DIY Education

I have been following Karen X. Cheng's journey for several months, ever since she released a video illustrating how she learned to dance in a year. I am not a dancer, with the exception of occasional Zumba classes and a summer spent memorizing K-pop music videos. Yet Karen's message is inspiring to anyone who dreams of maximizing their potential, but is unsure of where to begin:

This isn’t a story about dancing [...]. It’s about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway. Maybe you’re a musician dreaming of writing an original song. You’re an entrepreneur dying to start your first venture. You’re an athlete but you just haven’t left the chair yet.

Karen's passion and persistence also guided her through a career change. In an article for Fast Company, Karen describes how she got a job as a designer without going to design school. I am a believer in do-it-yourself education -- though historically not quite confident enough to commit myself! -- and Karen's advice rings true. Her education took place on weekends and evenings, and was structured by books on theory, online tutorials, mentors, and building her portfolio with pro bono side projects.

This year, I am committed to DIY education. During winter break, I will get reacquainted with my high school-era computer science skills, and tackle several lessons on Codecademy. Additionally, I have been piecing together a DIY graduate degree in Energy, Resources and Environment -- a popular concentration in my graduate program that turns away outside students from oversubscribed courses, but that doesn't mean I can't access the assigned reading.

Next week, my commitment to DIY education will be put to the test. After a year-long vacation from formal classes, I am scheduled to take my Chinese proficiency test. I have been religiously writing and re-writing vocabulary words, reading old textbooks, and listening to podcasts on ChinesePod (a great resource!). May this be the first step in a successful year of self-improvement, side projects and do-it-yourself education!

Motivating Volunteer Student Editors

How do you motivate student editors to produce great work when you can’t afford to pay them?

I am Senior Editor of the SAIS Review of International Affairs, an academic journal at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Our organization has two levels of hierarchy:

  • The paid Editorial Board -- Editor-in-Chief, Senior Editor, Managing Editor and Web Editor --  solicits content, recruits and trains staff, manages the copy-editing process, and markets the publication.
  • The staff of thirty volunteer Assistant Editors are responsible for the grueling details: several months of fact-checking, corresponding with authors, correcting style and grammar, and formatting citations for 5,000-word academic essays.

When I assumed my leadership position last summer, I asked myself: Why should students join our organization? Given the countless responsibilities and opportunities competing for a graduate student’s attention -- homework, job interviews, work-study and rival student organizations -- it was my responsibility to earn the participation of our staff. Here are a few guidelines that worked for me:

1. Make them feel valued.

Ask for their feedback. Respond to suggestions. Compliment them for good work. Say thank you. And don’t forget about perks: Meetings catered by Chipotle say “You’re valued!” more than a bag of stale chips and salsa.

2. Provide a variety of incentives.

Some students want a line for their resume and publicity for their work. Others hope to exercise creativity and gain leadership skills. Many will be inspired by the potential to earn a salary in a leadership position the next year. Clearly state how your organization will help students achieve their unique objectives.

3. Demonstrate a dedication to excellence and efficiency.

Lead by example: If you don’t take pride in your work, neither will your staff. Constantly seek to improve efficiency and quality. Do not blindly accept tradition: If your organization's historic approach is no longer relevant, develop a new strategy.

4. Assign yourself the most demanding tasks.

All-nighter? Unhappy author? Particularly complicated facts to check? You should take on these tasks yourself. A volunteer editor is sacrificing his or her limited time, and should be rewarded with meaningful, not tedious, work.

When I was an Assistant Editor, I often received midnight emails with unrealistic demands, and received critiques rather than compliments for my contributions. I knew that I would do things differently. By following these guidelines, I doubled staff retention compared to the previous year, and identified several talented future leaders for our organization. But most importantly, I am proud of the positive environment and opportunities for learning that I have provided for my staff.

Chinese :: Coding

When I was a first-year in college, I deeply admired an acquaintance who spoke fluent Chinese. How could someone be so talented? Why wasn't that talented? And then it hit me: I could study Chinese, too.

Many people, myself included, are intimidated to learn new skills because we are afraid of making mistakes. Or perhaps we desire instant results. Or maybe we believe we don't have the intrinsic talent to succeed.

But five years, a dozen laoshis, and months in China and Taiwan later, I learned to speak Chinese at an advanced proficiency. The skill that seemed so unattainable simply required persistence.

That experience inspires me as I pursue a new goal: to improve my technical and design skills, as well as my knowledge of energy and technology policy. Eventually, I hope to identify a career path that links these skills with my graduate degree in international relations and economics, specializing in emerging markets.

I have always admired the kind of person who can build a website. Edit a video. Identify as a woman in STEM. And truly, I have been a little intimidated.

But maybe, with persistence, I can be that kind of person, too.