The right time to study abroad
Iarrived in the United States as a fresh college graduate from Nanjing University 14 years ago for higher studies, and ultimately completedmy doctorate at JohnsHopkins University inMaryland. At that time, it was rare to hear about Chinese students funding their studies. A vast majority of Chinese students were, like me, getting full scholarship from American universities covering their tuition as well as living expenses.
Times have changed drastically. The booming Chinese economy has given rise to a more affluent middle class and, as a result, more Chinese families can now afford to pay for college education in the US— which is quite challenging even for average American families.
I started teaching in a private research university, nestled in a quiet and almost never-changing upstateNewYork, eight years ago. What has added to the vitality of the small town is the pronounced increase in the number of Chinese undergraduate students, accompanied by the mushrooming of Asian restaurants and grocery stores that cater to this population. I have interacted with many of these undergraduates, inside and outside classrooms, and know that almost all of them are self-financed students (rather their parents pay their tuition and other expenses).
With deep enough pockets to afford expensive higher education abroad, many Chinese parents wonder when they should get their children admitted to overseas universities. To help them make an informed decision, I share some thoughts about the difference between undergraduate and graduate students in American universities. Simply put, the difference is in two areas: academic life and social life.
Academically, undergraduates are required to do more course work than graduate students. A typical American undergraduate requires four years of course work and more than 100 credit hours to complete his/her studies, while graduate students are typically required to do a maximum of two years of course work. Graduate students, particularly doctoral candidates, spend the majority of their time on research and their goal is to write a thesis or dissertation.
Besides, undergraduate students also need to do a much wider range of course work than graduate students. Graduate students tend to be pre-screened and often concentrate on a fewsubjects such as natural science and engineering, while undergraduates often come without a specific major and are in no haste to declare one in most universities.
So if you are looking at the academic field, graduate students from China tend to concentrate on a few subjects such as science and engineering, while undergraduates spread out into social science, arts and journalism. As such, undergraduates are exposed to a variety of disciplines.
More importantly, they are more likely to be influenced by liberal and multicultural education of American universities. The exposure to the liberal arts tradition of American undergraduate education at times also demands a good command of the English language, both oral and written. So attending to written and other culturally relevant courses could exert pressure on undergraduates and even leave them stressed. Graduate students in hard science and engineering often do not have such course requirements, so they may be exempted from such stress.
Socially, undergraduates and graduate students also inhabit different spaces. Most American universities have norms that require undergraduates to live in dormitories on their campuses, while graduate students often rent or buy apartments. In other words, graduate students live a relatively individual or family-centric life, while undergraduates share a more collective living environment.
Therefore, undergraduates from China are under a lot more pressure to assimilate American language and culture, especially because they share the dormitories and hostels with their American counterparts. Graduate students, however, may not feel any such pressure, because they can live with their friends or relatives, eat the food of their choice and speak in their mother tongue. Although Chinese undergraduate students may be on the fast track to adjust to American lifestyle, tensions and anxieties borne out of cultural shock and the accompanying identity crisis may emerge. On the other hand, graduate students could benefit from the shelters provided by “friendly” groups, but it could, in turn, make them feel socially isolated and separated from their universities and society at large.
Ultimately, the decision of when to study abroad requires the understanding of what a student wants from his/her overseas education. That self-reflection is the critical first step toward a meaningful and rewarding experience of studying abroad. The author is tenured associate professor in Sociology, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.