Students Speak: “I Wasn’t Ready”

by Guest Post - Posts (67). Posted Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I Wasn't Ready

Worried about the start of school? You’re not alone.

Gwen Mugodi was too. A student from Zimbabwe studying at Brown University, Gwen had her own reservations about studying in the US, living up to expectations, and confronting challenges.

In our first student-submitted post on the new VOA Student Union blog, Gwen talks about preparing for – and facing – the first few weeks of college, and gives advice on what you too will face:


I remember applying to college as if it were yesterday.

The frantic panic to get all the supplements to the Common Application “perfect” before the January 1 due date: “Why our school? What can you add to the campus?” The efforts to make my seemingly mundane life into an original rendition of the “Life of Pi.”

Then the financial aid applications, and the long wait to hear back.

The nicely worded regrets that assure you, “It’s not you, it’s us”.

Then, finally, the acceptance. The joy that accompanies it. And for those who need it, hopefully the nice financial aid package that accompanies it.

The next months are a flurry of preparation: Immunizations. I20’s. Visas. Packing. Then, suddenly, you’re at the airport, and it’s at that moment when everything sinks in. All that application stress was all for this. You’re finally leaving home. Freedom!

But then sneaks in the doubt “What am I doing? This is crazy. Let’s just all go back home and pretend I ever thought of this.”

It’s been almost a month since I had my little “This is crazy” moment. In freshman-college years, a month is a really long time. Such a long time that, even after a month, I now feel old enough to be dishing out advice to “pre-froshies” (freshmen to be) and fellow college students in this blog post.

My first piece of advice: you won’t be ready.

No matter how great you are at planning, you simply won’t be ready. Take me for example. I took a gap year after high school.  I got to spend a lot of time with my family, strengthening bonds that would be tested by long distances and expensive phone calls. I also gained a lot of invaluable work experience and I would like to think a great deal of maturity. But when it came down to that departure moment, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. All the same, teary-eyed and all, I got on the plane.  And just like that, I was all on my own.

And that’s really what’s so different about college from anything you will probably have experienced. You start to make your own decisions. From the small –“Am I going to have three meals in a day to ensure I don’t wither into nothingness?” – to the bigger ones – “Is it really necessary that I party from Wednesday through to Saturday? Would I miss too much if I only partied Fridays and/or Saturdays?”

I also wasn’t ready to be a minority. I come from a predominantly black country – heck, a predominantly black continent. I never had to deal with being the “only African/black person” in a class. And initially, that was a lot to deal with. Questions of identity snuck into my head. “Do I represent Africa by virtue of coming from an African country? Does my not knowing the answer to ‘How many languages are spoken in Africa?’ make me ignorant? A disgrace?”

I wasn’t ready to have professors who treat me as equals, who are not offended when I challenge their ideas; professors who in fact encourage it.

See, I was told to expect this. In fact, as an intern at EducationUSA, I lauded the US education system for these same qualities, its diversity in the broadest definition of the word, its liberal learning and teaching methods. I was told there would be culture shock. And that feeling of being lost. I still wasn’t ready.

I guess the point of my post is this: you won’t be ready. But you’re not supposed to be ready. And once you embrace this, college transition goes a lot smoother.

And the best thing I’ve found about being a freshman is, you can bet you’re not the only one who is feeling that way. We are all dealing with issues of transitioning and independence and making new friends and simultaneously trying hard to look cool.

So in that moment, when the application process comes to the end and you finally start college, remember this: you won’t be ready. And no one else will be ready, either.

But take it from me – after you get through those first few weeks, you will be.

Searching for a School? This Graph Could Help

by Andrew Palczewski - Posts (4). Posted Monday, September 29th, 2014 at 9:29 am

USNews_09252014 US News and World Report is well-known in the United States for its annual rankings of the best colleges and universities in the country.

But some new information recently published by the news magazine focuses specifically on international students studying in the US, including which schools have the most international students, which schools give international students the most financial aid, and more.

Click on the thumbnail to view the full infograph, or read more on

Welcome Back to School…and to the New Student Union Blog!

by Andrew Palczewski - Posts (4). Posted Friday, September 26th, 2014 at 9:11 am

Philippe Cousteau Jr., Vanesa De La Cruz, Claudia Corahua, Carlos Riofrio, Joshua Carrera

As the new school year gets underway, we’re pleased and excited to announce the brand new VOA Student Union blog!

In addition to highlighting valuable information for students looking to study in the United States, we’ll be showcasing experience and advice from students who are currently studying or have studied in the US. If you’re interested in sharing your experiences and writing for the blog, email us at

Check back on Monday, September 29, for our first post – we’re looking forward to sharing all the information you’ll need about US study abroad!

Coming Soon: the New Student Union Blog!

by Andrew Palczewski - Posts (4). Posted Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 at 9:53 am

Voice of America is pleased to announce that we’re re-launching the Student Union blog! Check back in the next couple of weeks for brand new posts from students studying abroad in the United States.

