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Rajika Bhandari Headshot

An International Student's Education: What I Learned About Myself, America and the World

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My first taste of the United States was a shrink-wrapped chocolate-chip cookie and a can of chilled Coke on an American Airlines flight to Raleigh, N.C. It was 1992, and I was one of 36,000 Indian students studying in the United States that year, according to the Institute of International Education's "Open Doors" report. That flight was the beginning of an extraordinary journey for me that gave me a better understanding of the United States, my homeland and myself.

In the two decades since then, much has changed in global higher education, including a surge in the number of students studying overseas and the rise of new technologies. But as I look back on my first days and weeks in a foreign land, I truly hope that today's international students are still getting the eye-opening experience I had.

As a young graduate student from India, attending North Carolina State University was as much an education in psychology (my chosen field of study) as it was a life lesson about cultural differences in how knowledge is imparted and acquired in the United States. I was encouraged to think much more critically than I had ever before, and was surprised that questioning your professor was actually a good thing and not seen as an affront as it would be in Indian universities (and I suspect in many other institutions and countries around the world). So while I balked when my American classmates casually referred to my adviser by his first name, I also sharpened my critical-thinking skills and felt an equal participant among my peers, men and women alike.

What immediately struck me also about the American system was its sheer fluidity and openness. Taking full advantage of its cross-disciplinary approach, I was able to move easily across different departments, selecting courses from psychology, statistics, sociology, and developmental economics to fashion a degree that would prepare me for a career in international work. This sort of flexibility is almost unheard of in many countries, or it is certainly rare in India where even today rigid curricula are a deterrent to many American students who would like to study there.

But my experience in an American classroom was also opening my eyes to the value of my undergraduate degree from the University of Delhi, where the focus was very much on rigor, theory and the fundamentals of an academic discipline. It was this solid foundation that enabled me to push the boundaries of knowledge within the free-thinking environment of an American classroom.

My interactions with my American peers -- and those from all over the world -- challenged me to expand my worldview. In many ways, I was growing up and becoming an adult in the United States, being shaped by this country going forward as I had been by India for the first half of my life. As a student in the south I developed a much more nuanced understanding of black history and race relations in the United States. Through my Jewish American friends I learned about the full extent of the Holocaust, a subject that was covered cursorily in Indian history books back home.

Conversely, most of my American friends had never heard of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro -- two of the earliest world civilizations that are based in the Indian subcontinent -- and had no idea that the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 turned 12 million people into refugees, resulting in the single largest exodus in recent history. These were not details that my American friends or I had acquired in the classroom, for we were not history students. Rather, this was knowledge that was gleaned through conversations and debates that went beyond academic topics, the type of stimulating discourse that is possible only when young students from very different background have the opportunity to interact face-to-face and to explore their beliefs and knowledge (or lack thereof).

Today international higher education in the United States and globally has been transformed in ways we couldn't have imagined 20 years ago. International students have evolved from being passive recipients of information to becoming strategic, savvy consumers able to shrewdly assess the return-on-investment of a foreign credential. I attribute this shift to the Internet, which has revolutionized how students get information. The State Department's EducationUSA network, which provides advising services to prospective international students in 170 countries, now relies on the Internet as a key tool for helping students explore their options and also has a user-friendly "app" for students on the go. At the Institute of International Education, too, all of our guides for international students are now online.

The demographics of international students in the United States have also changed. Twenty years ago, international students came from a broader mix of countries; today, we see an unusual concentration of students from a handful of countries. In 1992, 18 percent of all international students were from China and India; today, that proportion has more than doubled to 39 percent. While this might provide students with a ready-made community on campus, it also has the unintended consequence of isolating international students from their American peers and those from other parts of the world and, ultimately, preventing them from fully partaking in the social and cultural benefits of international education. Indeed, a recent study found that 40 percent of international students report having no close American friends.

And then there is the specter of shrinking finances: both for international students whose currencies are weak against the U.S. dollar and who struggle to afford the increasing costs of an American education, and for U.S. institutions that have to make tough choices about how to best allocate finite resources. I worry that U.S. institutions may reduce financial assistance to international students and scale back their support services for international students. I was very fortunate 20 years ago to attend an institution with a strong international-student office, whose dedicated staff went above and beyond to ease my transition, from patiently explaining administrative and logistical details to helping me connect with the Indian students' association on campus. These types of services are critical for helping international students navigate an education system that is probably completely different from anything they have known, and for helping them fully integrate into their campus community and not risk being isolated.

In addition, I worry that MOOCs -- or whatever is the latest online flavor of the day -- will seem to some to be an adequate substitute for true international education. While technology can play a role in sharing knowledge around the world and in increasing access to education, it will never replace the type of lifelong learning that comes through a true international education experience.

Indeed, the transformational power of such an experience remains indisputable. Just ask the over 4.1 million students who are currently studying outside their home countries. For most young students, it represents an intellectual and cultural coming of age, a type of holistic education that might occur on the fringes of a formal degree but that is invaluable in shaping the mind, soul, and character of a student.

This post first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education