As a dual Swedish-American citizen, I was based in Europe for seven years before I started university, other than the year I spent at EF Academy New York. My high school experience was a series of exercises in international education, and I graduated from school in England, where my family had relocated after my time in the US. As college enrollment deadlines were fast approaching, I was lucky enough to find myself with higher educational options on both sides of the Atlantic and I found myself facing a choice: to stay, or to go?
In the end my school of choice was a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. While I saw the practical advantages of attending a UK institution, I was not just choosing a college, I was choosing the US college experience. It is an experience which has both surpassed and at times completely upended my expectations. One of the things that I think sets US colleges apart from other institutions is the sense of community I feel on my college campus. There are a number of factors that are particularly conducive to community-building on US campuses, particularly at a smaller school like mine.
Like many colleges, mine is centralized around a primary quad, meaning by the very nature of its architecture, students are drawn together in a common space. Attending a liberal arts college, all students have a common course of study. No matter what your major is you will take classes outside of your division and will be organically introduced to people with very different academic paths. I have also found that, relative to my European peers, a lot more of my time is spent in the classroom and a lot less is spent doing independent work, giving me more face time with students and faculty.
In terms of dorm life, like on many campuses, I was required to participate in on-campus housing in my first year. A quintessential element of the US college experience is one that every EF Academy student will be well-equipped to handle: roommates! While all of my friends who ended up studying in the UK lived in accommodations with their own rooms and kitchen space, those enrolled in American colleges will almost always have roommates at some point (I had two!) and be put on a college meal plan. In the first weeks of college I was happy to realize my school had an ice cream bar and crepe station open five-days of the week, and had a particular knack for incorporating tater tots as a side to any meal.
Another element of the US college experience that I have found particularly appealing and unique is how customizable it is. Extracurriculars are heavily emphasized, with clubs and service opportunities often bearing as much weight as classes. College sports has a massive following in the US, so at Division I schools like mine, huge social events and opportunities for school spirit arise in the form of important games. One distinctly American ritual is the tailgate, in which students, relatives, alumni, and sports enthusiasts will get ready to enjoy a game with drinks and food served out of the trunks of their cars next to the stadium.
Something that I certainly wasn’t anticipating encountering as much as I have was the ‘Greek’ life at my school. This is the American concept that tends to baffle my international friends most. On my campus, organizations like sororities and fraternities are social, while on other campuses they are cultural or interest-oriented. These organizations hold social events, participate in philanthropy, and provide a tight-knit community and support system to their members. While you certainly do not have to participate in Greek life and lots of schools do not even have such organizations, it is definitely something important to note and anticipate as a social influence when considering a US college.
It’s important to point out that my experience has not been representative of every student to attend college in the US. It is influenced by the fact that the institution I attend is a private school, a liberal arts college, has a generous endowment, Division I sports, and a small student body. However, it has proven to be the college experience that was right for me, and I encourage anyone to whom it sounds appealing to consider the US as a potential destination during their application process.