We’re also looking for new contributors who want to share their stories. If you’re a student currently studying or working in the US, or if you studied or worked in the US in the past, you can write for the Student Union blog! Email if you’re interested or if you’d like more information.

U.S. State Department Hosting Google+ Hangout on “The Benefits of Studying Abroad”

by Andrew Palczewski - Posts (4). Posted Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 at 2:56 pm

The U.S. Department of State is hosting two Google+ Hangout on the benefits of studying abroad. The hangout on Thursday, May 29 is geared specifically towards students looking to study abroad. The State Department’s full release is below:

Did you know that the U.S. Department of State offers scholarships for high school students to study abroad? Tune in to one of two State Department Google+ Hangouts to get advice and ask questions about international education and exchange programs.

The first Google+ Hangout, Thursday, May 22 at 3:15 p.m. EDT, is tailored to educators, including counselors and those with an interest in assisting students who may apply to study abroad. The second Hangout, Thursday, May 29 at 3:15 p.m. EDT, will help middle school and high school students learn what to expect from the study abroad experience. Both sessions will include educators and students who have benefitted from the study abroad scholarships.

Both events will be broadcast live from Questions can be submitted in advance via Facebook and Twitter using #GoAbroadWebinar and by tweeting at @ECAatState.

For further information, please contact the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at

Why Is It Hard To Make Western Friends?

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Monday, February 24th, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Today’s post comes to us from Jemince, (or in Mandarin ‘如馨 贾’)  from Beijing, China. She was studying English Chinese translation in Beijing International Studies University for her Master’s Degree until she arrived at Binghamton University together several month ago. She’s currently majoring in Comparative Literature and studying law on her own so as to get her Bachelor’s Degree once she returns to China.

Today, she offers some thoughts on a question she recently asked herself: “Why Can’t Chinese Students Make Friends With Westerners? Some of her thoughts below.


Since there is a growing trend for Chinese students to study abroad, many youngsters start to live their lives completely differently from their families or friends in China. At the same time, the different life experience doubtlessly triggers the vast curiosity of those who intend to study or live abroad. But curiously, the opinions about living in foreign countries, especially western countries often come up with similarities such as: It is great to see the world and it definitely broadens your view and deepens your knowledge; Everything is great but I just cannot bear the loneliness, it is so hard to make friends and assimilate in their society; There is always a distance between me and those foreigners.

I was about to study in the US together with other three Chinese students from Beijing, and both the positive and negative sayings about the country and its people just made me so curious but meanwhile anxious about the unknown life that was approaching me. My questions were simple: Will I face the same problems in getting well with locals or other foreign people? Will I be lonely and have no friends to spend time with and finally die because of loneliness? Why did many Chinese feel so helpless in getting friends abroad?

With all the questions and the burning curiosity, I stepped my feet on the land of the US! It was late summer, everything looked just perfectly green and beautiful, and our semester hadn’t got on track yet, but unfortunately my other three Chinese group mates (housemates as well) and I almost spent the whole first month dwelling at our small house, which made me feel helplessly lonely and anxious about staying at home, because I didn’t know anyone here and none of my housemates or any of my Chinese friends would go to bars or any party with me. They seemed to have a natural fear of bars and were scared of going there, because in Chinese culture, there is no tradition or custom of going to bars or staying up night at parties. And in the eyes of many Chinese, drinking at bars and dancing with a lot of unknown people in a dim light at night somewhat indicates an unhealthy and lazy life. Meanwhile, due to the effect of some Hollywood movies, bars become shelters of drugs, easy sex or violence in their mind. Thus, Chinese were rarely seen in bars here.

Not caring about the traditional bias, I was desperate to experience the real American life including meeting a lot of new people and going to parties and bars. And luckily, a group of wonderful students who came from the US, Germany and other European countries finally ended my dull life and later on became my best friends. We enjoyed our weekends in going out, doing potlucks or visiting different bars and parties drinking, dancing and talking about our life, study, ambitions and all other interesting things.

On the contrary, when talking about how interesting and fun to enjoy weekends like this to my Chinese friends, I often received comments as: “I heard people use drugs there!” “There are many drunkerds, isn’t it dangerous?” “No…I’d better not go there.” “Oh, I can’t drink! It’s not healthy!” About going to bars, parties or other stuffs that I call as “outgoing activities”, Chinese students usually behave cautiously, shyly and conservatively, which is completely opposite from western students. Instead of hesitating, the westerners consider it as a tradition or a sort of must-do to go to noisy places, enjoy the relaxation of drinking, talking to friends and meeting new people. As in my case, after a week of exhausting study, my western friends would say: ”Oh, we need to relax!” and normally it led to a good drink somewhere in a bar or at a home party. But my Chinese friends would like to spend a whole weekend on watching movies at home or having a nice shopping with other Chinese.

