Exploring Options for Undergraduate Study? Some on-line resources you may not have seen before…

Interested in undergraduate study in the United States? You’ll find many different academic programs at many different kinds of colleges and universities in the States. The U.S. offers an incredible diversity of institutions of higher learning – public and private, large and small. Many offer fine opportunities for academic study.  The difference between them is a matter not of quality of but the kind of educational experience provided and the disciplinary areas of concentration available. How to find the right match?

Do you want small classes with lots of interaction with faculty instructors and your fellow students? Do you want attentive, personalized academic advising by full-time professors who know their institution well? Do you want to live on campus in a residential hall? Are you seeking financial assistance? Are you interested in summer undergraduate research opportunities? Do you hope to engage in well-structured internships connected to your area of study? Do you want to combine study within a major with an exploration of a variety of academic subject areas? Are you interested in ‘double-majoring’ (that is, in combining two major concentrations such as music and physics, or business administration and political science)? If your answer to one or more of these questions is ‘yes,’ you should consider applying to a liberal arts college such as Monmouth.

How to find out what kinds of colleges and universities are available? Here’s a list of resources that will include some valuable sources of information that are not usually highlighted for prospective international students. But let’s start with the resource that is, rightly, always at the top of the list:  EducationUSA (http://educationusa.state.gov/) is the branch of the U.S. State Department that provides information and advice to students interested in study in the States. You will find a step-by-step guide to study in the United States here, as well as information about student visas, aspects of the application process, financial assistance, and more. EducationUSA is a fabulous resource. Start here!

IIE (the Institute of International Education) provides an excellent overview of financial assistance opportunities for international students at its website Funding for U.S. Study (http://www.fundingusstudy.org/). 

As you explore the many options available, these webpages may also be of help. First, you are likely to come upon terms that categorize colleges and universities:  liberal arts, private, public, regional, research 1, four-year, baccalaureate, comprehensive, and so on. Most of these terms come from the on-going classifying work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has been sorting and organizing the wide (and wild) diversity of U.S. colleges and universities into logical categories for many years. The Carngie classification system was launched in 1970; the classification system has been amended and updated several times, notably in 2005 and 2010.  Older terms that the Foundation dropped are still in common use. You will find an excellent database with nuanced search capacity and highly informative definitions of the many different kinds of institutions of higher education in the United States at http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/.  Note that the Carnegie classifications are exactly that – an organizing of colleges and universities by various criteria (public, private, four-year, graduate, liberal arts, professional, etc.) – and not a ‘ranking system.’ 

The United States does not have a non-profit, federally approved or administered ‘ranking’ system for colleges and universities. All such ranking systems are done by for-profit businesses (usually journals or newspapers) and vary widely in their usefulness and degree of relative accuracy, which depends, of course, on what they measure and what data or opinions they gather to determine those measures.

The major federal source of information about accredited colleges and universities is called College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/) and is the searchable portal of the National Center for Education Statistics. This is an excellent resource as you seek information about particular colleges and universities. It has a comparative function that enables you to select several colleges and universities and compare them using the variables of most interest to you. 

U-CAN (University and College Accountability Network) is a searchable database with user-friendly graphical representation of basic information about academic programs, student demographics and financial assistance, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU): http://www.ucan-network.org/.  U-CAN is intended to help you glean basic information about colleges and universities ‘at a glance.’

College Board provides a College Search database at https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search.

You will find useful (and, I’d argue, interesting!) information about colleges and universities in the United States at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) – http://www.aacu.org/; The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) – http://www.cic.edu/Pages/default.aspx (and see ‘Making the Case for Independent Education’ at http://www.cic.edu/Research-and-Data/Making-the-Case/Pages/Main-Search-and-Information.aspx); and CollegeNews.org (http://collegenews.org/), the website of the Annapolis Group, a consortium of outstanding private colleges. These organizations are very helpful, especially if you are interested in an excellent undergraduate educational experience at a college or university providing a liberal arts education in which intensive study in a major is complemented with a variety of courses across a range of disciplines.

International Undergrads – Getting Involved in Campus Life

As you consider the rich array of options for undergraduate study in the United States, keep in mind the value of the residential experience available at small liberal arts colleges. If you are looking for rewarding opportunities to become involved in campus life, to develop leadership skills, and to practice and hone your English language ability, there is no better choice than a small college such as Monmouth.

