Obtaining a university degree is, without a doubt, a life-changing opportunity that not everyone has access to. I am truly fortunate to be part of the little more than a quarter of Mexicans that have the opportunity to be enrolled in tertiary education. Unlike most, however, I am completing my education abroad at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Completing my university studies abroad was an easy decision for me. I knew that the college system in the United States would allow me to easily and rapidly change my major choice in case I was not satisfied with my initial decision. In Mexico, as well as in most Latin American universities, this is not the case. Not being satisfied with your initial major choice means that you have to start your university career again, barring perhaps a few credits that might overlap, forcing you to keep studying for a few more years. There are also some fundamental differences in my college experience that I did not expect.
For me the most important distinction between universities in Latin America and the United States is their approach to education. Coming from Mexico I expected my daily life to be moderately streamlined. I would go to my classes in the morning, go back home, do my homework and be done with school for the day. Unbeknownst to me I was entering a much more comprehensive experience, something I like to call the "culture of college." For me this is what makes tertiary education in the United States completely different from Latin America: education here goes far beyond what is taught in the classroom.
It all starts with living in a community with thousands of people in your age group. The fact that you are in constant interaction with students outside the classroom makes college education unique. It allows you to find like-minded individuals with whom to share and discover your passions making you grow as a person. Additionally, the vast amount of clubs and interest groups found in American universities is something largely unheard of in traditional Latin American universities. The system allows students to take education into their own hands rather than just being guided through a strict curriculum; it teaches students to be truly independent.
In my opinion, this cardinal difference between the two systems benefits students in the American system of education. Colleges in the United States emphasize independence by purposely creating a much different environment than high school. For the most part you are expected to start living away from your parents, to take charge of your own curriculum and control how much you want to do outside the classroom. In America, my education is truly in my hands. In a sense tertiary education in Latin America is not much different than secondary education and limits the way in which students can take advantage of their educational experience before obtaining their degree.
These two systems of education that share the common goal of educating students for the professional world do so with different methodologies to achieve it. Without a doubt the American system champions the idea that an important part of college education happens outside the classroom. For me, this was a better fit in what I desired from my university studies and, although Latin America also offers an excellent education, I am glad that I have had the opportunity to study abroad.