Exploring a College's Cultural Fit

by
Director of University Marketing, Enrollment Management, St. Thomas University

College is often the starting point of a person’s professional identity. They spend four years (or more) of their life there after painstakingly seeking schools that will maximize their potential and help them achieve their goals.

For many students, the college research process ends in the academic competency of a university…but some go one step further. They want to make sure the college or university they’re choosing fits their vision of a truly fulfilling life in school and beyond.

There’s more to university than just obtaining academic knowledge. When your chosen college is the right cultural fit, you can have a better learning experience, leave with additional skills, and remain connected with some of the like-minded people you meet along the way.

Do your potential universities align with what you want for your future? Ask yourself these questions to figure it out.

Are there opportunities to develop the skills you want?

A degree is no longer a rare find in a job candidate; it’s actually required for many jobs. That’s why it’s important to gain additional skills, improve your strengths, and work on your weaknesses during your years in university too. Will your prospective schools push you out of your comfort zone?

In your search for US colleges and universities, look for schools that go the extra mile to offer different types of activities that will help you develop your self-esteem, polish your interviewing skills, teach you to prioritize projects, or engage you outside of a given curriculum. For example, when St. Thomas University students were interviewed during graduation, a significant portion said one of their most significant college experiences was participating in an extracurricular activity offered at the school called Toastmasters (a speaking engagement that arms students with public-speaking skills).

Does the school and its students embody passion?

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion,” said world-renowned motivational TED speaker and best-selling author Simon Sinek. Do you already have a passion that you’d like to pursue? An idea for a project? A dream? Furthermore, would your future university enable you to pursue it?

Most universities will have attractive facilities that can dazzle you online and during a campus visit. But beautiful buildings will only take you so far; it is just as important to get faculty, staff, and student insights. Do they share your passion, and are they excited about new ideas? If you already have a vision about the work you want to do or the type of thesis you want to prepare, would your prospective academic department prepare you for your unique goals?

What would your network be like?

It takes resources and effort to bring a campus together, engage different groups, and keep them active. Would your prospective universities provide you an active network of peers, faculty, and alumni? Are there opportunities to meet people outside of your classrooms or academic department? Are alumni available for mentoring or even professional connections? And does that alumni network have a demonstrated record of reaching out to and supporting qualified students?

What kinds of events and extracurriculars are available?

Whether you’re interested in artistic pursuits, community events, studying abroad, philanthropic projects, or simply having fun, does the university have options that satisfy your interests? Browse the school’s online event calendar, search their website for clubs that appeal to you, and ask other students or alumni about their experiences if you can. Do you see yourself attending any of the campus events or participating in the activities advertised by the school?

For example, playing a sport, whether recreationally or on a more competitive team, is one of the best ways to engage in university life. You can make friends, learn teamwork, network, and unwind after class, among many other benefits. Have you checked to see if your university offers the sport(s) you’d like to participate in, and are those opportunities available to you as an international student?

Does the school reflect diversity and inclusiveness?

We learn about cultures and individual differences in many ways: through food, music, fine arts, or just a simple conversation. After all, a university is a place for higher learning, and encountering different viewpoints and backgrounds is an enormous part of personal growth.

Being exposed to different cultures can also help us tremendously in our professional lives. We’re living in a globalized society, we’re surrounded by international entities, and we’re all connected through the Internet. You’ll have a great competitive advantage in the job market if you are familiar with the realities of this interconnected world and comfortable navigating within it.

From a personal standpoint, you may also want to attend a college or university that will help you stay connected with your own culture, through on-campus resources or support services. For example, you might want to attend particular religious services, have access to familiar foods, or join international student groups. As much as stretching your comfort zone is an important part of the university experience, connecting to familiar cultural touchstones from time to time can help with homesickness and the simple enjoyment of your time on campus.

How welcoming, inclusive, and open-minded are your universities? What kinds of campus cultural support services are available? The international students office is a great place to start this research!

What’s going on now?

You can get a sense of these qualities in your potential colleges and universities by doing research online, in books, and through your personal network. (CollegeXpress is a great place to start!)

It can also be helpful to subscribe to your schools’ social media feeds. They are a good indicator of what colleges are up to. Just be mindful that these accounts are carefully curated to reflect a university’s strengths and accomplishments. However, they are still a representation of the university, its students, and its values. You can ask questions and interact with other community members through these channels as well. Do you want to be a part of what you see?

Each student, faculty, and staff member contributes to the culture of a university. When there’s a good cultural fit overall, you will feel “at home” at the final college or university you choose—a school that reflects your values and empowers you to reach your full potential. So take the time now to review your colleges and universities through this cultural lens. It’ll all be worth it!

Start your US university search on CollegeXpress.­

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