An International Perspective on the Values of American Education

This article first appeared in St. Cloud Times on Monday, May 12, 2014.

Toward the end of the St. Cloud State University school year, I asked on my Facebook page what I should be writing for this last column in the Times. Almost unanimously, my friends expressed interest in my experience as an international student in the United States.

Because I will be graduating graduated from my master’s program this month, this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the educational experience I have had in St. Cloud.

My first taste of America was a microwaved airplane meal served during my connecting flight from Japan to San Francisco. It was August 2009 when I first stepped foot in St. Cloud, and my first thought was, “This is it?”

I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. My dad was a fan of American action movies. Since I was young I have been exposed to the United States as represented by Hollywood. So, it’s no surprise that my mental image of the states is far flashier than my initial impression of St. Cloud.

But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this friendly and cozy community. Upon my arrival, I have received tremendous help settling into a new environment from members of the campus and community. Though many communication textbooks informed me American culture is individualistic, I experienced almost the opposite here. The folks here are rather supportive to non-native students, and they value diversity.

Due to this welcoming atmosphere, I was given the freedom to explore the American education system without feeling like an unequal participant in the learning process.

Rigorous education

What struck me most about the American system was its sheer openness and rigor. I was pushed to think more critically than ever before, and I was surprised to learn asking questions in class was actually encouraged, not seen as disrespectful — as it would be in most Malaysian universities.

I have become more vocal and active in my learning, and I learned to think critically about the concepts professors taught. In fact, being proactive in learning transcends the classroom. The friendly campus has encouraged me to participate in student organizations and committees that serve different needs.

This sort of liveliness is uncommon in many countries, and it is certainly rare in Malaysia, where the focus is on a rigid, coursework-only curriculum. Cliché as it may sound, my experience with some student groups enabled me to learn how to work in teams and with people from diverse backgrounds.

Global understanding

My interactions with my peers in America also challenged me to see the world from different lights.

As a growing adult, I am fortunate to be able to expand my global horizon in the heart of Minnesota by relating to people from different walks of life. In many ways, I was shaped by this community just as I had been by Malaysia in my first 18 years.

As a student in St. Cloud, I have developed a greater understanding of the history of North America and race relations in the United States. Through my friends from 30-plus countries, I have learned the different geographic, demographic and cultural aspects of their home countries — topics bluntly covered in Malaysian textbooks.

Likewise, I was able to share my cultures and traditions with my American and international friends. I introduced them to the unique cuisines we have in Southeast Asia and shared with them the values held dearly in Malaysian society. This was not knowledge my friends and I garnered within the brick-and-mortar classroom, but through genuine conversations and discussions that went beyond academic topics. Such candid interactions played an important part in my professional and personal development.

Overall, my experience in an American education system and community has been transformational. It is undoubtedly the best investment my parents have made for me, and I am grateful for every opportunity I had to widen my perspective.

As I return home for a break this summer, I plan to share with my Malaysian friends the stories of my American life and to encourage those who plan to study abroad to consider American universities.

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