Standout Students Discuss the Importance of Flags

Five students sit in front of microphones at a table in a conference room. The panel moderator stand to the right of them.
The student panel at the 10 Years of Flags Symposium speaks answers questions for the audience. From left to right: Zarah Dehri, Sarah Garcia, Maher Rahman, Ishank Arora, Oishik Saha and Moderator Liz Grahm. Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar

10 years ago, the Center for Skills & Experience Flags (CSEF) was formed as a part of the Commission of 125’s call to equip undergraduates with degree plans that teach them to think critically, write cogently, engage in inquiry and discovery, examine ethical questions, and learn about other cultures. On October 11, 2019, the CSEF hosted a symposium featuring faculty and students to celebrate 10 years of work and look to the future.

This semester, we caught up with four of the student panel members to discuss the impact Flag courses have had on their time at the University of Texas.

Ishank Arora, a 19-year-old computer science and plan II honors major from El Paso, Texas, stumbled upon the field of programming.

Photo Courtesy of Ishank Arora

“I was always fascinated with computers, and then I thought, ‘Oh, you can write code and actually program them to be specifically what you want,’” Arora said. “That was a very fascinating part of it.”

During a computer science course Arora said, he realized how the Independent Inquiry Flag gives students the opportunity to apply skills learned in lower division classes to real-world experiences. He said he had the opportunity to create projects from scratch and really jump into the deep end of programming.

“Seeing these weren’t just tools we were being taught, that they come together to help build something else, something bigger,” Arora said.

Outside of class, Arora said he works with Vijay Chidambaram, a computer science professor. He also has previously completed research with the Computational Media Lab and an internship at RigUp.

Arora said he plans on pursuing a Master’s after completing his undergraduate degree and plans to build both a technical and managerial career.

“I’ve always liked education,” Arora said. “If there were if there was such a job as being a professional student, I would.”

Zara Dehri, a 19-year-old history major with a Korean minor from Houston, Texas, chose her minor, in part, because she wanted to read a book in Korean.

Five students sit in front of microphones at a table in a conference room.
Zarah Dehri speaks on the 10 Years of Flags Symposium Student Panel. Other panel members (from left to right): Sarah Garcia, Maher Rahman, Ishank Arora, Oishik Saha. Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar

“Since it’s a pretty contextual language, just reading some of those translations might not have the same meaning as if I were to read it in Korean,” Dehri said. “So, I want to read it directly.”

Dehri said, because of her major, she has taken many classes with Global Cultures and Cultural Diversity Flags but feels like she has seen the most improvement in her skills from taking Writing Flag courses.

“Global Cultures, that kind of goes with the topic,” Dehri said. “With writing, it’s like, ‘Oh, you have to write!’ It’s definitely helped me become a better writer.”

In a biannual survey of students in Writing Flag courses, 73% of respondents felt their writing improved as a result of taking a the class. The survey also showed receiving helpful instructor feedback was related to perceived writing improvement. Students who agreed that they received helpful feedback from their instructor or TA were more likely to agree that their writing improved as a result of taking the class.

She added that taking Flag courses gave her a chance to explore skills and ideas that she would not have as much exposure to if she were to stick strictly to a traditional degree plan.

“Honestly, to me, Flag courses are the way you can branch out from just your major,” Dehri said. “I just took things that were interesting to me, because I feel like that is the purpose of Flags.”

Dehri said she is part of the History Honors Program and is planning to focus her research for her thesis on the Hollywood 10 Blacklist. Outside of class, she said she works at the front desk for the Jackson School of Geosciences building.

In the future, Dehri said she hopes to pursue her Master’s or Doctorate in history, but she is keeping her options open.

Maher Rahman, a 22-year-old computer science major from Houston, Texas, was originally a neuroscience major until his roommate persuaded him to switch tracks by pointing out that he could continue taking classes from both majors.

Maher Rahman wears a black and grey suit jacket while standing in front of a skinny tree with pink blooms
Maher Rahman wears a black and grey suit jacket while standing in front of a skinny tree with pink blooms
Photo Courtesy of Maher Rahman

“He’d give me a lot of pros and cons,” Rahman said. “There’s a lot of cool classes restricted to computer science majors. So, (he told me) I could switch to computer science and then take the neuroscience courses that are cool. It’s like a win-win.”

Maher said many of his favorite classes at UT were ones outside of his major that he would never have considered taking if not for needing to fulfill a Flag requirement. He said the Flags provide a unique opportunity for UT students to meet and work with people from a variety of educational backgrounds, world-views and experiences.

Both the Cultural Diversity and the Global Cultures Flags aim to help students explore the views and perspectives of people with different lived experiences than them while also reflecting on their own cultural experiences.

“College is a place you can see things, meet people you’d normally never meet,” Rahman said. “Flag courses allow you to meet people outside of your major and in many different regions. It’s cool to meet people who are different from me.”

For people wary of taking a specific Flag course, Maher said they should embrace the opportunity to learn new lessons and pick up new skills their major may not always give them a chance to work on.

“I don’t want to sound cheesy and say college isn’t a trade school, so don’t treat it like one,” Rahman said. “Get an education not a vocation.”

After graduation, Rahman said he plans on pursing a Masters in computer science and an MBA.

Oishik Saha, a 20-year-old chemical engineering major from Houston, Texas, became interested in chemistry in high school.

Photo Courtesy of Oishik Saha

“I had good teachers,” Saha said. “I also did research one summer at UT Arlington with their Dean of Chemistry, so that was really interesting, because I got hands on experience.”

During his first year on campus, Saha said he took an architecture course that helped him understand the importance of the Flag course requirements. The course was more abstract than he thought it would be and forced him to think outside the box of any one formula — a task he found challenging.

Thinking outside the box is something both the Ethics and Quantitative reasoning Flags aim accomplish. Courses with these Flags work to provide students with real-world skills and tools that can be used outside of the classroom, from making ethical decisions in a professional setting to engaging critically with a data-rich world.

“You have to consider a lot of different things,” Saha said. “And it turned out to be very useful just for me to think about how I live my day-to-day life. I’m not solving a differential equation every day, but what I am doing is thinking about how I want to spend my time and what sort of spaces I like.”

He added that the multiple internships he has held during his time at UT gave him the opportunity to broaden his horizons.

“A Flag provides me perspective; internships were another form of perspective for me,” Saha said.

Outside of class, Saha said he uses his math and physics skills to serve as President of the UT Machine Learning and Data Science Club and works with two startups: Bloom, which teaches computer science to kids, and Bluebonnet Data, an organization focused on data work for down-ballot Democratic campaigns.

Saha said he plans on pursuing a career path in data and is toying with the idea of one day taking a more entrepreneurial route and starting a venture of his own.

“My future is based on my past experiences,” Saha said.

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.