My College Experience in the US
Posted September 15, 2012on:
There can be conflicting views regarding the very purpose of education. Universities are the centers for higher education where students are expected to add to the existing body of knowledge. There is no denying the fact that education has an economic aspect. Quality education costs a lot of money and the students or parents have to be constantly cognizant of the market needs when they are exploring a set of university courses. We live in a world where resources are scarce and social justice is wanting. Education, however, is not just a tool for employability. There is always a human element attached to the value of education. Education should be seen as a force for protecting human rights and preserving human dignity. To that end, we not only need the people who can become productive members of the society but also the ones who are able to think freely without any prejudice and bias.
I am not writing this blogpost as another desperate attempt to lecture on the merits of education. It is one of the posts where I am interested in sharing my experiences as a Global-UGRAD fellow in the United States. One of the components of this program requires the fellows to complete one semester of academic studies at a US college. I was placed at the Troy University, which is a flagship college in the South. I completed five university courses during my stay at Troy. There is absolutely no doubt that American public education system is among the best in the world. I have been studying at public schools all along and have a fair idea of the challenges in the life of an ordinary Pakistani college student.
Coming to Troy University, I would confidently say, has been the best thing that happened to me in my entire academic career. I moved to Troy after I had already completed a part of my university education at my home university. I did not expect that I will adjust to a different academic system so easily. Here, I am interested in explaining why I absolutely loved my American college experience. Since, no one back home is willing to listen to me and many of them have even asked me to ”get over it”, I decided to write it up and reach out to the people who might care.
Overall, the depravity of public education in Pakistani can be described in one word, ”corruption”. It is an open secret that from marking proxy attendance to getting favors from the teachers in class assignments, all you need is paisa, power or patronage. These practices are unheard of in the United States. One has to earn the respect they desire, it is not simply something that is always out there for sale. Nepotism and cronyism in Pakistani universities is so rampant that you would come to see family trademarks associated with educational departments. There are even reserved seats for the children of university employees which are filled in irrespective of the inductee’s merit. To that extent, corruption has been institutionalized in Pakistani schools. And if your parents have strong connections in the industry, you can also hope to get into the respective school through personal recommendations.
In Pakistan, we have more or less a one-size-fits-all educational model in place. Students are made to mold into a highly stratified system that provides little opportunities for participation and self-expression. In contrast to that, American classrooms are more student-friendly. The teacher does not play the role of an autocrat shoving information down a student’s throat. Students can openly voice their opinions . As a matter of fact, group discussions and class participation are actually accommodated in the grading criteria. Though this practice does favor those having an extroverted personality type and many reticent students may actually find it as discriminatory. But still, American colleges are far more flexible. Counseling and writing centers in US colleges are actively engaged in helping students sort out their worries and have a smooth transition towards college. Pakistani colleges are less accommodative towards students with special needs. Counseling is only a recent phenomenon in universities and is non-existent in high schools where the students have to make decisions that would have consequences for a lifetime. In Pakistan, the vocational purposes of education always over-shadow the more humane side of education. This is something terribly wrong with Pakistani education. Pupils are made to believe they are worthless unless they study science and mathematics. I have been following the press interviews of high achievers in board exams for many years and one thing I have been consistently observing is that they rarely aspire for a career in humanities or social sciences. This is also reflected in our collective attitude towards social or political education. Children from an early age are socialized to visualize themselves as would-be-doctors or engineers. From what I have seen, schools in the US do make effort in determining a students’ aptitude, strengths and weaknesses rather than imposing the choices made by parents or teachers.
