It's plain and simple: I'm not that great at asking for help.
I'm the sort of person that doesn't "get" things on the first try. Or on the second, third, fourth, or even fifth try. And yet, I struggle with asking for help. Some things, like guilt, fear of isolation, or even just a general fear of being labeled "dumb," always seem to prevent me from reaching out to others for help.
I always felt guilty asking my peers for help on a homework question, even though I really had no clue what to do. I was also afraid of being alone in my confusion, as it always seemed that everyone around me understood what was going on in class. And ultimately, I just didn't want to admit the words, "I don't know."
With this mindset, I entered my first semester at Harvard. Of course, as a naïve freshman, I assumed that I could just get by using the same old tricks from high school. And looking at my transcript by the end of fall semester, I learned, boy was I wrong.
I realized something needed to change. I needed to learn to ask for help.
The first thing on my agenda: take advantage of the resources around me.
Which is exactly what I didn't do in my fall semester. At Harvard (and at most colleges), large classes have teaching fellows (abbreviated as TFs, also known as Teaching Assistants at many schools). These are typically graduate students who are the first people you go to for help and support, especially if you're confused with anything taught in lecture. TFs are usually the ones grading all of your assignments, and they often do awesome research in areas relevant to the class content — just ask them about it!
What I try to do now is to set up individual meetings with TFs to ask questions about assignments, content, or upcoming and past exams. Last semester, whenever I didn’t do so well on an exam, I simply tried to “ignore and move on.” I would keep telling myself that I would get it right next time. And this cycle would continue over and over again, until it was time for the final exam, the point at which I'd realize just how much I didn't know.
Scheduling one-on-one meetings with my TFs on a weekly basis has helped so much. In an individual setting, I can learn at my own pace, and ask any questions, no matter how simple or complex they may be. Being able to walk through my reasoning on certain problems on p-sets or exams and seeing exactly where I went wrong has helped me understand the content in my classes so much more. Even beyond class content, my TFs (having gone through these sort of classes before) provide valuable study tips and strategies that help me prepare more effectively for exams in general.
The difference in my learning is so visible.
Of course, I can't do this all on my own. Gaining the courage to open up these avenues of support initially took a lot of effort from me — and that's where my friend, Julia, helped me. She encourages me to ask my questions, no matter how simple they may be, and always pushes me to reach out to the teaching staff in my classes for support. That's what they're there for, right? And she is 100% right. I am grateful to have a friend like her to keep me accountable in regard to my own learning. I can’t imagine my life at Harvard without her support!
All in all, though these were small changes in my life, the impact they have had is tremendous. In beginning to ask for help, I have started to actually ask questions during lecture and unmute my mic in office hours. They may be baby steps, but they are steps I'm most certainly proud of. I've also learned that many of my "I don't know" moments are not singular to me, but rather, commonly felt by many of my classmates. Even so, focusing on my own individual learning has taught me to not compare my academic journey to others — rather, it has taught me to appreciate every one of my "ah-ha!" moments so much more.
In writing this, I hope my experiences can help anyone else who struggles with asking for help, too. Don't be afraid to take that initial step. It might be scary at first, but I promise, the reward is so worth it.