Advice From an Esteemed Alumnus

A Dragon Chronicles Special Feature

Many students dream of achieving academic excellence and graduating with flying colours. For high school valedictorian, Nathan Barria, of CISM’s graduating class of 2017, this was a dream come true.

Today we give you an exclusive interview with Nathan, as he imparts to us his greatest pieces of advice regarding studies, student life, and surviving in an academically rigorous setting .

Nathan during graduation day | Photo courtesy: Nathan Barria
DC: How long have you been in CISM, and how did it feel to graduate high school valedictorian after all those years? 

NB: I’ve been a student in CISM for about nine years (since 2008). In this time it’s become something of a home to me. Though the years seemed to stretch on when I experienced it the first time around, right now it feels like all that time just blinked past. I can still remember my first few years walking the then empty halls of the school. Looking back, I find it difficult to imagine that I’ve walked those halls for nine years of my life. Everything’s changed since I first entered CISM. The school is no longer what it was before and won’t be the same today as it will be in the coming years. It is a blessing to have been able to experience these changes and to grow alongside the school: it is a memory that I’ll definitely cherish. However, of all the changes, the one that affected me the most was the coming and going of teachers. Though it’s normal for teachers to come and go in international schools, I feel that each of my teachers taught me something different and helped shape me into who I am today. Their collective support and belief in my abilities fuelled me on all these years even after they’ve left the school. This made my graduation as valedictorian all the more fulfilling because I was not only able to make myself proud, but I was also able to make them proud as well.


DC: If you don’t mind sharing, what are some of the study secrets that helped you to achieve academic success? 

NB: In essence, how well you study and your understanding of the material all comes down to what practices helps you learn most effectively. Since people are typically different in terms of study habits and how they process information, the best strategy to help you understand your personal learning style is to identify how you absorb and retain information. In my case I’m an auditory and visual learner. This means that I learn and remember concepts better when I hear lectures, watch videos, or use diagrams and pictures. Of course, apart from visual and auditory learning there are many other learning styles like kinetic learning as well as the more obscure olfactory and gustatory learning (the idea that people associate knowledge with different smells or tastes). These are all connected under the concept of memory association or the connecting of physical stimulus with certain pieces of information for better recall. Given this, it is important to tailor the way you study by implementing practices that make learning easier for you.

Apart from this I can’t stress how important it is to write things down while consciously trying to understand how what your writing makes sense. In the age of computers and word documents it is easy to fall into the habit of typing everything out. The limited time between deadlines and heavy workload ensures that the computer is vital to completing assignments, but every now and then it’s also healthy to write things down. Personally, I prefer to handwrite my notes when I have the time and exam reviews consist of rewriting and rereading my old notes. I know, this sounds and is tedious, but it’s scientifically proven to help establish more mental connections and involves more brain activity than typing.

These, I feel, are what helped me become a better student and to reach my academic goals. Lastly, always remember: don’t just read, understand what you read.


DC: Feeling unmotivated and dealing with failure are amongst the biggest problems faced by students. Have you, yourself, faced such struggles? And if so, how were you able to cope with them? 

NB: Feeling unmotivated is largely attributed to one’s mindset and the mental load the person takes on each day. With classwork, homework, and deadlines to worry about, it’s hardly surprising that many students don’t feel particularly inclined to continue the cycle. However, while it may appear to be stressful and pointless, developing the habit of getting things done and finishing what one started are important and helpful qualities one must develop. Personally, I found it difficult at times to study when I didn’t feel like it because whatever I was doing seemed pointless. The one philosophy that kept me going in these situations, though, is based on the idea that it’s ok to take it slow as long as you don’t stop. In this context, I would portion off whatever I was doing into smaller sections to lessen the stress while ensuring that I don’t miss the deadline (but only if I have enough time). Though this isn’t always possible, it’s efficient in that I can still get things done without having to overburden myself when I’m unmotivated.

With regards to failure, it takes on a different meaning to different people. There were times way back when where I wouldn’t really understand concepts properly in class or even that time when I was late and wasn’t able to perform my duties as MC during UN day. Despite the disparity in the importance and magnitudes of those situations the same feeling of unhappiness and discontent were still prevalent. The one thing I took from those experiences was that it’s necessary to accept what’s happened and to experience the feelings that failure brings. That isn’t to say, however, that you can wallow in those feelings forever. It’s also important to forge ahead and to try your best in future endeavors so that the same mistakes won’t be repeated again. In other words, accepting failure is a necessary step in the process, but overindulging one’s feelings without the desire to do better only begets more failure.