My academic adviser had sent me an academic catalogue weeks before I left for the United States. I had ample time to decide upon courses, time tables and professors. It turned out to be a hard decision since I could select no more than five courses and I had hundreds of options. Since I very well knew that my home university is not going to recognize my semester-abroad experience let alone give me credits for the courses studied, I decided to follow my heart. I picked up the classes which I thought would help me better explore the people and culture of the place. Does it sound too obvious that people would always customize their school plan according to their specific needs? Well, not for me. It was the first time I experienced the joy of making my own schedule. Back home, I was merely handed over a list of courses that were to covered in that particular semester. I could never decide the timings. If I had been placed in a course that was being offered in the morning, I had no option but to get up early and go for the class. I am late-sleeper whose body-clock does not tend to sync with the rhythm of the nature. I just cannot imagine being focused and attentive in an 8’O clock class. Sometimes, I got caught up with a bad professor with whom I simply could not work. But there was little I could do. In the US, however, the same course could be available at multiple times taught by different professors. I could simply go onto Ratemyprofessor.com and known more about the teacher before taking up their class. This is why I thoroughly enjoyed all the courses I took because the system enabled me make informed choices. I wish we could foster some freedom in our system here in Pakistan. This would probably never be possible unless we do away with political interventions in universities which allow the administrators accumulate unlimited powers.
In the US colleges, a lot of emphasis is put on academic integrity. Plagiarism is considered a serious academic offense for which a student may face expulsion from the college. In Pakistan, I have gone through harrowing experiences when it comes to class assignments. Students more often than not copy-paste on their work and teachers usually know it too. One of my course instructors at a Pakistani school commenting on our class’s performance on a book review assignment lamented, ”I know that most of you have simply copied the material from websites and some of you have not even read their books; but still I do not want to fail everyone in the class. I cannot do that, you see!” She was probably telling this to the small number of students who actually took time to read the book and write their own commentary. ”You guys were being stupid”, this was the intended message. Ironically, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission has prescribed very strict rules regarding plagiarism and cheating on college assignments but then again all those rules exist only in the books. Most students would not even realize that copy-pasting from sources on the internet is wrong. In US schools, they do use plagiarism softwares to authenticate the originality of the submitted works. Since creativity is not valued, Pakistan colleges promote mediocrity. That is why sometimes sub-par students achieve better grades simply because they are better able to adopt themselves with the system.
The US collegiate system has a very flexible evaluation criteria that caters to a range of assessment methods. Students write papers, make presentations, take quizzes, participate in group discussions and before taking finals, they get a chance to evaluate their professor too. The exam is mostly patterned on multiple-choice questions or short-essay questions designed to test critical learning skills. You are marked for providing to-the-point direct answers. Here in Pakistan, unless you beat about the bush and fill in sheets and sheets of paper, you are not going to make an A. I believe we can rectify many problems with our education system if we train our teachers to use better and more efficient means to assess the students. After-all, essay-type written exam is not the only way to test students’ knowledge. Throughout my experience in the US, I never took a test which would require me to reproduce textbook contents. I could finally relieve myself of rote-learning.
Pakistan is a poor country with inadequate funds for educational institutes. While the ongoing campaign in Pakistan for greater budgetary allocation to education is commendable, we should also be concerned about efficiency and utility of the system already in place. Pakistan does not spend much on education and most of our schools remain under-resourced. But will simply allocating more resources solve the incumbent crisis? Many of our problems have their roots in our attitude towards education. We need to change the bureaucratic culture of our institutions. In our schools, students who happen to be the largest stakeholders, have no voice. A school should be seen as any other social institution with a broad-based, participatory and open system. Under the guise of discipline, we have created a tyrannical system in which authoritarianism is institutionalized. The present repressive system, in effect, speaks of years of autocratic military rule our nation has been subjected to for the most part of our history.
To sum it up, my American college experience provided me many valuable take-home lessons pertaining to education. Most important of them is that restrictive, outwardly controlled institutions leave little room for innovation and creativity. Education should be free from authoritarian controls. No one should be able to hold monopoly over the system. Everyone who form a part of the system must have an active role to play. Education can flourish only in an inclusive and open environment. I had a very memorable, interesting and rewarding educational journey during my exchange program in the US. I, as a would-be academician, would always consider it my ethical obligation to play my part in bringing positive change in education. The educational culture in Pakistan can be recreated; it would just take time and collective will.