Sunday, 12 June 2016

Why Liberal Arts Colleges are the perfect lillypad for your next leap.

This week I read a blog from an international student who just completed her first year at a small liberal arts college.  She raved about her experience of being welcomed into her small college environment, her orientation where she felt welcomed, and her classroom experiences where her professors were on a first name basis.  She said   “they knew that our learning system may differ and they were very open to us asking questions. I was able to converse frequently and freely with my professors, and learn extensively through the process.”  These simple factors speak to the heart of my argument  that international students thrive at liberal arts colleges,  and that smaller liberal arts colleges provide a springboard towards great things, and in some cases, towards graduate degrees at the best universities in the world. Leapfrogging from small liberal arts college to "big name" graduate degree program is a common pathway, and one that should not be ignored.

So as our Class of 2017 begins building their long list of colleges, I would urge them to consider some of the following factors of why they should include liberal arts colleges on their  list.  A lot of these ideas can be explored at greater depth by reading  Loren Pope’s book Colleges That Change Lives.

1. The value of good undergraduate teaching:   I know that in the media and rankings we always hear about the big name universities, like the Ivy League and others, but it’s important to keep in mind the goals of those institutions.  They are primarily research institutions. Their professors are hired because of their published research, and their ability to be published again in the future. They are hired because they are people who are meant to be at the “top of their field”.  These top professors may indeed be leaders in their field, but by no means does this mean they are good teachers. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that these ‘top’ professors are going to be teaching the year 1 or year 2 undergraduate students, but instead, focusing their attention on their own research and  graduate level teaching.    
In contrast, liberal arts colleges often hire professors who are not only leaders in their field, but also enjoy teaching and being around undergraduate students. They hold office hours, study sessions, and often host students for dinners at their homes.  Why?  Because they honestly enjoy interacting with students.  I remember my first year seminar professor inviting us to his house behind the campus. He showed off his collection of Russian memorabilia and fed us pizza. In this simple gesture, he showed that he could be trusted, and I often went to him with concerns during my first year at college. He was a needed mentor during a year when I had lots of questions about my future, including “Do I belong here?”   

2. Size matters: If there is one single factor that will most likely impact your experience at university, it is the size of the student body.   I often have students say to me “I don’t want to be on a small campus, I’ll feel so confined, like everyone will know my business… I need a big urban school.”   It is then that  I play this game with all my students.   I say  “How many students are at UWCSEA East?” 
It is very rare that I have a student guess correctly.  We have roughly 2,600 students on our campus.  I then ask “Do you know all of them?”   Then I say, imagine that all of those students were living on campus, and try to imagine the scale of things;  we would likely take up this corner of Tampines.  You certainly wouldn’t know everyone and you would be at a place that might feel very comfortable in the fact that you can walk to class and know some people and not feel lost in the crowd.

In contrast, being at a larger university can be very different. Your introductory courses are generally quite large.  Would you be brave enough to ask a question in a lecture hall of 500?  Are you the type of learner who can sit back and take notes all day, or do you need to engage and discuss topics?  These are important questions to ask yourself.  

3. Urban vs. rural? This might not be as important as you think: Yes, a lot of liberal arts colleges are away from the cities. This is partly intentional. At college you are meant to think, write,  reflect, and LEARN!  This is hard to do when there are car horns blaring and a million distractions of a big city.  You will have your entire life to live in a bustling city… so living on a beautiful green campus can actually be a welcome opportunity.  Meanwhile,  when we speak to students at liberal art colleges that are “in the middle of nowhere” they often say that life is so busy on campus, they don’t really notice the location.  We also have students who opted for urban campuses who say the same thing.  One of my former students who went to  Fordham University (which is right next to Manhattan) said “I rarely leave campus. All my friends and activities are on campus, so why would I leave?”   

3. Writing matters:  When you are hired at your first job, the basic minimum requirement is that you will be able to think, write, and speak clearly.    Although this may be overly simplified, the idea is important.  No matter what happens with the world of technology, you will need to be able to transmit your ideas to others clearly, and whether that is via hologram or plain old email, you’ll need these skills. So why is this important?   Consider  yourself in that lecture hall of 500 people. The odds that you will be assessed in that course in an essay format is extremely low. It is most likely that you will sit a multiple choice test.  

Liberal arts colleges provide the format to really improve your writing skills. When you have a class with 22 people (much like your experience at UWCSEA) your professor will assign essays. He or she will mark your essays, provide feedback, and you will become a better writer. So when you’re ready to write your application to graduate school, or your Master’s thesis, you will have the core skills to do so.  

