Sun, 21 May 2000

Tracking down the right foreign university

By Bruce Emond

It's time to get with the program, 18-year-old people. High school is now an unpleasant and not-so distant memory, and it's time to think ahead to the great wilderness that lies beyond.

Well, actually, you've left things a little late if graduation dawns and you still have not listed your top five choices of colleges and universities.

What is important is to prepare early for the educational horizons awaiting you. Preparation here also means determining the arguments to fend off any forays by zealous parents to persuade you to go with their choice of school.

It may all seem so daunting, a mosaic of names, programs and courses, and you cannot never find the final piece to put it all together. Bear with it all, do your homework and apply yourself to the job at hand -- finding the college which meets all your academic and social needs.

The task ahead is to narrow down your picks and weed out those which offer lots of promises from those which will deliver you a diploma four years down the line.

It will entail making your way through a forest of brochures, booklets and sundry information sprouting before your eyes. A perfunctory glance over courses, campus and curriculum will not suffice.

Remember, your choice of a college or university will decide whether the next four years of your life are full of sunshine, or played out as a harrowing academic and personal journey you come to hate.

The not-so mission impossible is to hit the books and study up on what is available. To find out more about a university or institution abroad, visit one of their cultural centers here and take a gander at what they have to offer.

Making university choices is always tough. But the responsibility is doubly hard when a prospective student is thousands of miles from the campus and must rely on glossy brochures for information.

First things first. Make a mental checklist of why you want to study abroad, what you are looking for and your priorities. Sift carefully through the data and make some hard but necessary choices. Start pruning the superfluous details; sure, snow in winter would be good, or temperate weather most of the year round might be to your liking, but should that decide if you choose a university in Minnesota or Sydney?

Or can it be found in Jakarta? For those who do not want to stray far from home, INDONUSA Esa Unggul University offers a fully accredited British education on its sprawling campus.

Now is as good a time as any to cut the cord. Parents may be gung-ho about their beloved ones studying at a prestigious foreign university, but they will not be dealing with the daily stresses of campus life. Sure, they are footing the bill, but it does not give them the right to put their foot down on their children's future education.

"My parents wanted me to go to a big university in New York but it wasn't interesting to me," says Darin, 31. "I chose a college way out in Iowa, of all places, which they had never heard of. I liked its open curriculum, which did not require taking set courses, and its antidiscrimination policy.

"Eventually, my parents saw it my way."

Tell them that a college major does not a career make. Never forget that Alan Greenspan, America's Federal Reserve bigwig whose every word is precious to the world's financial market, was a music major at Julliard in New York.

Consider what a major entails. For instance, horror stories abound of anthropology majors who end up washing dishes in restaurants. However, these are probably more myth than the real McCoy. Many employers would be more interested in a liberal arts major, with a solid grounding in a diverse range of subjects and an ability to think on their feet, than a rigidly defined major unable to tell Plato from Play-do.

"I didn't want to do my original major because, to be honest, I found my initial 101 class intimidating," Darin remarks. "But I knew that I could pursue my original interest by taking supplemental courses, such as one-on-one guided readings with my professor, and internships.

"I ended up with a career in my original field, although I am always glad I took a broad range of subjects in the arts, psychology and English. It has stood me in good stead during my career."

The bright lights of the big city may beckon to some, while others will want to let their academic juices flow in small-town havens of intellectualism.

Assuming the trappings of an urbanite and indulging in everything on offer may be fun for a while, but it should be remembered that the first priority is to study.

For those who do not go stir crazy surrounded by cornfields and little else, rural universities make a good choice. They may be removed from the swirling activity of big cities, but they usually offer their own distinct attractions. Small universities in seeming backwaters often support thriving campus communities.

"It was kind of funny to me to find that at my college, far from any major cities, we had a gamelan orchestra," Darin says. "One of the music professors spent seven years studying in Yogyakarta and set it up when he came to the university. There was something for everyone."

Want to be a big fish in a small pond, or merely a face in the crowd? Think about the opportunities offered by a sprawling, student-populated campus, and also the drawbacks. Some may savor the impersonality of being one name among thousands. Or they may wish to walk across the campus and see a familiar face at every turn.

The overall curriculum may be more diverse at a major university, but more select choices often can be found on small campuses. A specialized major in environmental or women's studies may be limited to a particular school, and renowned experts in the field often flock together on one campus. Study up on what is on offer in your field of study, particularly if you are a mature student out to improve your job skills.

For example, the Middlesex University Business School in London offers a diverse range of courses, including a master's program aimed at developing managers to work in the Chinese marketplace.

Fees are the bugaboo of students and parents the world over. Financing an education, particularly one in a foreign country, figures as a major headache.

Look into scholarship options. Many universities provide athletic and academic grants based on achievement.

Scholarships also are provided according to need. Some schools actively recruit foreign students, luring them with offers of half-tuition scholarships and the like.

Many campuses also offer work opportunities for students, such as in on-campus libraries, canteens, laboratories and offices. Other students with particular language or job skills can help out in tutoring on campus. Wages often can be allocated for tuition or accommodation payments.

Weigh the benefits of any scholarship offered, but also remember that costs should not be the overriding factor in deciding on your choice of a university. A free ride will be a miserable one if the university ultimately is not what you want.