When I was a kid, my father told me exciting stories about his business trips to America. I was always exhilarated to listen to his stories and every night, I daydreamed of going to America. When I graduated from elementary school, my father gave me an English-Japanese dictionary. After a decade, I went to Stanford Graduate School of Business from Todai University (Tokyo University). In 1996, my plane touched down at San Jose International Airport. As the seatbelt sign turned off, I jumped out of my seat with excitement and rushed to the passenger entry door.
My first day at business school was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was the first person to get to the classroom and was shocked by the enormous room that had rows and rows of chairs, since classrooms at Todai University were significantly more compact. As the students came swarming in, I noticed that many of them sat with their group of friends. I tried to find the closest seat to one of the clusters, but I felt that I didn’t belong to the group because I was the only international student in the class. Instead, for the whole semester, I sat in the very corner of the classroom all by myself.
For the first few weeks, I told myself, “Working alone is not going to be a problem, and being popular is unnecessary.” However, halfway through the term, my professor assigned a group project, and I was stunned. The day of the project’s announcement, I stood up out of my seat and looked right and left furiously, noticing that all the groups were assembled.
The professor exclaimed, “If you are not in a group, you can join any of the groups.”
I was frightened that my accent would make it difficult for the other students to understand and that I would not understand the ideas from the group members because they talked so fast in their American English.
I panicked. I quickly went up to the professor and said, “I could work on this project individually, and I assure you that I can do a great job.”
My professor replied, “Are you sure? This project will be very difficult if you do it all by yourself.”
I responded, “Yes. I am certain that I can complete this project by myself.”
At first, I imagined that I could complete the presentation all by myself, but when I glanced at the rubric, my jaw dropped. The rubric consisted of five pages of writing, and the words were so small that I had to squint. My brain felt like it was going to burst from all the overwhelming information in front of me.
Two weeks before the assignment was due, I spent most of my time in the corner of the library. The crumpled papers overfilled the desk and I stayed all day until one of the custodians kicked me out at midnight. My hands and shoulders were sore, and I felt like I was sleepwalking as I made my way back to the dorm. However, I realized that my progress was still too slow. The day before the presentation, I tried to put all the text into my brain and I felt like I had a headache. I came to a realization that with group members, it would be more efficient since everyone in the group is working on their own part. But it was too late.
The day of the presentation, I showed up to class unprepared and was scared to even stand up. When my name was called, I walked to the podium, and I felt like I was breaking out in a cold sweat. In the final portion of the presentation, I stuttered and mixed up some of the key terms. It seemed like the whole class was looking at me with judgment. My face flushed with embarrassment. After my presentation was done, I listened to the other groups present their slides and compared to mine, their presentations were very clear and were easy to follow. I noticed that when someone on a team forgot something, the other group members would help them. At the end of the presentations, I thought that being in a group is much better than working alone.
After the class, I went up to the group with the best presentation and asked if working as a team made them more successful.
A girl in a smart-looking suit told me, “One of my weakness is synthesizing information into a narrative. Talking to others on the team taught me new methods and gave me new ideas to improve. It was great!”
I realized then that working with others increases collaboration and result in more creativity. I regretted giving in to my shyness and my fears because I lost the opportunity to learn from my classmates.
When I told the group that I regretted choosing to work alone, the group members smiled and told me that the presentation was not so bad.
“Next time,” they said, “you could be on our team!”
This story is based on an interview by Akira Isayama, a student at Palo Alto High School.