By: Patricia Kusumaningtyas
There’s this question I’ve been asking myself these past few months, and I haven’t really pinned down the definite answer for it: What makes an American university what it is?
On one side of the spectrum, the pinnacle of American education is often portrayed through the Ivy League schools. Although it’s notable to point out that schools in the Ivy League (there are eight—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, and Cornell) is just an arbitrary group made to organize intercollegiate sports, the term “Ivy League” still serves as a label for elite education. When I think of the Ivy League, I often would recall the type of scholars portrayed in films like Dead Poets Society: intellectual young white men in preppy outfits debating about Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. We would imagine its students coming from boarding schools, trained to be critical thinkers on “great works” of art and literature.
Then, on the other side of the spectrum of American education, there’s community college. A far cry from the elite knickerbocker types, community college is associated towards open admissions, adult education, and technical education. Community colleges mostly award two-year degrees geared towards more technical careers such as design drafting or forestry. Community college is often stereotyped as the place where students go when they’re not “smart enough” (due to their open admissions policy), a stereotype reinforced in popular culture with films and TV shows like Community.
I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I started my American educational journey by enrolling to Green River College in Washington state to earn my two-year associate’s degree. Then, I transferred to Columbia University in New York City to continue pursuing the final two years of my bachelor’s degree.
I would consider myself an okay student in high school; however, I was deeply involved in a lot of extracurriculars (student council, theatre, school newspaper, debate, you name it). I made my decision to start with community college since I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life (therefore I couldn’t choose which university to enroll in) and that it would be more financially bearable for me (community college fares at $10,000 per year, compared to the average $45,000 of a state university or $70,000 of a private university). When I came out with that decision to my friends, they expressed their dismay. “With your extracurriculars you should’ve enrolled in a four-year!” “You can’t go to an elite university after community college!” “You’re smarter than community college!”
“You’re smarter than community college.”
Notice the toxicity of the phrase, expecting that community college is only reserved for the less intelligent. Later, I found out that making the most of community college requires a kind of competency that you won’t get in a more homogeneous, elite school.
For starters, I was exposed to a diverse array of people in community college. The first person I talked to in my first class was a highschooler—enrolling in college-level classes at Green River thanks to Washington state’s running start initiative. I met a former lawyer in his 40s who’s switching gears to a career in aviation—in an acting class. There’s a significant population of international students in the college (roughly 20% of the full time students) which allows me to interact with students from all over the globe with differing levels of assimilation to the U.S. education system. The college also has a significant population of Indonesian students (our chat group has about 80 people at one point) which helped keep me grounded to my roots.
The way this smorgasbord of experiences interacted in class and outside of class is what makes community college so exciting. I constantly learned from my friends about how it feels to be a first-generation, low-income American college student, or, in some cases, arriving in the States without knowing a single word of English. I was constantly challenged by different points of views from different people I meet. My biggest takeaway from community college is that every person has a story, and that there must be a reason why people believe in a certain point of view. In community college, I get to listen to these stories and understand the lives of people whose experiences differ wildly from each other.
When I started community college, I’ve always expected myself to transfer to a large in-state 4-year university. However, since I want to explore the humanities as well, I started to look for schools from out of state. One of my options was one of the Ivy League schools. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to transfer into one of America’s top-ranked schools. Thankfully, my advisor encouraged me to aim high. I started considering more top-ranked schools—including Columbia University, a highly-ranked private school on the East Coast—and started working hard on my applications, hanging on to that small possibility that I’m going to get into one of them. As it turned out, I was accepted. When I found out, I called all my friends and family. I was ready for my new life.
“I was ready for a new life.”
When I first walked through Columbia’s gates, I can already imagine the boys in Dead Poets Society talking about Shakespeare in their classes. The reality is not a far cry from that. The curriculum itself is already a marker of traditionality; to graduate from the undergraduate college, I have to take one year of literature, one year of philosophy, one semester of art, and one semester of music, all of that with a focus towards western culture.
It was initially not a smooth adjustment; I had to catch up with Columbia’s emphasis on humanities and the hundreds of pages of reading. I had to keep up with a Columbia student’s culture of making their arguments heard and backing them up with references. I had to switch gears to focusing on my career post-college. But most of all, I had to adapt to the people of Columbia. The people I meet in my classes mostly come from an American/international high school background who has interned and/or did research during their summers. I don’t really get to experience the backgrounds I experienced in community college. As a result, I befriended multicultural and international friends, reminding me of the ones I made in community college.
I was significantly challenged at Columbia, just like community college. However, it’s a different kind of challenge. Here, I am challenged to adapt to the traditional American university—whether it comes in the form of discussing classical music with my boarding school-educated peers or worrying about missing out on well-known college traditions. At community college, I was challenged to navigate differences; at Columbia, I was challenged to keep up with tradition.
“At community college, I was challenged to navigate differences; at Columbia, I was challenged to keep up with tradition.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to both community college and Columbia, and my preferences for either schools vary from time to time. Despite all that, what I learned is that the international student experience, even in the United States, varies wildly depending on which university you go to. Transferring from two different schools not only gives me the advantage of money and time, but it also allows me to explore the two different fabrics of the American education system. My experience would be way more different if I decided to transfer to a liberal arts college, or a large state university. However, transferring still gives me a chance to assimilate into two different expanses of American education.
The landscape is still constantly changing; at Columbia, there is a push to diversify the western-centric Core Curriculum, aiming at dismantling the elite gatekeeping of the “Ivy League.” Community college is also opening doors to deliver opportunities that used to be exclusively available in four-year universities, such as research. However rapidly shifting universities are, it’s important to note that American higher education is not a monolith, and your experiences can vary differently based on which university you enroll to. Transferring from community college to Columbia is not an easy task (both before and after the transfer process), but the things I learned while assimilating to these different environments is rewarding in itself.
Back to the question of the American university; through my experiences, I learned that there is no single American university. Through the different paths you take, you have the freedom to choose your own American college experience.
Patricia Kusumaningtyas is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Columbia University studying computer science. Having previously interned at Gojek and Kompas, she is interested in the intersection between tech, art, education, and language. Send her your follow-up questions or art recommendations at email@example.com.