And the reason of the differences might be: first of all, Chinese people are naturally more introverted. Places such as bars and parties are mainly for getting tipsy or drunk, relaxing, chatting and knowing new people, which is completely different from the Chinese way and would make them feel nervous and uneasy. Secondly, the communication among Chinese people is mostly very euphemistic, for example, the discussion about how to pay for a meal can go like this: “Maybe I pay for it?” “Uh, I don’t know, maybe we go dutch?” “I don’t know…Maybe?” And the discussion may last over ten minutes. Instead, westerners would ask directly: ”Hey guys, we’ll pay separately right?” “Yes.”

Apart from the differences of having “outgoing activities”, Chinese students have impressed a lot of westerners by the shyness. For example, in a party with my western friends, my Chinese friends usually stayed quiet and finally became very good listeners. And later, they would say: “OMG, I felt so nervous that everybody was so active, and I just looked at all you guys talking but had absolutely no idea about what to talk about!” “Your western friends are very nice, but I still feel there is a distance between us.”

Why so? The westerners also got very curious about why my Chinese friends weren’t talking with them or later on even totally stopped showing up. The reason might be the euphemism of Chinese nation again. If you have been to a Chinese party, you might find that Chinese often begin to know each without a word but a quiet smile, and it would take time to discover someone interesting by observing quietly and secretly. And if that goes well, there would be several rounds of slow and tentative conversations such as “Hi!” “Oh, is it your first time of being here?” “It’s cold outside…” and then they might start to penetrate in knowing names or other further information.

Obviously, the habit has successfully slowed down the speed of Chinese in making friends and made a party more like a meeting for introverts. But oppositely, westerners usually begin with direct self-introductions including their names and piles of questions, answers and laughter. And after a short communication, people would decide if they are really interested in each and want to continue the conversation. Such a difference between Chinese and westerners builds a natural barrier to the two people in getting to know each other.

Often Chinese think westerners are too blunt and fast in conversations and that makes them nervous. As a result, they would stay silent and enjoy listening to the words shooting among the westerners. And for westerners, Chinese are reacting way too slow and sometimes a bit weird, because they don’t have any idea that Chinese are actually slow in the regard. Anyways, I may describe the Chinese communication as a game of Tai Chi that takes both time and brain to discover, and western one as shooting a ball: direct and simple.

Apart from all the differences above, something bigger seemed to irk several of my western friends once. It was a home party for Chinese hotpot hosted by a Chinese girl who invited three of my German friends and I and about fifteen other Chinese students. And the weird thing was that there was almost no Chinese talking to the Germans or even me during the whole party, except a few that we had known for a long time.

My friends were so unhappy that all the Chinese seemed to enjoy the party closely but excluded them from their big group. It was really a bit embarrassing and hard to explain. But the reasons that I may come up with are firstly, Chinese are really kind hearted but sometimes very conservative in mingling with foreigners. Because in the eyes of a Chinese, foreigners are someone distinctively different and cannot be regarded as the same. Secondly, Chinese are rather modest in social communications, and rarely take steps first to approach others.

During the semester in the US, I found it rather interesting and challenging to discover the differences that hinder the communication between Chinese and western students. But while doing this, I do realize that it is almost impossible to list all the differences and reasons for we share completely different cultures and backgrounds. Furthermore, as a Chinese, I would recommend my fellows to be more daring and direct in social activities so as to make more friends and fully enjoy the life in the US.

Funding Your U.S. Study

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 at 12:33 pm

As many have noted here in the Student Union, getting admitted to study as an international student at a U.S. university is only part of the battle. Just as important, and as challenging, can be finding the right mix of financial aid, loans and scholarships to actually be able to do it!

Let’s be frank: most American colleges and universities are expensive. This is true of both the large, state-run institutions like the University of Georgia as well as for the smaller and often more elite private schools like Ohio’s Kenyon College.

But challenges can be overcome, and every years tens of thousands of international students find a way to fund their study here. These are just a few tips and links to help in your search – but remember, it’s almost always true that one of the first stops you should make is with your school’s financial aid offices.

  • First, do your homework. Before you even go online and begin your search, you must get your own financial and scholastic records in order. That means academic transcripts, financial resources, estimated budgets and earnings and all manner of other annoying paperwork. In short: schools are going to want to know your grades and studies, how much you have and how much you’ll likely spend, so it’s best to do it first.
  • Consider cost before applying. Higher education costs vary greatly school to school, so when you’re thinking about what city you’d like to live in, and which school has the best program in your field, give some thought to its cost. As a general rule, large state-funded institutions cost a little less but have less money available for financial aid. While small, private schools can get costly, many times they provide more assistance. Also, some schools like to recruit international students because of all they add to a campus, so those schools are likely to make more money available to help out.
  • Try and save. This probably goes without saying, but any money you can save before arriving in the U.S. is going to help. That may be easier said than done, but one way might be to take a little time before actually coming to America. Many schools allow students to defer admittance for a year, and some take advantage of that by spending that year working and saving. Just an idea.
  • Research, research, research. Once you settle on a specific school and gain admittance, contact their financial aid office as soon as you can. (If you can’t find your school’s office, this website may be able to help.) Every American school has such an office to help students find scholarships, loans, government grants and even employment. In fact, most students fund their schooling with a mix of all of the above, as well as what money they have from work or their family. But remember: scholarships and grants don’t have to be repaid, but loans do, so don’t be too eager to load up on loans that may burden you for many years to come.

