Perhaps all international students discover at some point that going to college in the States costs more than they pay in money terms. I have experienced personal costs that will impact my life long after my education here is done. Some I was prepared to encounter, and others caught me off-guard. I don’t regret my decision to study in the States, but coming here has meant closing some doors and cutting off some possibilities.
As long as I can remember, mainstream political opinion in Russia has been anti-American, encouraged by the older generation who grew up in the Soviet Union and taught that America was an enemy to be opposed. Not everyone in the country is anti-American of course – in fact, most people I know are not actively anti-American – but there is an underlying suspicion of American values and intentions. As a result, my decision to study in America is viewed warily, and even negatively, by some.
I expect that, although my U.S. education will increase my job prospects in America and Europe, I will have difficulty finding someone to hire me in Russia with my credentials.
Many Russians believe that American education is not as rigorous as Russian education is, probably because they have heard that the academic environment in the U.S. is less formal and students there have “too much freedom” as they make their own course choices. Russian students don’t make many choices about their education. In my three years at a public Russian university, I wasn’t allowed to choose any classes.
Even those Russians who are most knowledgeable about the American education system have probably heard of about ten schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and MIT. They are inclined to believe that these schools are the only good schools, and, as my experience has showed, it can be very hard to convince a Russian employer that your American education at a different school is worth something and is at least equivalent to a Russian education.
In Moscow, I may be lucky if my employer is open-minded because they got their own education abroad, but what is the probability of meeting such an employer even in Moscow? I may also be lucky if I find a job at a foreign company in Russia that will match my education. But what if I am not majoring in anything related to business?
This attitude to foreign education partly explains why many Russians who get their degrees abroad don’t return.
The government recently published a list of about 200 universities around the world whose degrees would be recognized in Russia as equivalent to those issued by Russian universities, in an effort to reduce youth immigration. The schools were picked based on university rankings, and constitute a tiny percentage of all possible overseas universities.
The list is also conspicuously missing many schools that are highly ranked for undergraduate education but are not well-known research universities – Amherst College or Wellesley College, for example. I was talking about this with a friend and we both agreed there is a Russian prejudice against U.S. schools that have the word “college” in their names. In Russian, “college” sounds similar to “community college,” so it is a common belief that a “college” in the States is always inferior to a “university,” even though this is not the case.
The college I attend is not among those on the list. So for me, Russia’s labor market is relatively closed.
Was I aware of this cost when I was making the decision to study in the U.S.? I was. But I wouldn’t be fulfilled in life without the education I wanted. The value of U.S. liberal arts education was so high to me that I was willing to pay the price of excluding myself from my country’s labor market. I am convinced that no school in Russia would give me that rigor and quality that I enjoy at my school in the States.
I am studying Economic Development, so my plan is to look for employment in international development organizations throughout the world.
I am also facing a more immediate cost as a result of my choice to study in the U.S. – I am treated differently when I go home to Russia.
I can’t even remember how many times I have been called “brain-washed.” I am not sure I understand what this means exactly, but I have been called that word in Russia or by Russians. Their impression is that I have been fed information in America that is hostile to Russia, and that I have been taught to dislike my own country.
So when I criticize Russian politics, which I happen to do a lot, some Russians will tell me to stop, without even hearing my arguments, because to them everything I say is pre-determined to count less than an objective view. More politically correct people will not say it to my face, but I still feel that they are treating my political opinions as if they are of lower worth than opinions of others.
For example, once I was sitting in a restaurant with a Russian friend and an American friend. My American friend asked me what I thought of Russian politics. Before I even opened my mouth, my Russian friend warned him, “She is very anti-Russian.”
Another time, I posted a link on my Facebook page to a video on human rights abuses in Russia. My Russian friend commented, “Stop criticizing Russia, criticize the U.S.”
It’s not just friends or acquaintances with whom this is causing friction.
My dad is very much a traditional Russian who grew up and has lived most of his life in the Soviet Union. Both of us are politically aware but our views lie at the opposite sides of the political continuum. This means that every political argument between us will inevitably result in an “explosion.” When I talk to my dad, my politically neutral mom will always act as some kind of a mediator ensuring that we stay away from topics concerning Russian or U.S. politics.
While I understand how my dad feels about my education in the States, I haven’t yet found a way to solve this ongoing conflict between us. This makes me feel like I am losing connection with him.
The right choice for me
Despite all the costs, I know I have made the right choice for myself. I believe there are two kinds of people. Some are attached first and foremost to their family, home, and community. They need to feel that they belong to their community to be happy. And then there is the second kind of people, those whose happiness is not attached to any geographical place or community. They are willing to follow their career path wherever it may take them. Their “home” is not where their family is; instead, it is always moving with them.
I am of the latter kind, so knowing that my decision to study in the U.S. is reducing my connection to Russia doesn’t upset me – the benefit of getting the type of education I want is worth it. But everyone has to make their own calculation.