3 things I wish I had known before going to study in the United States

Dear all,

I just returned from a very intense and interesting year at Columbia University, where I spent my time doing a dual degree in international history. I must say it was an awesome experience to be in the USA as a Fulbright exchange student! However, there are three things I learned by trial and error that I wish I had known before going to Columbia University. In this larger post, I present them to you as analogies: the airplane, the swimming pool and the self-service restaurant.


1. The Plane


I made the mistake going very late to the United States. Due to circumstances (read my previous blogpost) I arrived in New York only two days before the official kick-off of my program. It seemed enough, even though I had never before been to New York. But soon enough, I started realizing that the workload at American universities starts to be heavy (and I mean really heavy) from Day One. The readings, the preparations, the response papers, … it all piles up in the blink of an eye – absolutely unlike our Belgian system, in which some students do not care to buy their textbooks until right before the reading period (“de blok”) and still pass their exams.


Having arrived late, it was particularly stressful for me because I did not have a permanent place to live yet and house hunting can be a pain in big cities. Besides, I had huge expectations of living in New York. I dreamed of visiting museums, going shopping on Fifth Avenue, eating out and drinking coffee in fancy places downtown, and seeing the touristy hotspots… Huge was also my disappointment when I saw that I simply did not have the time to do these things. During the entire first semester I had the feeling that I was not really living in New York City, but that I was circling above the city in a plane that was not approved for landing yet. I could see the awesomeness the city had to offer and everybody told me how great it was, but I was not yet part of it. It was not until the winter break in December that I could start doing all the things I had dreamed of. My plane had finally landed! All of a sudden, I felt so much better, more at peace with my decision to live in NYC and finally AT HOME. So here my piece of advice: no matter where you go and how often you have been there before, do not make your landing strip too short! Take your time to come “home” in your new city. In short, do the things you want to do before school starts.


2. The Pool


Having always been a very good student, the workload in the USA still overwhelmed me – quite a shock! In the first weeks, I often had the feeling I was drowning in work without strategies to cope with it. My American roommate told me following allegory: “In your previous swimming pool (aka your home institution), you were always the fastest swimmer. You knew very well how to swim and were always way ahead of all your peers, swimming alone in your lane. Now (in your US institution), however, they have selected the best swimmers from all over the world and thrown them all together in one pool. There are so many of you in one lane that sometimes you are pushed under water while other times, you push others under water. Your previous swimming techniques based on spacious lanes might prove not very effective in this new pool.”


The picture she drew seemed not very appealing and I already started wondering whether this had been the right decision for me. I was quite happy in my “fast lane” in Belgium. However, she added: “You should never be afraid here to ask for floaties!” That one sentence has changed my entire perspective on American academia. What makes American universities (at least the top schools) so different from Belgian universities is the money they can spend. And they do not only use that money for faculty and infrastructure, but also for student support. Universities offer all kinds of support: writing centers that help with papers, psychological centers to keep you mentally fit, sport facilities to do the same for your body, library services (on that note: in Belgium, professors taught us not to bother librarians with our questions, in the USA the first thing they said was: “Ask a Librarian!”)… You have paid for these services; it is included in your tuition. Not making use of them – because you “know how to deal with this” – is foolish, or at least not very wise. Ask for floaties. It will improve your experience exponentially!


3. The Restaurant


Another big difference between Belgian and American universities is the way in which knowledge is offered. In Belgium, you often get the prepared dish presented before you and it is your duty to empty the plate. In the USA, you are responsible to fill your own plate in the self-service restaurant. Most important is to get out of your education what you want. You choose a certain school with specific goals in mind: you want to work with such or such professor, you want a degree as a gateway to a further education/career, or you want to follow a direction that is still underexposed in the Belgium school system… When assembling your “plate”, it is very important to keep these objectives in mind, because you cannot eat everything.


When I started my program, the program director warned us that it was simply impossible to excel in all your classes, in your thesis, in extracurricular activities, in sports, in social contact, in absorbing art and culture offered in the city you study in. You have to make choices in order to excel in some things, instead of being average in all of them. For the major combiner of activities I was in Leuven, it was quite hard to choose a focus. Eventually, I returned to my major purpose: developing a thesis topic precise enough to be feasible, but broad enough to be able to expand on it in the future. I stopped trying to eat everything they offer in the self-service restaurant. That would only have lead to indigestion. Selecting the tastiest bites for you and enjoying them to the fullest is a much better experience than leaving the table with a figurative stomachache.


I hope this helps a little 🙂


Enjoy your experience to the fullest!



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1 Comment

  • This is a great succinct analysis of the differences between continental and US (elite) universities of which one ought to be mindful. Thanks Sara!

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