It can be hard, but there are many ways to fund your American education. Keep at it, talk to as many people as you can, and don’t give up. Below are just a few websites that can provide much more information as well:


The Personal Perks of Studying Abroad

by Guest Post - Posts (67). Posted Thursday, December 5th, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Todays post comes from Maria Torstad. Maria is from Norway, and is in Washington DC for one semester abroad. In this post, she shares her thoughts on what you can achieve while studying abroad, and her own personal experience on this subject. 

Studying abroad encompasses loads of perks; you get to develop your language, it looks good on your resume, you get to experience new places and you meet lots of future contacts. For me, however, there is one thing that has been more valuable than all of these; the people that I’ve met. Sounds like a cliché? Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Coming to America and joining a highly international program at American University, I met people from all over the world; China, Germany, Colombia, South-Korea, France and Lebanon, and they became my friends. Even though I’ve been told all my life that it doesn’t matter where your from, the color of your skin and so on, it really didn’t hit me this hard until I had familiar faces to put on each country; We are all the same! We all make mistakes, we’re all sad, we’re all happy, we all get drunk and we all regret it the day after.

I personally think that in an ideal world, people would travel more and get to know other cultures and people, because the world needs a population that respects, and is more aware of, others than themselves. Of course, I understand that this is not possible for everyone, but if you have the opportunity, please take it. The best way to learn about yourself, is to get out of your comfort zone, and meeting other people.

I will take an example from my time in DC. One of the best friends I got here is a girl from Lebanon. Lebanon is a tiny Arab country that borders to Syria and Israel, and for a Norwegian girl like me, it doesn’t get further from my reality than that. Of course, being in the US the last couple of months, made it impossible not to know about Syria and the dark, dark times they’re facing. But Lebanon? I never really thought about Lebanon. Now, I love hearing her stories, and comparing our everyday life – even though I must admit it makes me feel both naive and on the limit of stupid sometimes. I can feel the injustice she must be feeling, when there is a car bomb going off, killing over 25 innocent people just because they’re political extremists, and because Lebanon have a unfortunate geographic location. The differences between our home countries are striking, and occur almost in any possible part of society. Yet, she speaks to and about her friends in the same way I do, and have the same kinds of everyday-problems that I have.

Now, the semester is coming to an end. Im going home to Norway, she’s going back to Lebanon. And I don’t want her to. I’ve had nightmares. I’m worried. I care!  And this is more or less what I’m trying to say here; it is so much easier to think twice about, and respect, other countries, when you have people you care about associated with them. And that is why it’s not only good for your language and career to study abroad; it’s also good for your understanding of the world. It opens your eyes, it opens your mind and I do believe that it can help you become a better person.

Understanding Other Cultures While Celebrating Your Own

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Thursday, November 21st, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Today’s post is another powerful and personal story of cultural differences, and one person’s effort to bridge those differences, without losing your personal and cultural history. Sibusisiwe Mukwakwami is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s looking forward to studying either economics or development studies, with a minor in human rights. She’s a native of Zimbabwe, and in 2013 won that nation’s National Black History Month essay competition.

Recently my friend invited me to her residential hall, which is an African-American themed hall. They have lots of meetings and outings there, so I thought it would be fun. On this particular day they were having a pancake breakfast, presumably just a time to mix and mingle. I was excited to be there, too.

I walked in at a time when the mini-party was at its peak. I found my friend; excited, we hugged and she led me to a sit in the back. We sat there for some time. I sensed some sort of discrimination. I wondered, were we just isolating ourselves or were we facing discrimination?

My friend’s breakfast came in first, and it was a plate full of color. My mouth watered. I have always liked rainbow dishes: they make me hungry. She let me pick pancakes and fruit; we ate and only then began to talk.

The black American contemporary music was at full blast. Some boys and girls were beating the tables and some guys on the stage were break dancing in what looked like a kind of competition. Locks and curls swirled the room. There was what I call African-American ginger – a strong feeling of united emancipation!

And yet in our corner, we felt isolated.

We talked about various subjects. Hair, boys , shoes and books. And bang! we got to it. “What do African Americans think of Africans?”

We argued.

I told her I thought African Americans were arrogant. Why did they sideline us? When we met in the corridors and our eyes met were they the ones who quickly looked aside before we greeted. Why? Weren’t we all black? I mean, wasn’t this exactly the reason why there was an African-American themed house to begin with?

Did they look down upon us because they grew up in America and we in Sub-Saharan Africa?. Oh yes, I felt this was it! They believed like it was often told that we were HIV-positive and that the giraffes were right behind our huts.

My friend blurted “No!” And then she continued:

“Sibu, I also thought so at one point but after living with these guys I got to a different conclusion altogether. These guys are not from Africa. They were not born there and may never have gone there. We can’t expect them to naturally  like us  or bond. We are different. Skin color is just that: skin color!”

