They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of American Higher Education

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of Higher Education in the U.S.

What is it about an American university education that makes millions of students want to compete, struggle, sacrifice, fight, and beg for admission? For example, the idea of a Harvard Bachelor’s or an engineering degree at MIT is something tantamount to attaining godhood in many countries. It is the finishing touch that will supposedly make one’s life complete, along with acquiring a Mercedes, oceanfront property, and dividends from high-yield stocks. All of this is ironic when one considers the sad fact that America lags far behind its industrialized world counterparts in primary and secondary education, embarrassingly so. It is also ironic when one considers the variety of social problems that are present on a number of campuses, such as binge drinking, drugs, cheating, date rape, or lack of basic classroom respect in an age of texting and social media. America’s universities are much younger than its international counterparts; Princeton’s architecture is laughable when one considers the thousand-plus year old architecture of Oxford. And many of these universities, like Oxford, Bologna, or the Sorbonne hold much older traditions of higher education that go back centuries, if not millennia. Needless to say, the cost of higher education in the United States is staggering; while people in France might protest a €200 tuition increase per year, people here are paying $200,000 for their entire university education.

But there is something very special about studying in the United States, despite all these problems and the relative youth of our institutions. Why is an American education so sought-after?

-American universities are well-funded. Granted, not every university has a Harvard-sized endowment. But American schools generally all have decent libraries and laboratories. There is computer access and technology. There are great resources for both inside and outside the classroom, extracurricular activities, and campus housing and dormitories that make for a complete experience. There might be strong sports facilities, concert halls, art studios, media labs, and more. Even in an age-old prestigious university overseas, there might not be suitable facilities to further one’s development.

-The style of liberal arts education. In a majority of countries around the world, students are tracked into a single discipline upon entry. There are very few electives and classes taken in fields that are not pertinent to one’s major. In America, there is almost always some form of a core curriculum and requirements that serve to broaden one’s mind, requiring humanities majors to take a math class and engineering majors to take a social science class. In the classroom, the style of education is not rote, but seeks to challenge and knock down students’ beliefs in order for them to be rebuilt. There is much discussion, original thought is valued, and critical inquiry is key to learning and growing. There are sacred texts and new thinkers; the canon lays the groundwork in many schools and in others, students get to choose classes that feel relevant to their style of education. America is particularly strong and cutting edge in the STEM fields, and so it is a popular choice for many students from overseas. 

-The diversity of institutions. If you want a research school where you attend classes that are lectures given by global experts in their field, America has that. If you want a state university where you get to mix with the locals and have an authentic American experience with lower tuition, that is available. Perhaps you learn best in a small setting, and so a small liberal arts college fits the bill. Maybe you come from a conservative country where there is gender segregation in education, so a women’s college is the only choice your parents will approve of. If you are a genius in a STEM field, you opt for one of the top universities in the country that focuses on science and technology. Or you might be a future leader in your country that has deep political trouble, and so you choose an institution that supports refugees and political thinkers. Whatever your pedagogical goals or style, there is a school to meet your needs.

-The best universities are truly global. Students will make friends with people from every corner of the earth and the United States, make friendships for life, and even connections that will help with their careers. Embracing diversity at a young age reduces prejudice, and it creates a global culture that is so necessary in an age of a terrifying rise of the right wing. 

-There is an openness and positivity to American education when it is working well. The higher education systems in many other countries serve to weed out students, allowing only the elite to continue, or discouraging otherwise good students who have not been at the top of their class. French people often complain about the pessimism and negativity of their education system, and people in many countries have lamented the fact that they were not able to study medicine because they did not make the cut in the entrance exams, though they otherwise would have been excellent doctors. Students here are allowed to change their mind as to what they are studying, and there is a tremendous support system for students in American universities with academic advising, counseling, and career centers. The attitude is yes rather than no, and there is a pervading sense of equality that allows for anyone, no matter what their background, to succeed if they are willing to work hard. Professors are willing to talk to students in office hours, and students are allowed to criticize the professors in end-of-the-term evaluations. This, in turn, encourages immigrants who choose to stay to contribute to American society, and these immigrants are a huge factor in America’s success.

