Amid the craziness surrounding the Trump era, I graduated from an American university with a masters’ degree. Notwithstanding the visa and job troubles, I will always remember this country as one that supported my independence of thought and provided me the education of my dreams. Over the last two years, I closely observed the higher education system in US, being intricately involved in coursework and research. US has to its credit, breakthrough research in almost every field of study. It has nurtured some of the finest scholars and innovators. Of course, it would be idealistic to say that the system is the best or flawless. Educational reforms are routinely a topic of discussion even here. But needless to say, there are some noticeably excellent attributes of the system. Many of these attributes are common to educational systems in other developed countries (Canada, Australia, European countries) as I hear from my friends studying there. Coming from a developing country, it requires a lot of social support and fortune in life to study in the US. Being one of the fortunate people to study abroad, I want to share experiences that impressed me as an international student.
This post may be more generalizable to postgraduate education (called graduate education in the US) in an R1 (highest research activity level) university. The experiences may vary with change in these variables. There is a difference in the undergraduate and postgraduate systems in terms of the professors, number of students in the class, syllabus structuring, testing, etc. US also makes a distinction between research universities (where ultimate objective is research) and teaching universities. Lastly, I studied in an interdisciplinary program leaning more towards the humanities discipline. There were just three students from my country in my program. This is in stark contrast with other fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or business, where a much higher number of international students are enrolled. That can also account for some variances.
Here are some of the outstanding aspects I came across –
Approach to graduate studies: student commitment
In US, graduate education is considered to be a huge voluntary commitment by students. It reflects self-motivation because one, people can live a good life with simply a bachelors degree or even without college education in the US, and two, education is very expensive even for Americans who usually live independently after high school. It means most Americans have to start making a living much earlier than rest of us – which is quite challenging. So, if they are investing in education, they are foregoing their earnings during the period or doing additional part-time jobs to cover up. I remember most of the students completed their assignments much ahead of time and even got them reviewed by professors prior to final submission. The entitlement, shirking and shortcut attitudes are less common as there is “ownership” in education.
Style of learning
Graduate education is largely self-driven, no spoon-feeding. Professors will not get stingy if you haven’t done the readings or haven’t submitted an assignment (of course grades will reflect that – just that professors won’t fuss). The concept is that you get as many returns as the efforts you put in. There is an encouraging attitude towards learning instead of a reprimanding and fearful one. If you are not dedicated enough, that is considered your personal loss. The students need to be proactive in learning instead of the professors being pushy.
There is a lot of flexibility in what you want to learn. You can choose courses (subjects) outside of your speciality or even courses above your level, say a PhD level course in graduate school. No field of study is undermined in terms of importance. There are plenty of resources and research to follow any academic interest. If you have unconventional ideas, you’ll find people who encourage you to explore. You’ll be connected to the right people to pursue your interests. There is something called as an “independent study” where you can design your own study in topics that are not covered by other courses. You also have choice of professors to guide you in this.
Another aspect was class diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, race, work experience and undergraduate majors. There was no judging of opinions. Hence, there was an encouraging atmosphere for class discussions where students contributed without hesitation. There were several moments when I heard someone speak and felt like wow…I never thought from that perspective! In true sense, there was liberty of thought and speech.
Brilliant and humble professors
For anybody to be a professor in an R1 university, it requires strong credentials. PhD is a necessity and the PhD standards of any good US university are very high.
Professors’ approach is unique. They place high trust on the students instead of being watchful of them and students get the benefit of doubt. Most students also usually reciprocate this trust in the right spirit. Overall, power distance between professors and students is less. Professors talk to students like their peers.
In my experience, professors were very considerate too. When students had a genuine reason for absence during an exam, the professors were willing to schedule separately for those students. Professors cared a lot about learning and less about formalities – I remember that a student missed a page of the question booklet in one exam. He told the professor about it and she let him write the answer even after the exam was submitted. No professor picked up on students for their low grades or other performance issues. Grades were always confidential. Professors were understanding and offered to help with the difficulties in private. Almost all professors were willing to review and give feedback on assigments prior to final submission.
I was impressed by the formal professor evaluations that the university conducted. Students anonymously evaluated the professor for every course at the end of the semester. The results were not made available to professors until the grades were disseminated. The evaluation was quite comprehensive as you can see below –
Standardization, organization and timeliness in course structure
For every course, we got a detailed syllabus outlining exactly what would be taught on what date along with the related readings and assignments, for the entire semester on first day itself. The professors did their homework quite well, even before the course started. Of course, there was scope for changes in schedule based on student feedback but nothing had to be compromised due to lack of time.