4. Big fish in a small pond:  Our UWCSEA students love being a part of something more than just academics. Our alumni go off to join clubs and societies of all sorts at university.  This is, in fact, a major reason that our students are so “desirable” in the admissions process, because the colleges know they will receive a great student but also someone who is actively engaged in life outside of the classroom.  At some universities the leadership roles in the clubs and societies are highly competitive and reserved for senior students. One of our alumni described the 3 month application process to gain membership in one university club.

The advantages of being a big fish at a small pond are many.  You can be the leader of a club, start a new society, or become involved in student government because it can be much easier to do so a at a smaller college than at a larger institution.  It is easier to stand out in the crowd when the crowd is 2,500 students and not 30,000!   This makes a difference when you are applying to graduate schools or ready to apply to your first job because you will have proven leadership skills.  

Finally, as we head into the summer holidays, my final piece of advice for the Class of 2017 is to go visit a campus!!!   I don’t care where it is….  Either here in Singapore or overseas.  Be an investigator and explore the campus, understand the size and scale, and try to see what the university values through the things that are emphasized.   You wouldn’t buy a house without checking out a few …. So don’t pick a university without going to see what one looks like!   Enjoy this time of exploration and “shopping”.  At this point, you’re the one who gets to pick the colleges that go on your list and if you’ve picked wisely… the universities will hopefully  pick you next year.  

Have a great summer!!  See you in August!   

Sunday, 10 April 2016

My Love/Hate Relationship with Numbers

Greetings from the UAC,

We hope everyone had a restful Spring Break!  

Over the last year, I've been thinking a lot about numbers, and wrote an article for The International Educator, a publication that goes out to international schools.

I hope you enjoy!  



My Love/Hate Relationship With Numbers

By Robbie Jefferiss


Numbers and I have a long-running love/hate relationship. Memories from trigonometry class make my palms sweat. Spreadsheets make my body temperature rise—and not in a good way! I walk quickly past our math department in constant fear that a student will stop me and ask for help with Algebra. But after years working in the world of college admissions, you can’t escape the inevitable impact of numbers when it comes to our students’ applications.

GPAs, SAT scores, Predicted IB grades, and many other objective tools for assessment are ever-present in our counseling offices. The numbers on transcripts are faceless and cold. How difficult it becomes as a counselor when your realize your favorite student’s chance at being admitted to his or her dream college may be dashed, based in part on not having the right numbers. Your favorite student. The one that you love to see walk into your office. The one who is honest, caring, insightful, and joyful. Yet you know that she may not make it past the second reader due to a number, or a combination of numbers.

Unfortunately, numbers don’t show a student’s starting point, or the growth that has occurred in the interim. They’re only a polaroid picture—a Saturday morning’s effort—and, in most cases, the end product of a very long equation that could fill a mathematician’s mile-wide chalkboard.

How much I wish that this number on the transcript could be “hyperlinked.” A simple double click would reveal videos of early morning study sessions in the library, or late nights at the kitchen table after the soccer game, unshowered, bologna sandwich in hand, doing Chemistry homework. Click again to see a pile of assignments, quizzes, and tests that took place to achieve that one, lonely, singular number on a page.

Can we boil down all these efforts so concisely? Can we quantify knowledge and student potential so easily? Can the counselor’s barrage of adjectives bring context to these numbers in a few short paragraphs? If only there were an adjective that could articulate the blood, sweat, and tears. And yes, there are tears!

This is why I don’t love numbers… but also why I’m thrilled to hear colleges talk about their holistic review process, particularly in the context of U.S. admissions. I love to hear admissions officers recite teacher comments and excerpts from my students’ essays. I love knowing that, yes, someone is reading these applications and, yes, my favorite student is more than a number in their eyes.

However, the other side of my brain does love numbers. Maybe it is the right side, the part that tries to bring order to uncertainty, the part that loves black and white. It’s the same part of my brain that is fond of the U.K. admissions process.

Here, on the university website, a cold, heartless minimum IB score is indicated, and perhaps the exact courses you need along with it. No long conversation or explanation will be necessary when a student is not accepted; they simply did not have the right numbers. Case closed.

Here, I envision a tweed-clad, grey-haired man at the gates of the university, stating in a dry Oxford accent, “You did not meet the conditions to your offer… now move along young lad.” Part of me thinks, “Thank you old chap,” for now there will be no guessing. No guessing as to whether or not an admissions officer found the essay fascinating. No wishful thinking to entertain the notion that the student’s volunteer work saving endangered snow leopards in Bhutan struck a chord with an admissions reader. Thank you old man. You saved me from writing long emails to unhappy parents wondering if they should have signed their child up for extra violin lessons or if they should have had more leadership on their resume. No, they simply didn’t meet the objective conditions.

