In recent conversations with international students, there was discussion about the worth of studying in the United States as they reflected on the darker side of their experience– the incredible legal hurdles they are facing finding jobs in the US, isolation from the main culture, rejection by American counterparts, communications limitations and seeing their friends developing and flourishing in their home countries as they see themselves struggling and shrinking in stature. It was palpable to me that these students were in a process of thoughtful questioning – about their hopes, their expectations and their take on reality and the future. This is a natural time. The academic year is about to end. Some are graduating. It is a time to take stock of their US experience. I had compassion for their questioning and wondering and much admiration for their strength to endure such hardships as they developed into young professionals in a country not their own.
Asking whether or not this experience in the Unites States has really been worth its while is an incredibly important question to ask. For me, it is a critical question for thoughtful people who want to develop a deep understanding of themselves. This is a hallmark of people who will develop into thoughtful leaders. Worth, benefit, value are very personal judgements. Some can be assessed today. Much will become clearer in the years ahead.
Few of us have grown internally when times are easy. It is usually through struggles, hardships and confusion that we come to know where we really stand, who we really are, what we really care about. I love the Chinese word for endure (磨練 – mo lian), which is a combination of “friction” and “practice”. It’s perfect isn’t it, in describing the growing process? When we choose to persist through challenging situations, we are pushed, scrubbed, agitated. And literally we are changed in the process. The art of growing whole is to allow this “practice of friction” to continue only to the point that it does not violate our sense of our self-worth, but actually adds to it. It’s not an easy assessment. For me, the times during which I have grown the most, are the times during which I felt I could bearly hang on. It reminded me of a documentary I saw yesterday about the climbers of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Each person had a clear goal. Each person had trained for years. Each had a detailed plan for ascent. Then there they were, one-on-one with the mountain and the forces of nature. Each tried with everything in their body and soul to make the ascent and stay alive on the way back down. Easy steps took hours to accomplish. For those who made it, it was the toughest experience of their lives and they were clearly changed — physically, mentally, emotionally. Some may question using the K2 climbers as analogies for international students studying in the US. But when I see how much these students have faced, endured, overcome and achieved, I know it is a fair comparison. The courage, the persistence, the risks of survival are real. The experiences are life changing. These students are changed emotionally and psychologically. They become a different human being living in a different world.
Like the climber who can fully appreciate what they have learned and accomplished only when they have left the mountain and can see it from afar, so it is true for the international student who will be able to see the value of having studied in the US, more so when she has left the university or the United States.
I believe the benefits are many. Some are immediate. Others need time to integrate and emerge.
So if you’re an international student pondering this question, here are my thoughts about the benefits of your study here in the US:
New knowledge and skills – whatever your study, it is clear that you gained new knowledge, tools and skills that will allow you to develop in your career or further studies. You’ve learned about these matters from an American perspective which has value right there, realizing that facts can still be subjected to human screening.
Learning and adapting to a new culture – you can not underestimate how challenging this has been and how much you have grown because of this. To be able to sleep, eat, dress, talk and interact in a completely different place is amazing. Simple things like going to a restaurant, food shopping, using the public transportation, became real challenges. You can see then, that everything takes thought. Even the smallest things are a reflection of a cultural perspective.
Beyond either-or – when you successfully adapt to living and studying in the US, you are able to see that there is rarely an easy right or wrong, good or bad. There is difference. When you can see that things are “different”, you’ve opened yourself to curiosity. Curiosity is the main ingredient to imagination, innovation and bridging with others.
Working with people who are really different – so many of you have spoken about the idiocyncrasies of American individualism — how it shows up in the classroom, in your team projects, in the American interview. While it was tough for many of you, know now that you can interact with people who are different from you. You may not like it. It may not come easily. But you can. So in the future, whoever “that person” is, know that you can figure it out, work through it, even if it is insufferable. If you can do it once, you can do it again.
Knowing Americans – the US will be a long-time key economic and political player in the world. Now that you understand how we think, work and play, you will be able to interact with us, negotiate with us, build with us. This is an experience and knowledge that your counterparts, who did not leave home, can not know. Understanding a culture and its people is not about studying it, it is about living and experiencing it. You did it. Ten years from now, when you are back home and about to enter into negotiations with an American organization, you’ll know that we’re transactional, so you’ll get to the stuff quickly. You know what American socializing is all about, so maybe it’s about going to a sporting game or going for a beer. These cutlural bridges are incredibly important to possess.
Knowing your strength – regardless of your academic performance, you have accomplished. You are stronger. You are wiser. You have the choice to be more aware of the world around you. You are now able to see things from more than one perspective. You have endured real life challenges and you have walked to the other side of the experience. Knowing that you can endure is something that will stay with you forever. Knowing that you can evolve and change will serve you when others are stuck and can’t shift in their lives or work. Knowing that you can stay curious will allow you to innovate, create and build a future that is hopeful and optimisitic.
Knowing who you are – while this may take a period of time before you can integrate all your experiences into a new you, have no doubt that this experience has given you the opportunity to know yourself better. What you love. What you strongly dislike. Who are the most important people in your life. What you care about more than anything else. What you hope to achieve in this lifetime. Take the time to allow these queries and wanderings to happen. Keep this channel open. This is how the “new” you is developing. Like fine wine, a thoughtful human being needs time to develop, to “age”.
The benefits of your experience as an international student studying in the US are far and wide. Some are very practical. Much is experiential and human. Whatever your career, you are first and foremost a human being. Leaders are not the technocrats. They are the people capable of bridging and connecting with others. Your ability to be thoughtful of others and be curious about how they see the world; your ability to integrate all this into a mutually beneficial outcome, will be the foundation of much needed leadership in an ever more interconnected world. Know this. Celebrate your experience and accomplishments. Step forward and proudly own your unique experience.