The Top 10 Myths About Attending University in America

Director, International Student Services, Pepperdine University

Many students who come to study in America have expectations about campus life shaped by television and movies, or by offhand comments from well-meaning friends and family. Here’s the truth behind some of the most common myths.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Of the 280 million people inhabiting our 50 states, all but Native Americans claim ancestry from some other part of the world. In many communities—large and small—dozens of cultures are represented. This means that wherever you attend a university or college, you can enjoy a new culture and have the opportunity to share yours with your new friends.

Yet, you may have heard some interesting—and possibly disconcerting—comments about American life and culture. Let’s set the record straight.

Myth #1: Students of non-Western religious faiths or from racial minority backgrounds are not welcome in America.

This concern gets a lot of discussion in this post-9/11 environment. But you should take comfort in knowing that virtually all college campuses in America enjoy a culture of diversity, openness, and acceptance. Universities believe in academic freedom and the joy of searching for the answers to humanity’s most profound questions, and they value the dialogue that occurs in academic settings. As an international student, you really are a treasure—you provide perspectives on university campuses that are necessary for thorough and complete academic dialogue.

You may have heard from friends and relatives or on your local news stations that international students, especially Muslim students, are not wanted on American campuses anymore. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. You are needed on campuses to help us dispel myths and stereotypes that may exist in the minds of some students. When you participate in dialogue in the residence halls and in the classrooms, it does wonders to create a more informed and peaceful world community.

It may take a little longer these days to get your student visa from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, but student applications are a priority for those officials. The enrollment process may also be a bit lengthier, but if you persevere, attendance at an American college or university will have an immeasurable impact on your life and future opportunities.

If you are considering obtaining your education in a country other than America, you might want to first check into the racial and religious attitudes that are prevalent there. Not every country is as tolerant as America, so it’s important to research this issue carefully.

America is a nation of immigrants, valuing ethnic and cultural diversity. Although the majority of the population in America is presently Caucasian, in the near future it will be a nation that is truly pluralistic, with no predominant race. And if you look at the American government, you will notice that ethnic minorities have held positions at the highest levels of leadership, including president, Secretary of State, and other senior Cabinet members. Not many nations can make the same statement. American universities admit and enroll more international students than any other country.

If you research the turbulent times of the 1960s, you will find that university and college students and faculty were at the forefront in the crusade for civil rights in America. Universities and colleges have traditionally been platforms for tolerance and have served as forums for advocating racial and religious harmony and dialogue. The campus community is a great place for open discussion of racial, political, social, and religious issues, where differences are highly prized as expressions of mankind’s unique diversity. International students in America have found their unique international perspectives are encouraged by faculty in the classroom and their social insights are respected by American students as well.

Will you occasionally run into a person who does not know where your country is located on the globe? Yes, you will. But you can also turn such an encounter into an opportunity to gently educate that person about the valuable contributions you and your culture have made to the world community.

Myth #2: Americans are secular and hold no serious religious convictions.

Although the religious lives of Americans are rarely portrayed on television or in movies, religion is an important part of American life. One of our highest values is the fact that America is culturally and religiously diverse. In many communities, you will find temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques.

In fact, a larger and more important issue for you to examine may be the religious affiliations of universities/colleges, many of which have historic associations—formal or informal—with particular religious denominations. Some of the oldest and most respected U.S. educational institutions began as schools for the training of ministers, and those institutions still sponsor schools of theology on their campuses. Americans place a high value on their religious freedom (it is one of the main reasons the nation was founded), and they are very accepting of the religious practices of international students. You can be assured that your desire to pursue your religious faith while you are in America as a student will not be inhibited at most schools, but in fact will be encouraged by many in the academic community. For the universities with existing religious affiliations, faith is an important part of life on and off campus.

Myth #3: Most Americans (and students) live in large cities that are crime-ridden and unsafe.

While it is true that many major universities and colleges are located in large cities, many others are located in suburban and rural areas. Most, both urban and rural, have excellent relationships with their neighboring communities and relish opportunities to work together on community and university/college projects. Even schools located in the hearts of major cities have created campuses that are havens from the stresses and strains of urban life.

News events may create an image of American cities and university/college campuses as crime-ridden and unwelcoming to international students. Nothing could be further from the truth. All campuses are patrolled by campus public safety departments, whose sole responsibility is the safety and protection of the academic community where you live, work, and play. Many campuses sponsor safe-ride programs, escort services, and controlled access to buildings so that your living environment is safe and protected. Most colleges create an environment that is not only intellectually stimulating but is often more like an extended family because of all the close relationships that exist among the faculty, staff, and students.

Students who attend a university or college in a major city quickly adapt to the exciting lifestyle that is characteristic of big cities, with their easy access to museums, entertainment, and culture—as well as their many career opportunities.

Myth #4: Courses of study at universities and colleges in America are weak, and students party rather than study.

Movies such as National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and Animal House do not realistically portray campus life in America. Although students do enjoy the freedom to explore a full life outside of class, they are also expected to meet high academic standards. In fact, America attracts more international students than any other country, and international students, like their American peers, are expected to fulfill their academic responsibilities first. But students also love to have fun, and the abundance of activities, clubs, sports, art, theater, and student organizations on campus provides them with many opportunities to do so.

Myth #5: Outside of class, there is not much for international students to do, and they become bored.

Free time is a topic you should discuss with admission officers at the universities and colleges you are interested in. The admission officer will provide you with information about his or her particular campus that will help you narrow down your university/college choices. At almost all campuses, however, officers understand that an important part of your life in America is what we call the “cocurriculum,” or your life outside of class.