I rejected this notion. They are black like us and they could not sideline us just because of our different accents. They were rejecting the Ubuntu Spirit; that togetherness and feeling of being warmly woven together as one.

“Culture is not in the skin Sibu!” she responded. “Culture is in places. Culture emanates from a place. Would you ever kneel and wash an elderly person’s hands here?” No, of course not, I replied. She continued:

“Yes, but wouldn’t that be remarkable back home? Wouldn’t your mum smile as you stood up from the stooping position? These black Americans have their culture. A culture which emanates from the American environment, where they were born. Whatever it is, we have no right to judge with our measuring stick from back home.”

I nodded. She went on, “Honestly you are being hard on them if you expect them to act like Africans when they perhaps never knew African soil.”

I thought myself a bigot. Yep! I had just been looking at this through my own lenses, and I hadn’t tried theirs. The temptation though was to then adapt their culture, to go kinky and afro. (In fact, I actually had dreadlocks on this day.)

Slowly, it came to me fully.

The temptation is to sing of Martin Luther King but forget Strive Masiyiwa. Of course, I often silently give thanks for Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks  and Frederick Douglass’ bravery, whenever I sit next to the white boys and girls on dining tables and on buses and especially recently when I read of Harriet Jacobs‘ life story in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”.

Yet still, if not me, who then shall sing of Strive?

Pond of Memories

by Guest Post - Posts (67). Posted Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Today’s post comes to us from Keith Mushonga, a French and English student at Winthrop University. You may remember some of his earlier posts – Keith writes with a great deal of vigor and emotion. Today’s post is on a topic common to all – but I imagine especially among international students: loneliness. It’s a moving account of an experience that can be difficult for many.

One day I came home from an evening class, and I felt sad and lonely. So, on my way to my apartment I stopped by a small pond near one of the residence halls. I looked into it and saw its clear water sparkling like diamonds; its waves were undulating like the waves of a stream. There were small pipes around the pond where the water was coming from, and they were bubbling the water out like springs that bring water up from the center of the earth. Suddenly, I felt like I was standing by some valley somewhere in the Amazon, or back home by the Zambezi. And as the water circled back and forth I started to see some familiar faces, witch made me leaned closer to the pond. I saw my sister and my mom; I felt my mom reach out to me and give me a hug. I saw my sister dropping a tear; and I also felt like dropping in a tear and a kiss. But my mom whispered to me in a calm voice, “Go on, boy. Be strong. Life must go on.”

I’d had a rough day of school and work. I’d spent a couple of hours in a cold place, reading and translating French papers; and a couple more in class, taking notes. Packing it all in one day’s briefcase had made me as dry like a twig. I almost snapped. Still, I walked away from that pond feeling stronger. I walked past the parking lot and lamp lights with my head held high. I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

It’s not always easy being far away from home. I’ve not seen my family for a little over a year. Yes, I do Skype with them once in a while, but it’s never the same. In fact, it makes me miss them even more. Seeing their faces through a tiny computer screen is like looking into a lake, seeing your reflection, reaching out for it and walking out wet. It only frustrates you! It’s never the same when they are not really there; when you can’t hear their real voices, smell your mom’s cooking, get into a brawl with your brother and have your little sister look up to you. It’s never the same when your mom can’t tell you a soft, mood lifting word.

You chat with your brother on Facebook, but the talk keeps rolling back and forth with cryptic smiley faces. So you learn that words and voices are not the same. So you miss them all, and hope to soon hug and kiss them.

But, at least, for now, I can always go to that pond. I can always stand by it and hear it singing to me like Celine Dion. I can smile at it and see its waves smiling back. And I can see other people walking past it not bothering themselves about it. To them, it is nothing but a lime and murky pool with dry leaves and dirt, but to me it is the cleanest place on campus; I can stand by it, alone, and be with my family.

How Do U.S. College Values Rate?

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 at 10:30 am

We all know that a U.S. college education can be an expensive proposition. One recent study calculated the average cost of a year of study at a four-year private college in America at at shocking $28,500 – and that’s just the average! Of course, public schools can cost a lot less, but when you add in accommodations, food, books and school supplies, the yearly costs can creep back up.

One of the most common questions we get at the Student Union goes something like this: ‘How do I get the most out of my study in the US for the money?’ There are, in turns out, many different ways to answer this question.

How do you know if your college choice is a good value? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

For years, the magazine U.S. News and World Report has issued a yearly ranking of “the best” U.S. colleges and universities rated across a variety of factors such as reputation, student-to-faculty ratio, acceptance rate, class size and other variables. It’s probably no surprise that the “biggies” of the U.S. university system – Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Standford to name a few – always come out on top. Probably also not a surprise that many of the fine colleges that don’t rate as high as they might wish have down-played the Report‘s ratings as mostly meaningless.

Recently, however, another publication – the scrappy opinion journal Washington Monthly – began assembling a different sort of list of U.S. schools: namely, the “Best Bang for the Buck” ratings.

