Preparing to Study in the USA: Getting Here is Just the Beginning 

 June 2, 2016

By  Laura Kosloff

International students in the United States are seeking a combination of intellectual and cross-cultural experiences that will prepare them to succeed in the global marketplace. With billions of dollars of funding, cutting-edge research and innovation, and unmatched flexibility on more than 4,700 campuses, the United States offers unparalleled educational opportunities. But with this depth and breadth also comes complexity and confusion. Succeeding at a U.S. college or university can be difficult if you don’t understand the system.

Stacie Berdan, co-author of Preparing to Study in the USA (Institute of International Education 2016)

There are many reasons why students choose to spend their university education in a foreign country. Motivations range from a desire for adventure, to having a wider choice of institutions as compared to back home, to an opportunity to study with a particular professor in a specific field.

All, however, face the challenges of living in a foreign country, studying in a foreign language, and understanding the nuances of a culture in which they did not grow up. In their new book, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, both of whom have long experience in the field of international education, have tried to address those challenges as they apply to students coming to the U.S. for college-level study.

Why This Book Could be Useful

There are more than 4,700 U.S. colleges and universities, Berdan and Goodman tell us. The variety is tremendous and includes large state-run institutions, small liberal arts colleges, specialized institutions, and two-year community colleges. The range of opportunities this variety presents is attractive to international students. It also presents a challenge to those same students, since there is no centralized application process or standardized set of application acceptance guidelines. It’s school by school.

One’s first reaction to that, if you’re from the U.S., is “of course, it’s school by school!” Berdan and Goodman explain that this is not how many countries manage college applications. Just imagine the challenge this poses to students from other cultures; not only are they trying to navigate a foreign culture and understand the nuances of English before they get here, but they have to do it one school at a time.

Berdan and Goodman note that only 4 percent of the 21 million students in US colleges are from other countries. Schools have seen increases in recent years. The authors believe that these increases will continue. Our world is becoming more interdependent, they argue, and it’s important for US students to meet and interact with others to be effective global citizens. I would agree. Having our own children and young adults interacting on an ongoing basis with international students is one reason why I work with high school exchange students. Berdan and Goodman also note that tuition from international students provides another source of school revenue; the Institute of International Education’s 2015 Open Doors report estimates that international students contribute $30 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

Open Door intl students graph
Institute of International Education, 2015. “International Student Enrollment Trends, 1948/49-2014/15.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors.

The authors also believe in the cultural exchange and citizen diplomacy aspect of encouraging international students to study in the U.S. Students who study here will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of who we are as Americans. They will, hopefully, establish friendships that will last over time and create bridges towards improved cross-cultural communications.

Berdan and Goodman provide students with practical tools and tips. An incoming student can use these tips to improve chances of admission at a school that “fits” with the student’s goals and to improve chances of success once the student sets foot on U.S. soil. This, perhaps, is where this book can be useful, if we can get the students for whom it is intended to read it and use it.

Studying in Another Country is not Just the Application Process

Preparing to Study in the USA does more than its title initially suggests. The authors try to take into account the lack of knowledge of their foreign student readers regarding the US college admissions system. They also try to convey some of the nuances and cultural perspective of a different system. The lack of a centralized admissions agency, mentioned earlier, isn’t just a “fact.” It’s the basis of a national approach—a cultural perspective—that will seem totally alien to many students. It has its source in American history, a history that the authors argue has resulted in an education system different from that of any other country.

The book covers practical tips as well, however, “how to” suggestions that an international student should relish. Chapters include not only admissions and graduation requirements an international student can expect from a typical U.S. college, but also information on getting a visa, how to deal with university registrars, information about college advisers, approachability of college professors, and health care.

I was pleased to see a section on academic ethics and plagiarism. As Berdan and Goodman note, how the U.S. education system defines “plagiarism”—and enforces violations—takes international students by surprise. It’s not that foreign students believe cheating is acceptable; rather, it’s the rigorous application of attribution rules and the dedication to individual critical thinking that can be difficult for students from other cultures to comprehend.

The chapter on college sports might raise some eyebrows; isn’t college about academics, many will ask. Our high school international students could probably jump in here to tell you that sports play an integral role in the American educational system, both at the high school and college level, and that having some understanding of sports helps an international student be a part of his or her host community. Just look, as Berdan and Goodman note, at how sports idioms occur throughout the English language.

Safety also receives mention. Berdan and Goodman don’t try to downplay this issue. Student safety is an issue everywhere. That does not mean students are unsafe. It does mean you need to pay attention to your surroundings and learn what’s real, what’s not. If you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world — or learn about other cultures and customs which could help prevent future “bad things” from happening. Berdan and Goodman treat the subject objectively and explain what students can do to protect themselves.

A Checklist to Success

I don’t think this book is perfect. I think the authors could have emphasized more strongly the need for students to work on English skills. Many teachers, professors, and other students have commented on the inability of many foreign students to truly participate as full members of their university community due to poor English comprehension and limited vocabulary. I also would have liked to see more emphasis on how to really succeed in one’s daily life. While the authors do suggest becoming active in extracurricular activities and being open to learning from fellow students (see, e.g., Chapter 11: Campus Life, and Chapter 15: Making the Most of It), the recommendations seem understated. Those of us involved in international cultural exchange see first-hand the difficulty many students have in truly throwing themselves into their host culture. We all tend to seek the familiar, even if we’re adventurous enough to study abroad. Many international education professionals lament the tendency—at both the high school and post-secondary levels—of international students to hang out together rather than seeking out their fellow American students. Could Berdan and Goodman have planted a stronger seed for future students?

Such shortcomings, however, do not take away the book’s value. As those of us who work with international students know, placement is just the first step. Students often think that placement is the key element to their success. Where will I end up? Will I be in an interesting place? Why would I want to even consider studying ____ (fill in with preconceived notion of why any particular location might be considered “undesirable”)?

That’s simplistic thinking, and it’s something we work on with our high school international students and their families. An initial placement for a high school exchange student does not make or break a student’s success; so, too, admission to a particular college is just the beginning. Using the 15 chapters in this book as a checklist, international students coming to the US for college can begin to learn much more as they begin their education journey.

Preparing to Study in the USA can be purchased directly from the Institute of International Education or from Amazon.

See our review of Berdan and Goodman’s previous book, A Parent Guide To Study Abroad.

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