The Student Activities Office, the Intramurals and Recreation Office, the Housing Office, and the Student Government Office, among others, hire full-time staff who work year-round to plan on-campus and off-campus events to make your out-of-class experience just as exciting as your in-class experience. Your biggest problem will likely be having to decide which of the many programs sponsored each evening is most appropriate for you. You will constantly be faced with having to choose between competing attractive activities such as a badminton tournament, a foreign film festival, and an international club meeting—all on the same night.

On many campuses, well over half of all students participate in intramural and recreational activities as diverse as rock climbing and line dancing. Many students volunteer as tutors at local schools and participate in fund-raising activities for various community organizations. Students find these experiences rewarding and see them as highlights of their education because of the worthiness of the causes and the involvement with people in the local community.

Myth #6: American students are rich and can easily afford a university education.

If that were true, it would be a pleasant surprise to most students in America. Some students do come from wealthy families and have large expendable incomes, but most come from families with moderate incomes. At some universities and colleges, more than 80% of the student population receives some form of financial aid, and most American students enter knowing they must apply for loans, work part time, and earn scholarships in order to meet their financial obligations. International students will find that American students come from families that value learning and the benefits that higher education provides.

Myth #7: American university/college residence halls are undesirable places to live, providing little privacy or security.

On-campus housing is convenient, safe, and relatively inexpensive. Residence halls (sometimes called dormitories) are refurbished frequently and are offered to students at reasonable rates—as much as one-third the rate of similar accommodations off campus.

Safety and security are high priorities for universities and colleges, and therefore campus housing usually requires controlled access to enter. Campus security is typically excellent (as mentioned in Myth #3). You and your parents might be surprised to learn that national studies show that students who live in on-campus housing achieve better grades and graduate at higher rates than students who live off-campus.

Many students find that the time spent in campus housing includes some of their most memorable experiences, and dormmates often become lifelong friends. Most colleges and universities offer lots of on-campus housing options, including single rooms, double rooms, suites, townhouses, and apartments. Residence halls are typically supervised by resident assistants, upperclass students who serve as unofficial advisors to the students under their care.

Myth #8: Everyone owns cars in the United States, so I could live in Boston and commute daily to New York for my university studies.

Many overseas students are surprised to learn about the considerable distances between cities in our country. For example, if you were to drive 100 km/hour, it would take you five full days driving 10 hours per day to travel from Los Angeles to New York. Except in metropolitan areas, public transportation is less readily available here than elsewhere around the world. Check a map to confirm the distances from the university or college to other cities or even to other parts of the local community. And if you’re thinking of living in an apartment, consider the advantages of living in on-campus housing.

Myth #9: Americans are so impersonal—there will not be anyone on campus to help international students in times of crisis.

The image of the fast-talking, uncaring, superficial American really is a stereotype. You will find that universities and colleges work very hard to provide services to you as an international student. They consider you a guest in the country and pay full-time staff to support you during your entire stay in America. These staff members have been specially selected and trained to be sensitive to your needs, and they take time to help you adjust to life on campus and to deal with the various university/college and governmental bureaucracies.

Most campuses sponsor one- or two-day orientation programs for international students, but many universities sponsor programs that last longer—sometimes up to a week. Such programs guide you through the transition to college life, help you adjust to the cultural challenges you’ll face, and inform you about regulations you’ll need to observe in order to maintain your status as a student. Returning students frequently serve as orientation advisors and discussion leaders. You may actually register for your classes during orientation, and you’ll be introduced to faculty members and staff who will be helpful throughout the years you spend on campus.

Myth #10: Campus life—and especially on-campus housing—has too many rules.

Some movies from the ’40s and ’50s do portray campus life in a way that was very restrictive, with curfews and overbearing rules. But now, more than 60 years later, when you are 18 years old you are legally considered an adult, and you are treated as one. Each campus has its own rules and regulations, just as any city or nation has laws. These regulations are designed to create a safe and sane living environment that is conducive to research and learning while protecting the rights of all members of the academic community.

Most campuses give you the right to make your own decisions about class attendance, class choices, campus housing options, etc. You will have the freedom to make many decisions—and the freedom to make many mistakes—as you develop competencies on your path to a productive career.

International students need to have confidence in their ability to make good decisions and to be independent. There are many support services on campus to assist you in the decisions you will be making, but in the final analysis, the choices will be yours. When you lived at home, you depended on your family to make financial, educational, and health decisions. Your university/college years represent a transition to self-reliance and independence.

In America, as in your home country, a certain amount of bureaucracy exists, but with experience you’ll find it little more than a minor frustration. The United States is very decentralized, and you’ll have many opportunities to make financial, educational, and health decisions and choose from various options. It’s very important for you to come to America confident that you can act independently.

Navigating your way through the health care system in America can be a challenge. Your university or college may present some bureaucratic hurdles also as you register for courses, sign forms, arrange for financial aid, and settle into campus life. You may face other challenges in your general transition to life in America, such as opening a bank account or arranging for an off-campus job. But after the initial unfamiliarity, you will likely find yourself feeling like a real native and perhaps even mentoring new international students who come to your campus. Remember:

  • Everything will become easier once you become familiar with the routines of daily living and take advantage of campus resources.
  • Your advisors, professors, and friends will provide guidance and advice.
  • Few decisions are irreversible—and besides, college life is supposed to be a learning experience.

Are you ready to begin the most exciting years of your life? If so, those of us on university and college campuses in America are ready to help you. We know your experiences here will change your life, and your presence here will change our lives as well!

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