Several years ago, I left Belarus to study abroad. Now I am a freshman at the University of Rochester in New York state and I keep comparing Belarusian and American high education systems.
Looking back, I can say that both systems have their pros and cons. Only individual characteristics of a student can show which of them fits one better.
Choosing the major – early certainty in Belarus vs wide options in the States
It doesn’t matter if it’s the last grade of some “one-of-a-kind” public school with governmental educational system or a fancy international school – it’s the hardest time for many people around the globe.
In autumn or early winter, most Belarusians have already chosen their future specialization and started studying certain subjects for centralized testing, while school students in the U.S. finish most of their preparation for ACT/SAT and take their last attempts to score higher on the test and finalize the list of colleges they’re applying to.
By January before their graduation, Belarusian teens are mostly prepared for growing up: most of them now for sure which city they’re going to, if there are chances to get free education or dorms – and if not, they start searching for the place to live for freshman year.
Americans don’t. Three months before graduation they barely realize they’ll leave home and have no idea what to do with their lives in general.
Putting aside the accommodation issue, everyone is interested if it’s harder to get in the university in the U.S. or in Belarus. Well, you’ll have to answer this question by yourself.
In Belarus, for each specialization people have to pass different tests. The Russian or Belarusian language is compulsory, other subjects will vary. For example, if one wants to be a doctor, they have to take Chemistry and Biology exams, if one plans to be a lawyer, they will have to take English and Society studies. If they decide to be an engineer, they work hard on Math and Physics.
The obvious con of the Belarusian system is that it doesn’t give students any flexibility. If they chose to do Physics and Math – they will have to do it till the end. Once the application time comes (in Belarus it’s late June – early July, when all the tests are over), the student applies only to one place which also reduces their flexibility.
In the USA, on the other hand, most students take the ACT, a generalized test that includes Math, English grammar, reading and science sections. Everyone in the country takes the same exam which definitely increases the competition level.
Students usually enter the university without knowing what they want to do; however, having the possibility to change their specialization several times. The bad thing about this wide possibilities is that future graduates have almost no background formation about different jobs and what exactly people of different qualifications are supposed to look like.
First days – adult life in Belarus vs cozy campus life in the USA
One of the crucial moments in each student’s life is how they are introduced to their future university.
In Belarus, there is a tradition of a “freshman day” which is basically a party when all the first years become students. The day has nothing in common with certain university’s traditions. It’s just a common day for all the kids to feel that they are not at school anymore.
In the U.S., on the opposite, there is an orientation week, during which everyone gets to know about the specifics of education at their particular school; teens get to know traditions of their school and get acquainted with the spirit of the university while attending different sports events, parties or presentations.
By the end of the week, students are required to tell which courses they’ve selected. And, after the introduction week, they’re totally able to do that!
It seems to me that the unity of the American students from certain schools is formed not by social processes but by such a simple thing as campuses. Most universities in the USA have one huge campus that includes academic buildings, sports buildings, catering, and dorms. As most of the students live on campus, they tend to stay together 24/7, therefore quiet the university begins to feel like home.
In Belarus, students’ dorms are usually situated quite far from academic buildings, therefore there is no such unity. Many Belarusian students begin to live by themselves the moment they leave parents’ home. They have to figure out where to stay, which transportation to use and what to eat, while in the States all those things are usually included in the tuition and students don’t have to worry about all those things.
Free time – focus on academic studies vs focus on rich social life
Life outside class time in the U.S. looks like life in a summer camp – everything is PLANNED. After students are done with classes (usually they have one or two classes a day), they have a bunch of activities to choose from. Each university offers hundreds of clubs so everyone can take up something they want to do, from anime club to varsity sports.
American students seldom have “couch-potato” free time, they’re in a constant move with an endless to-do list. Social activities can distract from studying; on the other hand, a vibrant social life helps students develop new interests and maybe determine a future career.
While Americans are busy with numerous activities trying to figure out where they belong, Belarusians concentrate on studying one thing at a time and put actual effort in developing something they would need in their future occupation.
When Friday comes, students all around the world finally can relax and have time for friends. Here, the amount of entertainment Belarus offers is much more diverse. Belarusian students (especially the ones studying in the capital city of Minsk) can choose from a variety of stuff – movies, theatres, gardens or bars. They meet peers from different universities or just people from the outside.
In the U.S., teens from one school tend to stick together and all of the social parties mostly happen on campus. Those parties are usually just dancing parties which don’t actually promote communication to build relationships between peers. Going to those parties isn’t a choice, but a social obligation (if you don’t want to be considered a loser). It makes it really hard for shy people to make friends at college.
Work experience – focus on major vs various side jobs
The morning after the party, American kids wake up and go to work. Most of the students work in fields unrelated to their majors – for example, future biochemists work as waiters, future engineers might do psychological research and future financial advisors might be event photographers. Students do those jobs to pay for their education or simply earn pocket money.
In Belarus, it’s assumed that students should concentrate on studying rather than work. So they would start to search for internships after they get enough knowledge in their field of studies, usually during junior year.
Some students might try to find a part-time job during their first or second year, but it’s really hard as almost all the positions require students to (at least) be in the process of getting the qualification they want to work with.
One of the most important aspects of university education is planning the future. American students don’t think about their lives outside the university bubble until they reach the final year. Only during their last semester, they start thinking about what they’re going to do. Some of them get jobs, some of them decide to take a master’s degree. It’s also considered normal to take a year or two off to relax after university.
In Belarus, as was already mentioned, most students know about their future occupation. And they get down to it (or another one) with their diploma freshly received.
Text and photo by Kseniya Kalaur. Featured image: Legally Blonde/MGM.