Editors at the Monthly say their ratings rank American colleges “…that do the best job of helping nonwealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.” In practice, that means their list sorts out schools that cater mostly to wealthy students and those that have high loan default rates, among other factors. In their rankings, no Ivy League school appears anywhere in the top 30, but schools like Texas A&M, Indiana University and East Carolina University do.

These aren’t the only ratings. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance publishes an annual list of the “Best Value in Public Colleges” while the Princeton Review offers it’s own “Best 378 Colleges” review based on a various social dimensions such as “Jock Schools”, “Best Town Life” and “LGBT-friendly” among others. (Why their list is limited to 378 schools is still not entirely clear to me, but there it is.)

And that may not be the end of it. Recently, the Obama Administration announced plans to begin ranking U.S. colleges and universities across a number of factors, including graduation rates, debt loads and projected graduate earnings. The controversial proposal, which would also base federal financial aid at least in part on these rankings, faces an unclear future in the hands of a skeptical Congress.

Whether the federal government gets into the business of ranking American colleges and universities, there’s a deeper question at the root of this ratings business: what do these lists really mean? The question of whether a school is the “best” depends at least as much on the needs of the student as the school’s resources. Does Harvard University have a better reputation than Michigan State University? Arguably. But was it the best decision for me to go to the MSU rather than Harvard? At the time I thought it was and I still think so, because my experiences at MSU ended up being just right to allow me to explore different fields and then settle in on one.

There’s many factors that go into choosing a school: is it the right size? Do they offer the types of programs I want? Is the campus environment what I’m looking for? Will the costs be manageable or bury me in debt? Will I be able to work one-on-one with a professor, or will I just be another face in the crowd?

In the end I think these ratings lists can be helpful, but they’re only one measure of many you’ll need to evaluate. So do your homework, but don’t be afraid to pick the school you feel is just the right match for you.

Making Money Make Sense: Funding a US Education

by Simbarashe - Posts (7). Posted Thursday, October 24th, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Just how shocking is the cost of a U.S. college education? In my country, Zimbabwe, the tuition at the country’s top university is US$674 per semester – US$1074 including room and board.

When I began to research schools in the U.S., I found the total annual cost of many colleges broke the $50,000 threshold, with some schools dangerously teetering on the brink of $60,000 per year. Essentially, the cost of educating one student at a U.S. college is equivalent to pushing at least 50 Zimbabwean students through the University of Zimbabwe, a revelation which left me completely dry-mouthed. My initial enthusiasm at applying to study in America was completely thwarted, and my dream of a U.S. education was seeming unrealistic.

But the next discovery that I made was even more baffling.

Caution: students at work! (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Apparently, there are some colleges in the U.S. that give out as much money in financial aid as they request in tuition, even to international students. I had some questions about this: Why were these colleges handing out millions of dollars to international students who would most likely return to their countries after obtaining their degrees? Was there an ulterior motive? Would I have to pay back the scholarship money?

One of the basic tenets of a liberal arts education (the predominant model in U.S. higher education) is the importance of diversity as an integral element of a holistic education. It is believed in the U.S. (and now in many developed countries) that diverse perspectives create the best environment for learning, innovation and the exchange of ideas, so a number of U.S. colleges invest heavily in financial aid to attract students from different backgrounds, including students from other countries, to help create a microcosm of society on their campuses.

This means that there is hope for low income international students, and there was hope for me when I applied. Here are some of my thoughts about how to fund your studies:

  • Start the process early and do thorough research about the types of institutions that can offer large funding. Identify schools that offer mostly need based aid (these are mainly large private universities and the top liberal arts colleges.) Do not restrict your research to top schools that you may have heard of before or only the schools that purport to be “need blind”., there are a number of generous colleges that you may not have heard of previously and that may be need sensitive. There are colleges beyond Harvard and Yale that can offer a fantastic education and scholarship opportunities, especially liberal arts colleges.
  • Apply for merit based scholarships! There are colleges that offer automatic full tuition scholarships for students with a combination of a high GPA (usually 3.5) and high SAT scores. Make sure to apply early for this funding as they usually award the scholarships on a first come first served basis
  • Help to make your application stand out to admissions officers by writing an admissions essay that will “pop”. As an international student, there will be a number of things that you could draw from your culture, upbringing, and background that would be helpful in crafting a compelling essay. When you have finished writing it, get a variety of impartial people to give you honest opinions about it.
  • Use online resources such as college confidential to keep abreast with what other international students are discovering and sharing. I learned about colleges I hadn’t considered and scholarships I didn’t know existed on college confidential. Try it.
  • Apply to a good number of schools in order to maximise your chances. But make sure that you have carefully researched the schools for fit. Are the colleges aligned with your career goals, personality and interests? Can you get in based on your GPA and test scores (this should not become an obsession!).  Your chances will be highest when you apply to say, 6-8 carefully chosen colleges that are good fits for you rather than 10-12 randomly selected colleges that may not be aligned with who you are as a person.