I am under no illusions. I realize that my students’ most desired universities will not follow Bard College’s move to an essay-based application, or Goucher’s essay and two-minute video application. I also know that the SAT and ACT will not fold from lack of test takers.
The challenge lies in perfecting the dance an international counselor must do each year, along the fence separating multiple educational systems, always careful not to exclude certain countries, and not to “be too American” or “too British” in our wording or approach to families. Meanwhile, understanding that for many families, all of this is completely alien. It’s a fine line and a delicate balance.

Conversations in our offices are rarely short. “Are my SAT/IB/GPA numbers important?” a student asks. “Well, that depends,” we typically respond. “Please come in, take a seat, have some tea, and I’ll explain.”

It’s fair to say that numbers will remain a part of the equation for our students and for the counselling office for the foreseeable future. So each autumn, I will continue searching the thesaurus for adjectives that bring my students’ numbers to life. In the winter, I will subject my anxious pupils to an off-pitch rendition of Tom Petty’s classic tune, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.” But most importantly, in the Spring, when decisions roll out, I will remember that my favorite student will remain joyful, honest, insightful, and happy—no matter where she goes to university, and no matter how you add up her numbers.

Robbie Jefferiss is University Advisor at United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) East Campus in Singapore.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Universities, Life, Journeys, and Roundabouts

Driving in the UK, it is very noticeable  that there is a lot of open space. There is flat land, and hilly land, and  there are wide roads, and narrow roads.  There are two - lane roads, motorways, back roads, side streets, one-way lanes that pretend to be two-lanes and there are many, many roundabouts.

As Pamela is driving we start a conversation about all the roundabouts and link the roundabouts to life in general, and university decisions and life outcomes, more specifically. 

Life is like a roundabout. 

There is always a new path and there is always a way to get back on your original path, if you so need to. There is also always a way to turn around and try a new path or turn around and go back to where you started. 

Students and families may think that there are only a few places (paths/roads) that will lead to the final destination : success and happiness. These few paths generally seem to be known as highly selective universities all around the world. These places are seen as short cuts or "sure cuts" to ensure life outcomes.

We are not saying do not apply to highly selective universities, we are not stating that highly selective universities do not lead to success; what we are trying to convey is : there are also other paths. 

We encourage families and students to explore those paths as well. Also explore the paths that are less travelled. 

It is important for students to recognise all the role models around them and recognise the people they respect. Students should investigate these individuals. They should ask their parents,  aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, neighbours, grandparents, friends' parents about their life path.  

Some questions to consider:

Did you, oh someone I think is very successful, go to university?  

If not, here's a great place to begin to discuss what makes this role-model successful.

If yes, where did you, successful person, study for your undergraduate degree?

Did you pursue a masters? Where?

The places where these successful people work, did other equally successful individuals they work with attend the same institution? 

Are people in a student's life just as successful if they did not attend a famous institution? 

We would say, for the most part yes.

We say it over and over again, and Frank Bruni has written a whole book about it, Where you Go is Not Who You Will Be. It is not where you go that matters. It is what you do when you are there that really matters.

Travelling in the UK we met many of our former students attending very different institutions. All of them were very happy with their choices, even if it was not their first choice university. All of them were making the most of the opportunities afforded to them at their universities. All of them were creating avenues for success for themselves.

However, despite everything we say, if attending a highly selective institution is a life ambition, know there are many paths to get there:
  • be accepted and attend as an undergraduate student 
  • complete undergraduate studies somewhere else, do really well, apply to graduate programmes right after your undergraduate degree, at your dream university
  • apply for PhDs or MBA programmes at dream universities after working for a little while

Anything is possible.  There are many paths.

Have many dreams and many first loves when it comes to university choices. 

There will be flat roads, and ups and downs on hilly roads. There will be times when you will be able to see for miles and miles ahead and there will be times when the path is unclear. There will be yet other times, you'll have to stop to let incoming traffic through.  There will be times when you do not see other cars coming your way and times when you just have to rest on the hard shoulder.  There will be times when you keep up with traffic, other times when you slow down, and yet other times when you overtake others.

Just remember there is more than just one path. 

Life in general is like a roundabout: you can keep going on the same path, try new paths, or turn back around. 

There are always possibilities, you have to be open to them to see them and explore them.