The USA and the UK are popular destinations for international students. Enter Brexit and Trump. The two events of 2016 that shocked so many of us. Will America and Britain remain at the top of their game in higher education?
Vibs Wardhen and I have a chat after a good six year hiatus. He currently lives in San Francisco. Born in India, Vibs moved to Melbourne when he was a year old. Once upon a time, we were both students at the University of Melbourne. At 19, Vibs left Australia to study at UPenn in Philadelphia. He majored in Finance and Electrical Engineering.
(Image courtesy of Vibs Wardhen)
“What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between higher education in America and Australia?” I ask.
“In Australia, academia’s not as integrated with industry,” Vibs says. “Professors are more likely to dedicate themselves to research, whereas in the US they’re more involved in industry. I had plenty of professors who ran their own companies and sat on Boards. They’d bring their experiences into the classroom. As a student, that made my experience much richer. You’re exposed to the cutting edge in and outside of academia.
“In most ex-Commonwealth countries, we get admitted to university based on a national percentile, and then pursue narrow degrees: a Bachelor of Accounting, Psychology, Law, etc. etc. It’s just not designed to produce kids who are going to innovate at the forefront of their fields.
“Part of innovation is taking ideas from one area and applying them in another – diverse experiences are crucial. Two breadth subjects over four years isn’t going to cut it. The world is changing so quickly that ‘preparing kids for the future’ has to extend beyond just preparing them for their first job out of college.”
“As an international student in Australia,” I said to Vibs. “I felt that intellectualism is shunned there. If you like learning and studying – you are a ‘geek’. What are your thoughts?”
“There’s some of that in every country, and probably to similar extents,” Vibs says. “The difference is market size.
“Even in the US, there’s a large portion of the population that shuns intellectualism. The US is so large though that the absolute number of people who embrace it is huge, and they’ve carved out their own communities – for better or worse.
“Universities here are a great example. The top 10% of students here can fill multiple universities, and create their own hubs. This density tends to draw likeminded people from other parts of the world. That’s harder to achieve in other, smaller countries.
“The flip-side though is that you develop these ‘bubbles’ where we get detached from what ‘normal life’ is without realizing it. Look at the Trump election and how much of a surprise it was to everyone, or at least everyone around me.
“Democrats thought the Republicans were out of touch, but it ended up being the other way around.
“By the way, the whole anti-intellectual thing is part of the same movement that puts unreasonable expectations on both men and women: that men need to be alpha-males, aggressive, and emotionally closed off. I’ve seen a bunch of articles lately talking about how older men are socially isolated and depressed.
“On the other spectrum – powerful, driven women are being looked down upon as making people uncomfortable. Luckily, things are changing.
“I came here because I wanted something more. I wanted to be pushed and experience novel ideas, ways of thinking, and people. I just didn’t find enough of that when I was studying in Australia. There’s a big difference between studying for grades and studying to grow.
“American Universities are also great at marketing, so I might have drank some of the kool-aid.”
“Given the current climate, should people still go to the US for higher education?” I ask.
“Moving overseas as an 18 year old,” Vibs says, “is a formative life experience, no matter where you go. The university I went to was fairly commercial.
“I like thinking about how technology, society and the economy are progressing: and how they interact. I was around people who were interested in the same stuff. When you put a bunch of those people together, they challenge each other and grow. I also learnt a ton about myself, relationships, and being an adult.
“That experience won’t change because of the current climate. When you come here from overseas as a college student, you’re interacting with a narrow, very forward-thinking portion of the population. That won’t change either.”
“What are your thoughts on the current political situation?” I ask.
“A lot of people feel left out of globalization – irrespective of what the numbers say. They feel frustrated and channel their energy through ‘anti-establishment’ figures. It’s ironic because left and central parties provide more resources for people who are disadvantaged the than right-of-centre. The current political climate promoting aggression and hate is scary…trickle-down-racism?”
“So are you planning to stick around?” I ask.
“I really miss drinking a beer at the cricket,” Vibs quips.
I laugh. Of course, he does.
“I still consider Australia home,” he continues, “and want to move back at some point. I want to create and build, and that won’t change. At the end of the day, life’s too short. There are things that matter and you have to prioritise those things. Ultimately, Australia is where family is.
“Being at ease and getting comfortable kind of scares me. I see it as something to resist. It’s a question I’m struggling with. As people get older: they strive for structure, stability and comfort. If you want to grow and build though, you’re disrupting the status-quo in some way and so resist being comfortable….maybe it’s just a phase.”
I hear ya, Vibs. I hear ya.
I think it’s good to have certainty, stability and structure in one area of your life, so that way you can grow and take risks in other areas of your life. That way if those risks don’t work out, you still land on your feet as opposed to finding yourself down and out.
Anyways, whether the US and UK remain at the top of their game for higher education is going to be a moot point for some time to come. In the interim, I have a more pressing question.
“When are you coming to visit me in Japan?” I ask Vibs. Mi casa, su casa.
“When’s a good time to visit? I don’t like the cold.”
“Me neither. I live very close to Tokyo. Come in April.”
“That sounds good.”
I look forward to our next conversation: whether it’s on Facebook or in person. Despite the 17 hour time difference, the world is a small place.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.