What does a U.S. education offer to an international student that is distinctive from other universities and colleges around the globe?
An American university education is unlike any other in the world. The United States offers a tremendous variety of college settings: four- and two-year colleges; public and private institutions; urban, suburban, and rural settings; small liberal arts schools and vast research universities. What binds all these colleges together is a distinct American approach to higher education. Students from all over the world will graduate from American colleges with a specialized set of skills in their preferred field, certainly. But they will also have a well-rounded education focused on problem solving, intellectual curiosity, and social development—an education designed to prepare them for life just as much as for a career.
The single most common reason students express the desire to study in the United States is the freedom to explore many subject areas and career options. International students are often forced to choose a specific major or career path early in their youth and believe they would benefit from having more time to experiment before specializing in a specific area. In contrast, many U.S. schools promote flexibility and provide the freedom to explore different subject areas outside of a particular major. Students will find that U.S. colleges and universities typically offer opportunities to study literature, history, and philosophy, as well as social and physical sciences like economics, sociology, physics, and math. Many colleges and universities provide students with interdisciplinary opportunities and ways to study subjects they have not yet experienced.
This wide-ranging scholastic approach, often described as a “liberal arts” education, aims to provide students with the time and the tools to explore the self, relationships with others, and the social and physical world. A liberal arts education means that a student’s experience is to be more holistic rather than narrowly focused on a single body of knowledge. Even outside of liberal arts colleges, this educational philosophy remains fundamental to many U.S. colleges and universities because it cultivates individuals who can analyze problems, understand the context of those problems, and innovate creative solutions to address those problems. At most colleges and universities, such a broad scope is made mandatory by “general education” requirements that have students take courses in a wide range of disciplines prior to graduation.
The American education system prioritizes not only the acquisition of knowledge, but the application of it. Most American colleges and universities therefore provide students with access to research, mentorships, and internships to develop the skills necessary to apply knowledge learned in class to real-life problems and dilemmas. On-campus research provides students with a supervised setting in which they can learn how to adapt theory articulated in textbooks to real-world problems. This type of active engagement prepares students for the types of challenges they will confront in their professional lives.
Internships are also a central part of the college experience for most American undergraduates. During the summer, students typically seek out opportunities at corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies in their chosen fields of study. Fortunately, these institutions are eager to provide such opportunities. Many colleges have a career office that recruits internships for students and helps place students in the positions for which they are best suited. Employers place considerable weight on a summer internship, understanding that it is an ideal setting for students to develop job skills and learn how to thrive in a professional environment.
Many American colleges and universities also offer pre-professional programs to supplement the liberal arts curriculum. These programs provide students with yet another way to acquire the experience and opportunities needed to advance as successful professionals in their intended career paths. Attending workshops on résumé building or writing an effective cover letter tailored to stand out in a specific profession can be a great way to enhance a student’s professional preparation. Also, mentoring from current professionals, career-specific academic advising, and opportunities to network and explore professional facilities are some of the ways that these programs ensure students are well prepared for the working world.
For similar reasons, extracurricular activities also play a large part of the educational experience in the United States. Because extracurricular activities provide students the opportunity to learn important life and professional skills like teamwork, commitment, discipline, and independence, they are viewed as an essential part of the American college experience. Additionally, students are often given leadership roles in their extracurricular activities, giving them opportunities to manage budgets, find compromises, navigate bureaucracy, and plan and organize events.
In addition to extracurricular activities, colleges and universities often see residential life as an equally important aspect of a liberal education. Because a liberal arts education aims to mold and shape an individual, the environment in which this type of learning takes place is important. This model typically envisions that both residential and student life go hand-in-hand to create well-rounded, thoughtful, and socially responsible individuals.
Schools that have residential facilities rarely see their residence halls as just places to eat and sleep. Rather, residence halls and dormitories are where individuals find community based upon ideas, discourse, and commitment to learning rather than solely on a shared background, ideology, culture, or politics. This is a real opportunity to engage others who wish to learn directly from those different from themselves. Residential life in a college or university opens the door for personal and intimate engagement and helps students understand the common human experience beyond geographic borders and culture. In this way, residential life builds a foundation for communication and dialogue with others in a setting that is reflective of today’s diverse and increasingly global workplaces and communities.
Residence halls are just one of many features of the college experience geared toward building community among undergraduates. In fact, a sense of community and belonging—critical to the academic and social development of young adults—is actively fostered on American college campuses. Whether through social activities, campus traditions, competitive athletics, or any number of other avenues, school spirit and pride in one’s alma mater runs strong among college graduates. And it continues throughout one’s life, with frequent reunions on campus and a vibrant network of alumni around the world.
Many of the reasons international students seek a U.S. education—the freedom to explore different disciplines, access to research and practical skills, and a strong sense of community—stem from a shared belief that education should give an individual a heightened understanding of personal, social, and natural relationships and should be one that promotes reflection, creative problem solving, resilience, and resourcefulness. Such an education prepares students for their chosen career paths or professions more comprehensively than one solely based on technical training or informational learning, while also providing a path for dynamic citizenship and lifelong learning.
When exploring the wide variety of educational options in the United States, it’s important to seek out the institutions that are compatible not only in intellectual focus, but also in culture and atmosphere. International students should reflect carefully as to how they would like to develop and grow, and consider whether a given college or university provides them with the opportunities, community, and values they wish to pursue. It is important to seek beyond academic offerings, and international students need to communicate exactly what they want from their college education. The more any given college or university fulfills a student’s needs, the more likely the student will find success in applying to their institutions of choice.