Finally, it is important to believe in yourself and your capabilities, getting admitted as a needy international student may be challenging, but certainly not impossible. Do not let the seemingly high cost of a US education deter you from pursuing it-careful and focused planning well in advance can help you get the resources you need to make your dream of a US education materialize.

Blogging International Study

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Monday, October 21st, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Today’s post is a Question and Answer with José Navarro, a business student from Spain studying at Berkeley College in New York City. This isn’t his first experience studying abroad, as he spent some time attending university in Tallinn, Estonia. José authors the blog JoseNavarroNYC, where he shares his experiences being a student in one of the most exciting cities in America. Judging by his posts, he’s made a lot of friends in New York City, and also can make a mean paella.

Jose Navarro taking a break from his studies in New York City.

Student Union: What inspired you to start a blog?

I used to read travel blogs when I was a teenager. I found it fascinating to read stories of people living abroad. When I started traveling, I started blogging about the experiences and I enjoyed it a lot. Once I moved to New York, I applied for a position as blogger at my school, Berkeley College, and I got it! It has been great, because I attend blogger trainings with other Berkeley bloggers and they helped me develop a lot of skills and improve my site.

Are there any other blogs or websites out there you were modeling yours on, or is it wholly your own creation?

I try to blog about a variety of topics, including anything that has to do with the experience of living in New York City, being an international student or simply living abroad. I use a lot of blogs and websites for reference when I need information about restaurants, places or whatever I’m writing about.

I also try to differentiate my blog from other by not trying to be a guide about the city. I want it to be a story that people can relate to. I want to write for people who want to know what it is like to live in NYC and go through an experience like this.

You’ve studied in several countries – what do you get out of international travel?  And what would you say to someone thinking about coming to study here in the US or another nation?

I am very passionate about traveling. Studying abroad has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It has enhanced my education and it has allowed me to understand the world a little better. I think it’s the best way to get to know cultures, not only from the host country, but from all the people you meet and the friends you make along the way.

I would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to really try it! It can be tough at times and it requires an extra effort, but it all pays off.

Jose and some friends out on the town.

You’ve got a pretty positive outlook. Has international study ever been difficult, and if so, how did you dig yourself out?

This is my fifth year living abroad, and now I feel like I’m home, but it wasn’t always like that. It takes time to adapt to a new place, because studying abroad means living abroad for longer than a vacation trip. Sometimes I did get nostalgic, or had to overcome challenges that seem bigger when you’re far from home. However, the outcome has always been great and rewarding. I met great people here that became like a family to me and they are what makes me feel home. I also keep in touch with my loved ones back home. I Skype with my family very often and speak a lot with my friends even if we’re far from each other.

What are some of the more memorable adventures you’ve had, and what are you still wanting to do while you’re here?

I’ve had a lot of memorable moments here and it would be a very long list! It would definitely include sailing around the Hudson river at night, skydiving with my friends, the induction ceremony at the Berkeley College honors society, visiting my family by surprise after a long time away, and my experience at the Model United Nations program.

There are a lot of things I still want to do here. I really want to travel to other cities and explore the country a little bit more. Also I want to take advantage of all the learning opportunities I have here beyond school, like internship programs and workshops.


The American Social Network

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Friday, October 18th, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Today’s post comes to us from Jemince, or “Jem” for short. Jem is an English/Chinese translation student from Beijing, and recently arrived at Binghamton University to study comparative literature. If that weren’t enough, she’s also independently studying law in anticipation for her return to China. She describes herself as a sociable person who likes meeting new friends, which is the topic of her post.

I’m a Chinese student studying in the US currently. The discussion about Chinese students’ study and life really reminded me of my housemates and some acquaintance here, and I’d like to share my feelings with you.

A tailgate party in full swing

A tailgate party in full swing

I came to the US a month ago, to study in Binghamton University in New York. Since we settled down in a week, I felt something unusual on my housemates who came here together with me. They almost never join any group, club or party even though I was trying to convince them to have fun at the weekends. And the reason they gave me was like “Gosh, don’t you feel it’s dangerous to be in the bars with drunk people?!” But actually the bars are almost packed with only students at weekends!! And when I go to my friends who come from Germany, France and America, they always sort of envious, but at the same time refuse to go with me.

I feel that Chinese students always put themselves in a position that isolated from others. They don’t dare to talk to people who are not Chinese, because they’re ashamed of their English (it’s what they told me.) And they are not actively accepting the changes around them. In the meantime, they often feel inferior in front of others and spend their whole weekends on idling in the house. I think maybe it’s to blame the education in China partially.

While I’m convincing my housemates to go for more social activities, I do feel that American universities also have responsibility to help foreign students, especially Asian students, to fit into the American culture and people’s social network. For example offering  chances to Asian students to mingle with local students through more activities, or even to make a courses giving some tips for communicating and making friends in the US.

What do you think? Are students from some countries less socially active than others? Have English language skills ever made you feel slightly embarrassed? And should American schools do more to help international students fit in? Leave us your thoughts and we’ll share them with the Student Union!

