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.

How Visual Analytics Make Big Data Accessible

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Software developer Ivan Okhin created this heatmap to show places where SCSU students come from. The map is generated based on public records about SCSU students available through the university’s open student directory. See full interactive map here.

Big data has been the buzzword for the last few years. While the concept of big data-driven analytics is still in the theory stage, research institutions are trying to demonstrate how visual analytics of big data can make a real difference in businesses and the society today. By creating visual analytics, information technology corporations such as IBM and Google are making the pitch to make big data-driven analytics more accessible – to take it from the data scientist experts and put the information in the hands of the people empowered to make better business decisions (IT World Canada, 2013).

Imagine the frustrations: You’ve found some open data about PhD programs of your discipline across the country but simply couldn’t find a way to compare among these programs. I daresay not many applicants would create their own data spreadsheet to juxtapose the strengths and weaknesses between the programs they seek. (By the way, this is why we have created a beta-version PhD Finder for Rhetoric and Composition programs – to show what differences interactive analytics could make.)

Data accessibility is key when making critical decisions. Another instance would be public officials’ voting trends. We know that data about how governors vote in each electoral season are available out there. Yet, these information do not come in accessible formats – i.e. they are not aggregated for easy navigation and readability. Imagine the kind of impact it would have on the general public if they are presented a tractable, intuitive, and interactive format. General voters would have a better idea about how they should (or should not) support their state officials if they can observe and visually analyze these officials’ voting trends and agendas.

Information visualization is not only helpful but necessary. Fekete et al (2008) posited that graphical visualization serves cognitive benefits and perpetual support to understanding complex information. Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) wrote:

The eye. . .
the window of the soul,
is the principal means
by which the central sense
can most completely and
abundantly appreciate
the infinite works of nature.

Beyond inspirational, da Vinci’s words are resembled in our daily saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. “While people may agree or disagree with the sentiments behind that cliche, specific examples can help support the claim” (Fekete et al, 2008). The following from Ivan’s project doesn’t just prove that a picture indeed speaks for a thousand words, it also enhances processing of information by showing proximity of individual datum and density in an area (hot spots).


A thousand words.

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A picture.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

The human brain is unique in its ability to reason abstractly. “Visualization is so compelling because our brains are really pattern-matching machines,” said Noah Iliinsky, a visualization expert with the IBM Research Center for Advanced Visualization. “There’s a huge amount of data you can bring in, and the brain has a great capacity for pattern matching and pattern recognition.”

Besides private sectors and business corporations, hospitals, energy companies, and the police forces are also using visual analytics to improve workflow and ultimately provide better services.

Truly, we are at an intersection of abundance in open data and high stakes for data interpretation. Visualization of data is an effective way to unpack complex information and make them accessible to the general audience. By making data easier to process, we are opening up new possibilities in the ways we do business, save lives, and learn about our world.

Top Majors at St. Cloud State


Recently, I was poking around the very-much-unseen website of the Office of Strategy, Planning and Effectiveness at SCSU and was surprised to see the 2012-13 enrollment numbers according to majors. Having been at St. Cloud State for almost half a decade now, I have always had the perception that the College of Liberal Arts and the Herberger Business School are the two largest academic units within the university in terms of total number of majors in the respective colleges.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Looking at the spreadsheets made available by the Office of Institutional Research – which provides general information about the University including admissions, student enrollment, course enrollment, major/program enrollment and awards conferred – I sorted out the top five (most-enrolled) majors at St. Cloud State University. [Note: these numbers reflect only the full year equivalent (FYE) enrollment for each college/school.]

5. Psychology (471.4)


Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. Psychologists are interested in many different aspects of behavior, including thought, perception, feelings, learning, development, social interactions and disorders. The aim of psychology is to learn why we behave the way we do. See Department of Psychology website.

4. Communication Studies (483.1)

comm studies

The rhetorical tradition has long been considered central to a liberal education. People must communicate effectively to function well in education, business, politics, government, the community and the family. In addition to offering a variety of major and minor programs, the Communication Studies curriculum is open to all students and is designed to complement and integrate most programs of study. See Department of Communication Studies website.

3. English (611.8) – excl. ESL majors


Dedicated to the study and practice of the diverse uses of the English language in all its forms, the English Department devotes its energies and its teaching to English studies as understood in the richest sense, including: the heritage of literature written in English, the philosophy and practice of rhetoric and composition, creative writing, English education, linguistics, the methods and theories of teaching English as a second language (TESL), and, in general, the social, ethical, and psychological dimensions of language use. See Department of English website.

2. Mathematics (701) – excl. Statistics majors


Mathematics and statistics are fundamental to many areas of study and are an integral part of a university education. The department offers curriculum designed not only to enable students to pursue careers in mathematics or statistics, but also to better prepare students for careers in business, education, engineering, and the physical, life and social sciences. To participate in a technological society and a competitive global environment, graduates need a strong foundation in analytical thinking, data analysis, problem solving, and modeling. See Department of Mathematics and Statistics website.

1. Biology (712.8)


The Department of Biology offers a number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in various sub-disciplines of biology, in addition to preparing students for entry into professional degree programs such as medicine, dentistry and physical therapy. Talented faculty and staff, dedicated to teaching and learning by doing, provide an active learning environment for students that includes laboratory and field experiences, and independent research projects guided by faculty mentors, as part of the academic curriculum. See Department of Biology website.

See respective college’s/school’s full department FYE enrollment here (PDFs):

These information are made available to the public by SCSU Office of Institutional Research. It is important to note also that the actual number of students who declared their majors are drastically different from the FYE reports, possibility due to retention and graduate rates. For instance, the top two most-declared majors in Fall 2013 are Psychology (267) and Criminal Justice (250).

Just to give us a better sense of where SCSU stands in comparison with national statistics; the top majors in the U.S. (2013), according to U.S. News & World Reports, are: (Not-ranked)

  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biometrics
  • Forensic Science
  • Computer Game Design
  • Cybersecurity
  • Data Science
  • Business Analytics
  • Petroleum Engineering
  • Public Health
  • Robotics
  • Sustainability

So, what do you think? What is/was your major and why did you choose that major? Feel free to drop your two cents below!

The above commentaries are merely of my personal observations and do not reflect that of the Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs at SCSU.

Cover image: 2010 Orientation Group by Neil Anderson.
Psychology cover: Ryan Peter
Communication studies cover:
English cover:
Mathematics cover:
Biology cover: Philippe Guillaume, Flickr

Student Technology Use and Feedback at SCSU

As part of the campus technology fee committee, I assisted in a campus-wide student technology use survey from October 28 through November 1, 2013. To better illustrate the key findings from this survey, I have created the following infographic to highlight some important areas that are worth looking at:

Printable version here.

ST Survey Key Findings

Has your campus conducted a similar survey? What did you ask and what did you find? Please share your ideas below.