrong.
We go through a competitive process to be here and the rigor continues as we start our university career, but it changes form. Don’t hesitate to ask.