-Finally, American undergraduate culture is fun. Granted, in too many schools there are not healthy boundaries with what is considered “fun,” and it becomes a very toxic, partying culture that wastes education. But at the bottom of it, college is seen as a time when students grow, bond with each other, enjoy their experiences and learning and outside the classroom, forming friendships for a lifetime. There are fun activities for holidays, traditions that are unique and specific to each culture, even great rituals specific to each institution (MIT hacks, anyone?) Undergraduate learning is not only about learning, but about enjoying one’s youth.

These are just some of the reasons why American universities are a popular choice; certainly, many more exist. And in turn, many Americans love going overseas for a study abroad or an internship, wanting to broaden their own horizons and see the world.

Further Reflections from the Polyglot Conference

Much to everyone’s delight, the polyglot conference was extended by another week, and we have been able to continue listening to the hundred or so lectures by various speakers on an incredible variety of topics, and avail ourselves of the various language chat rooms and general meeting room on Zoom. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in recent years, and one that has truly made me feel like I have found my tribe! I have learned so much about the world, people, and languages, but also so much about myself. Here are some of the things I have been reflecting on.

-Monolingual cultures are really insular and lacking. I always felt like an oddball growing up bilingual, but I have grown to really appreciate it and have come to see that there are so many others in America who are natively bilingual or trilingual or more. Many other polyglots I have spoken with have commented on the negatives about monolingual cultures (especially in the context of our Anglophone countries) and it is something I see more clearly now. English-speaking countries, as a whole, really do seem to take an attitude of “the rest of the world speaks English, so why should I learn a language?” Frequently, someone in an Anglophone country says that they had X number of years of Y language in school, but they can’t remember a word. Why not? Granted, there are always individuals who do not learn languages well, but this type of statement should not be considered a proud confession and instead a reflection on the flaws in our education system. There is no impetus to use foreign languages on a regular basis in America, unless one makes a certain effort or is able to speak with people in ethnic community. This really needs to change.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for words and languages. I have met people who have been studying Ancient Hittite, Eastern Armenian, and the languages of indigenous Californians. I have met people who love learning different scripts as much as I do, even someone who knew how to spell my name in Tamil! There is nothing wrong with being curious about the various dialects of any given language, and knowing the differences between them and discussing them with others. These kinds of things often make one a freak in mainstream American society. But one does not need to be a scholar or trained in linguistics in order to be highly knowledgeable about any language or languages–I’ve met people from various walks of life, from warehouse worker to professor to computer programmer.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for geography. One group activity involved people filling out the different regions of different countries, and it was really amazing to see how knowledgeable people were in knowing the different areas of so many different countries like India, Germany, and more. This is so necessary in a world that has become extremely globalized.

-Knowing multiple languages really changes your brain structure. If you grow up bilingual or multilingual, this has really shaped your brain and cognition, and even if you have learned languages later, this is very important as the brain has so much neuroplasticity. I enjoyed watching talks by neuroscientists and scholars who showed data and images from fMRI studies. There are even some studies that show that learning languages can keep Alzheimer’s at bay!

-Language is inseparable from culture and meaning. How we use gestures, express certain thoughts, ideas, and shades of meaning all relate to language and our need to communicate. Certain concepts exist in some languages, but not in others. Grammar reflects the subtleties of expression; the more cases in a language, the more precise it is about relation.

-Language is connected to history. It is endlessly fascinating to learn about how various languages developed and branched off within any given language family. Sometimes this process has been over millennia, and at other times, in a matter of centuries. The history of English is incredibly fascinating and complex, and the more we know about its linguistic roots, the more we can understand how we think and what influences shaped our language.

And finally,
-Humor is humor, regardless of the language, and is truly global. People from all over the globe will keep giggling when trying to pronounce the Georgian word, gvprtskvni, that is all consonants except for the final letter. Everyone will find it funny that someone is still awake at 5 AM to be on a Zoom chat, like a vampire. Several people will ask, in a Hindi lesson, for expressions on how to bargain, knowing that that is an ingrained part of Indian culture. And my favorite, a question posted in the chat on what country you will end up in if you dig a hole through the earth from your country? Whether people were from Uruguay, America, or Sweden, the answer was China!

Language can often divide us and is what makes us so distinct and unique from culture to culture. But, as this polyglot conference has shown, it can really unite us in the most amazing ways. Many thanks to everyone I’ve learned from and connected with!