Sterotypes and Higher Ed. differences


Being displaced into a new environment has some advantages. It gives you a chance to look from afar at the place you call home, and gain a little more objectivity then you ever could have when there.

Talking to the lovely Irish women I work with, and the range of international students I have met and befriended, I have gathered a collection of observations and stereotypes about Americans, which I will attempt to share here. I am sorry to say that I embody many of the stereotypes.

In general, Americans have been perceived as:

  • Superficial
  • Spoiled/rich
  • Potentially obese/out of shape
  • Entitled, also possessing an inflated sense of self-worth
  • Extremely competitive, workaholic tendencies
  • Ignorant: Americans know little about the world outside of their own country

Higher Education Differences:

The best description I heard that illustrates the difference between European and American higher education systems, is,

“European students become adults when they go to college. American students go to college to become adults.”

“European students become adults when they go to college.” They have to, and there is a kind of pride that comes with the coming-of-age and simply walking onto their university’s grounds for the first time.

 Now for Americans, the college experience is not a sink-or-swim procedure as it can be with Europeans, and there is a lot more, how do I say, ‘handholding’ that occurs in the American higher education system. Without making any accusations, I think that the systems are so different that it is really comparing apples to oranges, and unfair to measure them by the same standards.

Free education has its benefits and downsides, as you can imagine. One of the biggest challenges is that the office I work at is severely understaffed. The orientation staff is primarily student volunteers who provide support to students throughout the year. There are no RAs or live-in student staff members, besides a warden who is on call each night for lockouts. Students have to get involved, grow up, and look out for themselves, because no one else is going to.

Sink or swim, really.

The American education system on the other hand offers more because people expect more, and are paying more for their schooling. Despite American students being perceived as more outgoing then their Irish counterparts, Americans are also typically more entitled, and less likely to take advantage of the opportunities that are placed in front of them.

When discussing the week of social events intended to get incoming students involved, one of my coworkers said,

“Every year we put these events on, and every year only a few American students attend. Then when they are filling out a survey at the end of the year they always complain about not enough social events and not making any Irish friends. It’s like they expect us to knock down their doors to get them to go to these events!”

I guess we can’t blame the individual parts, there are many factors that create the college environment in every country, and some, as you can see, are very different. 

In Ireland and the UK students take tests their junior or senior year of high school, called ‘leaving exams’ or ‘A-Lists.’ These exams are similar to the SAT in that they cover topics such as applied sciences, business studies, as well as arts and humanities, and the grades determine students acceptance into university programs. The difference here is, students are accepted into a focus, or major, right off the bat, and they begin studying their major within the first year of college.

Now although the American liberal-arts colleges may give a wider base of knowledge then some Irish and UK schools, can you see why many employers consider a bachelor degree graduate from a European college to be equivalent to a masters degree in the States?

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  1. I would say this is true over all according to my experience in the Netherlands. However, their system is set up so that only 10% of the population graduates from a research university (others graduate from ‘college’ – think teacher or nurse – and others from technical schools).
    Still, most university students I spoke with in Amsterdam wished they had four years (half of which is dedicated to the liberal arts) compared to three years (with only courses applicable to their degree). Both sides leave something to be desired, but I also know students on both sides of the spectrums who act like adults immediately at 18 and those who grow into adults around 22 in the US and NL.


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