For all the large assignments and exams, a detailed rubric (specific guidelines on factors for evaluation) was given so that we understood what areas to focus on and the expected writing style and formatting. Another interesting thing was that every professor created the syllabus independently – the textbooks to use, the topics to study, the grading structure, the exam style, etc. Many professors also took student and industry feedback while designing the syllabus.
This was where I observed a major difference. Exams accounted for only about 25-30% of the grade. Class participation, assignments and group projects accounted for rest of the grade.
Exams were conducted in a relaxed environment. Professors often quoted that the purpose of these exams was not to test but to make sure that students have understood the important concepts. The format of exams was flexible – could be take-home/in-class, open-book/closed-book, essays or multiple choice, a combination of any formats or anything else that can be devised. The choice depended completely on the professors and some of them even asked for students’ preferences. Sometimes there were no exams. But in those cases, in lieu of exams, there were other assignments such as writing academic papers or other comprehensive projects. Basically, exam was not the focal point of education.
Physical and electronic infrastructure
Michigan State University was a college town university (city’s identity and majority of economic activities were driven by the university population). Hence, there was a sprawling campus with all imaginable facilities which was impressive for a public institution. I will write about my favorite ones.
There were three physical libraries on campus in addition to the electronic library access. These libraries were open 24/7 and were equipped with all the resources that students could possibly need. There were several types of seating arrangements (quiet study areas, group discussion areas, etc.), study rooms with advanced AV tools, computers docked up with all the latest educational and research softwares, writing center where experts provided guidance on technical/academic writing, regular printers, 3D printers, cafeterias and much more. There were sections and collections based on special research interests. For example, there was a Turfgrass Information Centre in our library which is “world’s most comprehensive publicly-available collection of turfgrass research and educational materials.” These libraries also had subject-specific guides who could help with student needs for library resources and research. Electronic libraries were fabulous too and gave us easy access to catalogues, e-books, scholarly papers, journals, newspapers, magazines and other library services online. If a certain resource was unavailable, we could request it through an “inter-library loan service” (from libraries of other universities) that was free to use for the students. Lastly, those who worked late night/early morning in the libraries could use the special “Night Owl” bus service.
Then, D2L (or Desire2Learn), a learning management system used by the university was another new feature to me. This was a great tool for students as well as teachers. The class slides, readings and handouts were uploaded on this platform so that students could go through them before the class. D2L gave reminders on deadlines and assignments too. D2L was essentially our go-to portal for everything related to our courses. The professors posted class progress, group emails, assignments, quizzes, feedback and grades on D2L. D2L made sharing of resources and information very efficient.
The university generated its own electricity and even provided power to areas nearby. Additionally, there were ample options for recycling and reusing various kinds of materials.
There were plenty of part-time job opportunities to work on campus in my university. I worked as a graduate research assistant with some professors for 20 hours per week. Not only did that help pay my living expenses but also helped build a strong network in a new country, apply my subject knowledge to real situations and get access to unique opportunities – being part of interdisciplinary research and developing interventions for persons with barriers to employment that entailed working with students on autism spectrum and refugees – all while studying. I would say one half of my learning was from regular education and the rest was from this job.
Emphasis on research
Almost every course relied heavily on teaching based out of research. Textbook was only a part of the study. We had to read several prominent research papers on the topic to gain well-rounded knowledge.
A great aspect of public research universities is that they conduct research designed to solve issues of the immediate community. There was a specialized department called the MSU Extension that was tasked with applying the university research to local community.
Given the diversity of students that the university hosted, student support was essential. There were several student groups that created an inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds. Student health and wellness was given a lot of emphasis. Free counseling, dogs therapy, meditation classes and many more facilities were available on campus. The university had its own police force too. We got timely alerts if there were any incidents/accidents around.
There were mandatory courses on sexual harassment awareness and academic training for international students on D2L. There was also a distinct center called the Office of International Students and Scholars that catered to the needs of international students.
There were resource fairs at the beginning of every semester where students could get several essential items and information to start the student life. Similarly, there was a lending store where outgoing students donated stuff such as lamps, bedding, cutlery, utensils, stationery, etc. that could be borrowed by incoming students free of cost.
In terms of academic support, there were on-campus tutors and help rooms for those who needed additional academic assistance. The university even employed special groups to statistically evaluate the impact of these help rooms.
Lastly, there were amazing resources for students with various types of disabilities. University provided accommodations, special infrastructure, employment assistance and rehabilitation services to such students.
This was all I could write at the moment. I know it is a long post – I have been making notes for this post since quite some time. I am happy to discuss more with anyone who’s curious or has plans to study in the US 🙂