On Encountering Racism in College

by Simbarashe - Posts (7). Posted Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Today’s post comes to us from Simbarashe Runyowa, an Oberlin student from Zimbabwe. The topic is a delicate one – racism that Simbarashe encounters here in the U.S., and in his home nation. Throughout, he refers to “the n-word.” For those unfamiliar, there’s a racist slur beginning the the letter “n” used to refer to people of African descent that’s so offensive in the U.S., it’s almost exclusively referred to as “the n-word.” Of course, as with many things, it’s slightly more complicated than that, as the full word is sometimes used in popular music, or even on occasion between African-Americans themselves. That said, it remains so offensive a term that we’ll just use “the n-word” reference.

Not too long ago, I went to watch Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie Django Unchained. I was deeply curious about it because before the film even came out, some black intellectuals had sharply criticized it for being racist. His main criticism of Djangowas that the film all too liberally and uncritically deployed the “N” word (it is repeated over 100 times in the film), and that, for this reason, the film was an assault on the history of black people in America.

A still from the movie “Django Unchained” (AP)

I went to watch Django to make my own judgments. As expected of any film by Tarantino, it was replete with egregious violence. In one particularly gruesome scene, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character sets dogs on a slave as punishment for having failed to secure a convincing victory in a Mandingo fight. [The slave is mauled to death.] In another scene, a plantation owner unleashes violent lashes onto a slave woman’s back for the trivial crime of breaking a couple of eggs.

The “n-word” is littered throughout the film; both whites and blacks dispatch it, slaves and their owners alike utter it. Tarantino obviously felt that artistic license gave him the legitimacy to throw around a word that is so wholly repulsive. It got me to thinking – why were black intellectuals so enraged with Tarantino? Is it ever permissible for these and other dis-empowering words to be circulated in society? And why does this word continue to be hurtful?

A couple of weeks ago*, Oberlin College made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. There was a string of incidents in which someone was writing racist slurs all over campus. Most of the time, it was the N word. There was KKK paraphernalia being left all over campus. The final straw was when a person wearing what appeared to be a KKK garb was spotted lingering near African Heritage House, a space where a good number of African and African-American students lived. It all seemed so surreal—the Ku Klux Klan, the “n-word”—these were things I had never expected to encounter in my life.

The day after the sighting of the clan member, students lobbied the administration to cancel class for the day, and we had what was called the Day of Solidarity. Instead of class, we had a teach-in, convocation and marches. It was a powerful show of solidarity in the face of an extremely depressing and painful experience.

I remember as the events unfolded feeling a profound sense of sadness at the fact that racism so blatant was continuing to be perpetuated in this day and age at what is undoubtedly one of America’s most liberal colleges. In that moment, I sympathized with the rage the critics of Django had felt towards the “n-word.”

My English professor often says that no statement that is made is ever neutral—everything is imbued with ideology, a message, a worldview. Racist graffiti is not merely writing on a wall, but a commentary – in this case, a negative and dis-empowering commentary on black people.

Words in and of themselves are loaded with power—they can be used to uplift or degrade, to lift up or to tear down. The thing about the “n-word” is that when it is thrust in your face, it takes on a whole new significance. Unlike in Tarantino’s Django, the perpetrators of the word are not far removed fictional characters in a 2-hour-long movie, but real people in the community in which you live. You realize, someone out there sees no value in diversity, no value in you or your existence, no value in your right to be in a place like Oberlin.

Tom Weston, lay leader at the First United Methodist Church, talks about the recent racial incidents that occurred at Oberlin College. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Coming to the US, my engagement with the notion of race changed dramatically because I immediately became a minority (versus back home when I fall in the majority.) The nuances of race relations in the US are different, and are informed by a different history. In Zimbabwe, the extent of racism I had experienced was mostly in the form of micro-aggressions, whereas this racism in America was blatant. The effects of both forms of were however nearly the same. The power of racism is in its ability to strip a person of both power and dignity. Seeing the “n-word” scrawled in my college’s hallways made me feel alienated and stripped of power—unwelcome, unworthy and unwanted.

I was naïve in coming to the United States thinking that I would be sheltered from the vices of racism. I felt even more confident of that given that I had chosen to attend what is arguably America’s most liberal college. But even here in this progressive enclosure of liberalism, racism and other forms of oppression continue to fester. America’s concept of a post-racial society is in many ways a utopian concept that is far from materializing. I realized, with dejection, that the racist world Tarantino portrays, which at first seemed like a fictional and obsolete concept, is not that far removed from contemporary society.

To be sure, oppression in its many forms exists everywhere in the world. It is a function of the societies we live in, of history, of privilege and the lack of it. What I love about America is that it aspires to erase these forms of oppression. It’s far from perfect, but it is on its way. In that sense, despite my disappointment with the events that occurred at my college, I still feel glad to live in a society that, despite being flawed, is still striving. And striving is perhaps the only sure way we will make progress towards a better society.

*This post was written earlier this year, but never published.

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