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Students Speak: "International Students in the U.S. - Misconception vs. Reality"

This week's guest student post comes from Lei Wu, an international student studying at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Lei looks at some of the popular misconceptions international students - including himself - have about studying in the United States, and how these beliefs can be far from the truth:

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As a Chinese student, I heard of a lot of things about the US from Chinese media before I came to America. Nevertheless, when I started my studying here, I found that a lot of things are different from that what I thought I knew. In my opinion, I feel that there are many misconceptions or stereotypes about the US, whether they come from foreign governments, movies, TV shows, or other channels. I now see international students coming to the US may misunderstand the real "American style." In this post, I’d like to pick up a few of these misconceptions and discuss them:


Misconception No. 1: US students don’t study hard or work hard:
This misconception is perhaps the most well-known among international students. Many think American students do not like studying, and that they only want to play sports or go to parties.

Perhaps some US students are not interested in learning, but there are a large number of American students who study very hard. At University of Nevada, Reno, I see many young American working on assignments in the library, designing experiment s in labs, working on problems in the classroom, or working overnight on important projects. So it is not fair that people judge American students as not studying hard – I’ve seen first-hand that they do.

I don't know why this rumor has been spread so worldwide – maybe it’s how American students are portrayed in movies and television. One of my American friends told me that American usually like cozy and casual, so they may give foreigners an image that they are not caution and dedicated. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be serious and achieve success.


Misconception No. 2: American people are not smart:
First, we have to define “smart,” which isn’t easy. Some students are good at math, some of them are good at art, but can you say the former are smarter than the latter? I don’t think it’s possible.

I am the only international student in my class, so I study with American students every day. In my experience, they are no more or less intelligent than any foreign students. In class, I see my classmates spark excellent ideas all the time that I never come up with.

I talked about this misconception with other international students before. They thought that this view may come from grades – that, to some extent, international students may get better score than American ones. But, as some of my fellow international students noted, higher scores does not always mean smarter.

For example, one of my fellow international students said that he often got high grades on tests compared to his American classmates, because he already knew some of the material from middle and high school. But despite the grade difference, he’s found that the American students he’s worked with have better perspective and methods for projects than he does. The American education system is different from other countries; consequently, American and international students have their own advantages and own skill sets that make them good students. But that doesn’t mean one group is smarter than the other.


Misconception No. 3: US society is dangerous
: Personally, I think this misconception comes from American entertainment media. Movies, TV dramas, and even some American animation have created an interesting picture of US environment, full of violence, crimes, guns, drug, gangs, and so forth.

Indeed, these things may happen, however, they are very exaggerated. For example, guns: there is a rough estimation that there are 233,000,000 guns in the US, but the ratio of gun crimes to guns is about 1:200,000, which means that the chance that you will encounter a gun crime is even lower than the chance of catching a cold.

Guns is just one of many examples. Generally, the US is a safe place. There is an infamous rumor that you do not want to walk down the street alone at night because you will be robbed or killed. When I arrived in US, I believed that. But some friends told me that it is a ridiculous thought – they often walk alone at night, they have never encountered any danger.

Of course, no country is absolutely secure, and crime and other incidents exist in every place all around the world. But the US media are so sophisticated, any negative event in the society is covered in detail and published around the world, causing people to think of the US as unsafe. As far as I am concerned, if you are careful and aware, you will avoid any danger.
These misconceptions are only the tip of the iceberg. But I hope they correct some common mistakes when thinking about the United States, and help show a better picture of how the US really is.

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Studying STEM? International students have funding options

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US News & World Report takes a look at funding options for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.

The article explains the different kinds of scholarships and grants and offers tips on getting part-time jobs and private student loans. Read the full story here. (March 2024)

US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

Israel-Hamas War Brings Controversy to US Campuses  
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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

A group of U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

The schools would pay $284 million to plaintiffs who were enrolled full-time and received financial aid between 2003 and 2024.

The schools have denied the allegations. (April 2024)

Universities in Middle East building research relationships with China  

FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.
FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.

As China bolsters research relationships with universities in the Middle East, the United States has taken notice – especially when that research involves artificial intelligence.

Reporting for University World News, Yojana Sharma has the story. (March 2024)

Tips for staying safe while studying in the US

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2019 photo, Sgt. Jason Cowger, with Johns Hopkins University's Campus Safety and Security department, walks on the university's campus in Baltimore.
FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2019 photo, Sgt. Jason Cowger, with Johns Hopkins University's Campus Safety and Security department, walks on the university's campus in Baltimore.

Recent news events have raised safety concerns among some international students studying in the United States.

Adarsh Khandelwal, writing in the India Times, has tips for staying safe from the moment you arrive until the day you complete your studies. (March 2024)

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