The right time to study abroad

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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.


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