DC: Aiming for the top can be stressful. What did you do to relax and calm yourself, especially before a daunting task such as an exam or research paper? 

NB: Though I often appear placid there are times when my mind is a cyclone of different thoughts and is generally in utter chaos. A whole mess of exams and deadlines do tend to have that effect. This, coupled with nervousness, is an experience that I (and many other students I’m sure) am quite familiar with. This is why I take comfort in making sure that I know the material in the test or the paper before I take it. Knowing and understanding the material allows me total control over the knowledge and makes it easier to get the task at hand over with. The number of papers I’ve rewritten my notes on can attest to that.

Apart from this, however, my go to stress relievers are always sleep and food. Given that I can’t spontaneously fall asleep like many of my other classmates, a good night’s rest before a test or an hour-long nap and some snacks before a research paper always does the trick for me when I’m overly stressed. Nothing beats some Z’s and good food.


DC: Some students often find it difficult to balance their social life with their studies. Was this the case with you? IF so, how were you able to overcome it? If not, how were you able to balance the two? 

NB: Balancing my studies and my social life wasn’t really that troubling for me since I don’t go out that frequently, though when I did I liked to make sure to get some of the work done before I left or after I get back. Similar to when I’m unmotivated, breaking down homework into small pieces also helps to keep a more open schedule, especially on weekends.


DC: What advice would you like to impart to the students of CISM, including the new students enrolling this year (and most importantly, the students taking the IB), regarding their studies and surviving CISM school life in general? 

NB: As a previous IB candidate and student, getting by can sometimes be difficult, hence the following tips might help you get through the year without losing your sanity (and sleep hopefully).

1. Planning: Proper planning and spacing out of activities and homework will definitely save you so much agony and stress. Though I didn’t perfectly adhere to this rule during my time as an IB student, the times I did greatly reduced the pressure I felt at the time. Proper planning not only makes it easier for you to do everything (or most of the things) you want to do but also saves you the trouble of worrying about deadlines and cramming. However, in order to make effective use of the plan you have to include something that will motivate you, which leads me to my next piece of advice.

2. Do things you love: Including activities that you like doing, be it boxing or baking or anything really, ensures that your schedule won’t be entirely stressful. In fact, they may even count as CAS activities! The important point here is that you should get involved in something you feel can lighten the load and monotony of schoolwork. Getting involved in school-wide events is a great way to get to better know people outside of class and to contribute to the school society. It’s also particularly fulfilling if the activity positively affects others and if everyone had fun regardless of its success or failure. The determining point here is that you should participate in activities that make you happy because if they aren’t they you’re just adding unwanted stress to your days. If the school offers the activity as a club then join it! If it doesn’t then it presents a great opportunity for you to take the initiative to start the club. What matters here is that it makes you happy and is something you take interest in.

3. Taking a breather: Burnout is a common issue among students and is very difficult to combat once it sets in. Depending on the type of person you are, taking some time for yourself or with your friends and just chilling is a must especially for the IB students. Of course, a break after finishing all the work is generally more restful than taking a break in the middle of working but some time to yourself will definitely energize you maybe even motivate you to keep on working.

4. Going with what works: Though innovation may lead to the next big thing, there is a reason why tried and tested goods hardly ever become passé. In other words, while thinking outside of the box may yield a high reward, it can be stressful to always think of different ways to tackle things. For those in the IB, using what you prepared for makes all the difference in taking exams. If you find that a certain structure of answering test works for you then practice it so that it becomes your normal. After all, when it comes to the externals, the risk is higher than the reward when it comes to answering questions on the spot. The baseline is that you’ve got to go with what works for you.

5. Living in the moment: Taking your time and living in the moment will make your time in school more memorable. Even though there are moments or happenings that aren’t particularly noteworthy or special, being grounded and enjoying the circumstances allows you to become appreciative of the small blessings in life that you’ve never really noticed before. Be it an interesting conversation with your teacher or an afterschool activity, taking notice of the finer details might even brighten your day and give you something to smile about.

6. Grades aren’t the end of it all: Just do your best. Not all battles can be won.


Photo courtesy for header: Pamela Esguerra

Nathan will be pursuing his college education in De La Salle University, with Industrial Engineering as his course of focus.

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