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“Being a TA Is The Ultimate Test On How Much You Know”

Sérgio Pequito, Dual Degree Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering:
“Being a TA Is The Ultimate Test On How Much You Know”

SPequito 2014 Being a Teaching Assistant (TA) is vital for students in any of CMU Portugal’s dual degree Ph.D. programs. But for nonnative English speakers, a different language and culture can be quite challenging. For that reason, Carnegie Mellon University provides help to newcomers through the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC). We spoke to Sérgio Pequito, a dual degree Ph.D. candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program, currently at CMU, who told us about his experience as a TA and about the importance of the ICC to Ph.D. candidates.
The mission of the ICC is clear: the Center not only provides support to nonnative English speakers so that they can improve their language and cultural skills, but also helps International Teaching Assistants (ITA) and faculty develop the skills they need to provide effective instruction in the US. According to Peggy Heidish, the director of the ICC, the main goal is to “ensure the success of international students by helping them maximize language skills and cross-cultural understanding so that they reach their full potential academically and then professionally.” PHeidish 2014

For Sérgio Pequito, the ICC “is one of those places where you want to go when you arrive at a place like CMU.” Although some students see it “as a necessary evil because the Center is responsible for making the ITA test, a compulsory test for nonnative speakers, enforced by Pennsylvania law, the truth is that teaching is much more than standing in front of students talking about technical jargon,” the doctoral candidate stated. For that reason, the Center provides help in several aspects, such as “improving not only the accent, the pace and speed of the speech, but also the presentation skills for a general audience and for class situations,” he explained. Furthermore, the ICC offers a variety of non-credit workshops and seminars that focus on the language skills immediately applicable for graduate students at CMU. For example, seminars on presentation skills, communicating data, or building academic fluency” which, according to Sérgio Pequito, “are very helpful.” In the opinion of Peggy Heidish, the Center is also an “opportunity to better understand the style of academic communication needed for a globalized campus”, such as CMU. And she adds: “our 28 years on campus have given us a deep understanding of the needs of CMU international students, so we are able to pull from a rich repository of information and materials well tested for use with CMU graduate students.”

Carnegie Mellon University has a vast cultural diversity as people from all over the world, and with different backgrounds, study at the University and this “diversity is part of what makes the university so dynamic,” according to the ICC director. To overcome these differences, “the ICC offers all sorts of courses, such as ‘Language and Culture for Teaching’, taught by Peggy Heidish, which provides an overview of how the American school system works, of importance when teaching undergraduate courses, especially because it is different from the Portuguese [system],” Sérgio Pequito clarified. For instance, “most of the time in US classes, the teacher starts with an application/example, and then goes on to the theory. This is the opposite of what happens in Portugal and other places, where the theory is introduced first, and then followed by all sorts of results,” he added.
“Be the TA you would like your TAs to be”
During his dual degree doctoral studies, Sérgio Pequito taught three classes as a TA, although he was simply required to teach two. When questioned about the importance of being a TA, the Ph.D. candidate stated that “it is more than a requirement; it is the ultimate test on how much you know.” In fact, “anyone can talk about jargon and technical content to look smart, but it takes real skills to make advanced material accessible to those who are not experts,” he revealed. According to the student, this skill is particularly useful when TAs have to speak about their research, and it is a skill that makes candidates appealing to employers. For Peggy Heidish, “the fact that students come from a cross-section of departments helps them practice and develop the fluency to communicate with people outside of their fields.”

“Personally speaking, I love teaching and that was the reason why I did more TAs than required. And each time, it was a completely different experience,” especially because of “the amount of things I have learned with the students, and through their questions,” Sérgio Pequito explained. In terms of the role of a TA, Sérgio Pequito’s opinion is clear: “you should be the TA you would like your TAs to be.” And he offers some more advice: “when we are students, most of the time we complain that teachers do not give us enough feedback and that they take forever to deliver the homework and the answers to the questions. Try to keep it always on time and only then you will understand how tough life can be. But in the end it is worth it.”

Sérgio Pequito is a Portuguese student pursuing a dual degree Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Instituto Superior Técnico of the Universidade de Lisboa (IST/UL) and Carnegie Mellon University, as part of the Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program, funded by the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT). The doctoral candidate is co-advised by António Pedro Aguiar, from Faculdade de Engenharia of the Universidade do Porto (FEUP), Diogo Gomes, from IST/UL, and by Soummya Kar, from CMU. On May 20, 2012, Sérgio Pequito received CMU’s ECE Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. This award is given annually to acknowledge a graduate student who has demonstrated exemplary teaching.

February 2014