Exchanging perspectives

By Samir Anwar Butt

The concept of student exchange between countries is not a new one. It is common phenomena in many European countries and the United States of America. In fact, most of the leading universities have made student exchange programmes an integral part of their system. This programme is based on the philosophy that a group of students coming from various parts of the world to a certain university for a year or even a few months can bring about a positive change in the university.

Tracing its root back to World War II student exchanges quickly became popular as they aimed to help increase the participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improving their language skills and broadening their social horizons. The trend is also catching up fast in Pakistan and a number of organistions are involved in sending the students abroad to various universities.

In this regard, the United States Education Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) offers an undergraduate exchange program called the Near-East and South Asia Exchange program. This programme offers the students an exclusive opportunity to study and absorb the culture and educational techniques of the foreign universities.

I got one such opportunity when I was selected for this program in 2007, according to which I was to study the Spring 2008 semester at the University of Montana (UMT), Missoula, Montana. As expected, the experience was amazingly enriching and proved tremendously fruitful.

The University of Montana is a part of the Missoula city and surprisingly there are, literally, no boundaries of the university. Though this is an alien concept in Pakistan but is nothing new in the US where most universities form an important chunk of the society they reside in.

UMT like other American universities offers a number of facilities to students, these include, a recreational center, gyms, a cinema, swimming pools, theatres, cafes, game rooms, dining centers and a market that are open to all members of the Missoula community rather than just the university students. Given that, it is no surprise to see children, older people and families roaming about the campus.

Education in America is a blend of academics and a whole lot of other things. One such example of this is the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana where students get the opportunity to earn credits for courses that do not require studying. Instead such courses encourage the students to develop non-academic skills which are fun but require them to exert themselves and so help in building character and capabilities. A few examples of this are activities like swimming, tennis, billiards, rock climbing, skiing, dancing, snow boarding or even yoga.

However, its not all fun and games for exchange students as the courses offered are no piece of cake. But to make things interesting a wide choice of majors is offered which makes it a little easier for students since then they tend to opt for subjects that they find easy or are interested in.

Apart from the obvious differences between the US and the Pakistani system of education there are certain other that are a totally new phenomena such as the fact that students have the liberty to take just around 12 credit hours worth of courses. However, due to this they are able to complete their bachelors in four years.

A student who is visting a US based university for the fist time might be in for a cultural shock since their classroom environment is drastically different from ours. The atmosphere in a class is extremely casual since students and teachers are indifferent towards each others’ attitudes and so to find students laying back with their feet on the table during a lecture is a common sight. No one seems to mind this, as long as what’s taught is being understood and absorbed by students. Despite the emphasis on studies it seems though that the American students have grown out of the grade point average (GPA) race. They target learning rather than maintaining a 4.0 score which is negatively affecting their results.

Yet another downside to the American system of education is the level of stress that students encounter as a result of which many resort to drugs and alcohol and in severe cases many even commit suicide. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Montana youth aged between 10 and 24.

What needs to be understood here is the fact that as perceived even the American system of education is not perfect and has its flaws. On the contrary, it has many features that our system has yet to adopt and it would really help to improve our educational system if we selectively adopt the positive features of their system.


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