Naturally, your first consideration as you choose a college in the States is the match between its academic programs and your own interests and goals. However, you should also pay attention to the opportunities colleges offer for involvement in student organizations and in campus life. Becoming engaged in campus life can make a decisive difference in the quality of your undergraduate experience.

The first weeks of life on campus can be lonely and confusing for any student – and this is definitely true for international students, for whom everything about the college experience and the larger setting in which it is unfolding is new. One good way to combat homesickness and begin to become acclimated is to get involved with other students on campus who share your interests. Often, new-student orientation will include an introduction to the student organizations on your campus. Pay attention to what is available! You’ll find that most liberal arts colleges have a wide variety of organizations and clubs.

Student organizations emerge in response to shared student interests in a huge number of things, including arts (music, theatre, creative writing, and more), sports, spiritual life, community service and volunteerism, hobbies, academic interests, cultural and ethnic affiliations, sexual orientations, political commitments, and career interests (many colleges have pre-law and pre-med societies, for example). Find out what is available and of interest – and go to a meeting! Student organizations of this general sort (i.e., interest-based) are open to all students.

At first, simply take your involvement in student organizations as an opportunity to meet new people and learn more about your new academic home. Find out how things work and how you can contribute. Be sure to think carefully about time commitments, and don’t overextend yourself. Academics always come first! However, making connections through participation in a few well-chosen clubs and organizations is a fantastic way to begin to ‘learn the ropes’ (i.e., better understand how student life ‘works’ on your campus and how decisions about student programs and activities occur).

Eventually, if you are truly interested and involved, you are likely to have opportunities to take on leadership roles in your chosen student club or organization. There is no better way to develop skills that will be valuable to you for a lifetime. If you become a leader, you’ll have opportunities to learn how to motivate your fellow students, create an agenda for a meeting, organize people for particular projects, plan and manage an event (such as a fund-raiser or community-service project), represent your group well, and help your group reflect upon its identity, core purpose and future directions. 

Some student organizations involve a selection process. Don’t let this discourage you. If your college offers a Greek life program (i.e., sororities and fraternities), find out what is available, and talk with members of different Greek organizations. Each fraternity/sorority will have a distinctive mission and history, and a particular way of recruiting members. Many are truly dedicated to service on- and off-campus, academic success and campus leadership. Participation in athletics is much the same – you’ll need to tryout for varsity teams (‘varsity’ means that this sport on your campus competes with other teams from other colleges, usually within a conference, a consortium of similar colleges in a region). At the NCAA Division III level, students with athletic ability are likely to be welcomed into most teams. 

Intramural and club sports are open to all interested participants. ‘Intramural’ includes all the athletic activities open to all students on a particular campus, usually sponsored by Student Life. ‘Club’ indicates an athletic sport that competes off-campus and is student-funded and student-run. Monmouth College’s water polo club has recently competed (and very successfully, I might add) against Tufts University, Grinnell, Knox, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Iowa – but it isn’t a NCAA Division III program. At the club level, depending on your ability, you may not play in all the major off-campus competitions, but you’ll be welcome to practice and participate in the on-campus club activity.

Service organizations are an especially good way to learn more about the community in which you find yourself. Most liberal arts colleges have a community service or volunteerism office on campus that helps to coordinate partnerships with service organizations in the region and beyond. Helping other people is a good in itself – and a fantastic way to make an impact on society. Students at Monmouth College participate in community garden and food-bank projects, after-school tutoring programs, the construction of affordable housing, restoration of damaged ecosystems, eldercare and food drives and Relay for Life, a fundraiser for cancer research (and much more). International students at Monmouth already take leadership roles in service initiatives. Come join us!

As you become familiar with the campus, settling into your classes and developing good study habits and routines, you may also want to become involved in student government. Usually, this means standing for election and serving as a representative of some particular student constituency – a class (that is, the group of students who entered college in the same year) or another segment of the student population (humanities majors, for example). You may have opportunities to participate in the work of faculty committees as the student representative, which means that you’ll have first-hand experience of how the college makes decisions about the curriculum, new academic programs, faculty hires, and more.

So – get involved!  You’ll find that engagement in student life is a distinctive strength of the undergraduate student experience at most small, private liberal arts colleges. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste. Involvement in student organizations and clubs offers an unparalleled opportunity to better understand a significant slice of American culture, to hone your leadership skills and to practice interacting with other people (students, faculty and administrators). Through participation in student organizations, you will have opportunities to help shape the quality of the undergraduate experience during your time on campus, and, ultimately, in some cases, the future of your college. And you’ll make friends who will last your lifetime.