TAing at CMU

Being a TA is by far the most meaningful experience I have had at CMU.

Now that I’ve graduated, I wanted to write something down about it (ya know, before I inevitably grow old and feeble in my mid 20s and forget how important this experience was to me 😛)

Life Fulfillment

It’s no secret that helping other people makes you happy–not the kind of fleeting happiness that comes from a sugary treat or binging a TV show, but the kind of happiness that lasts for a long time and uplifts you continually. 

(I think we all know this intuitively, but I was first introduced the science of altruism from The Happiness Lab podcast: https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-2-episodes/episode-1–it’s a sweet 30 min listen) 

Being a TA meant it was my job to help people directly and I got to do it every single day. It made me feel like I was truly putting my time to good use when I helped a student understand something new. 

I honestly think I was so lucky that I ended up with the opportunity to have a job like this, even if it was just for a little while. I don’t think I have the proper vocabulary to describe what it felt like, other than it made my heart warm and my mind more content with life. That feeling you get when you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing, the best possible applications of your skills, the best position for yourself. 

Another way it brought fulfillment is because I got to “pay it forward.” When I started off in college, I had a really (really!) rough time. And I took a lot of help from the TAs. Many of them graduated after that and I don’t think I can ever pay them back for how much they supported my learning. Getting to help the next batch of students feels like the closest I can do to replaying them. 

Meeting People

TAs interact with a lot of people. Most obviously, with the students, but also with fellow TAs, the professors, and administrators. 

I meet some of my students in social clubs and it’s nice already knowing them. And some of them reach out for further advice and mentorship beyond the course and become TAs themselves! Being a mentor, even outside of the course, is pretty rewarding. 

Many of my closest friends were TAs for a course with me. Alongside organized TA social events, the long nights grading together and putting out logistical fires were definitely a way to bond with each other. When covid hit and all classes were online, my social life took a major hit. I suddenly lost contact with all the friends I normally met around the dorm and between classes. (Eventually we figured out how to plan video calls and still regularly keep in touch–it’s not the same, but at least we still see each other) However, my fellow TAs, I had to keep seeing multiple times every week for course logistics, and being around them honestly kept me sane for those first few months before I adjusted. 

I also got to see professors in a different light. As a student, you often just see the lecturer side of a professor, but as a TA you get to see how they are a manager, a boss, a mentor, an organizer, and even as a friend. Professor Anil Ada has had a profound impact in my life. When I was a student in his class, he fostered my interest in not only Theoretical Computer Science, but also about learning in general. Later as a TA for his class, I got to see behind-the-scenes how he made his course so inspiring–the level of commitment, care, and dedication it takes. 

Professional Leadership / Job Skills

TAing is not like the super professional kind of job where you get dressed up in a suit and “do business work” or whatever it is that real adults do. But it does require you to take on responsibility, stay accountable, have multiple people depending on you, work with hierarchical organizational systems a lot like other “grownup” jobs. 

This was further amplified when I became Head TA for a class (a certain class which I wrote *a lot* about here: https://parmita52.com/2020/10/03/how-to-succeed-in-151/) and learned about the best ways to handle reporting to people both above and below me, making lots of decisions based on limited information, handling logistics, and a whole host of skills they don’t necessarily teach you anywhere. These are the skills that people often learn on-the-fly at a job itself, so I am grateful that I got to experience it now.

Being a TA also means being on a course staff–essentially a team. You have to practice working well on this team long-term–not a week-long group project, but a multiple-year team where each quarter, a few people leave and new ones come in and you have to on-board them and adjust. You end up forming long-term working relationships with these people and learn how to play to everyone’s strengths to reach a shared goal. This whole paragraph is also a description of the way I’ve seen a lot of engineering teams function during my internships, so I got to work on those skills through TAing. By “those sills” I mean communicating well in a team, recognizing what things are worth disturbing another teammate to ask about and what things are not, standing up for yourself when things are not working out, keeping long-term course goals in mind while working on short-term tasks, and tracking your accomplishments. 

Student feedback 

I read and appreciate every single piece of feedback. It really means a lot to me. Recognizing how a single piece of student feedback can totally make my day has also pushed me to comment whenever I notice someone doing something good. It’s so simple for me to do, but I have the power to boost their mood 🙂

Some negatives 

Of course this is my rosy version of TAing since it was my passion and the most pivotal part of my college experience. It might be misleading to leave it at that, so I feel like it is worth ending this with some caveats. 

TAing can take a lot of time

There were things I thought I would do in college that I never got around to. This was partly because of covid cutting it short, but also partly because I poured a lot of time into this one activity instead of others. I thought I would join a cultural organization or take advantage of the fact that I was at one of the best arts and drama universities in the country. But I didn’t really get around to either during college. 

Do I regret it? No. But it is something worth noting.

It’s hard to say it’s worth it for the money…

Get paid more at my local McDonalds back home than I ever did TAing in college…. (okay I included this because it is a funny and technically true, but lol this mainly has to do with minimum wage laws in CA vs PA…the main point I’m getting at is…just don’t expect much higher than minimum wage despite all the work put in)

All in all though, I wouldn’t trade in my TAing experience for anything else. I got to have an impact on students, make new friends, and learn and grow so much as a person.

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