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!