BTS Podcast (42)
Beyond The States
American Exceptionalism Myth

In the US, the conventional wisdom tells us that the US academic experience is superior, but is that really the reality or is that the story we are told. In this episode, Jenn talks with Samantha Savage. Samantha received her undergraduate degree in International Studies from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her master’s degree from Malmo University in Global Political Studies. Samantha talks about her experience getting her master’s in Sweden compared to her undergraduate education at Carolina.

Podcast Transcript –

Intro: You’re listening to the Beyond the States podcast with Jenn Viemont. Did you know that you can go to Europe and get your entire degree taught in English for less than one year of tuition at many American schools? Jenn will take you on a deep dive into the many benefits and options around English-taught higher education in Europe, helping to make the possibility less foreign.

Jenn Viemont: Hi, I’m Jenn Viemont. Thanks so much for joining me today, we’re going to be talking about the differences in the educational experience, meaning the academic side of things that students have in Europe versus in the US. So I’m always taken aback when people assume that universities in the US are the best globally. Part of that belief is due to this whole myth of American exceptionalism that so many of us believe to be true. There’s this great book I’m reading right now. It’s called notes on a foreign land. It’s by Suzy Hansen. She’s an American journalist who talks about amongst other things, about the journey of self discovery she found herself on when she moved to assemble. You guys, this book is so amazing. I originally bought the audio version to listen to you while I walk my dogs each day. But I found myself wanting to pause so often just to really think about what she was saying that I bought the hardcopy, too. And I really think her thoughts about this whole American exceptionalism are spot on. One of the things she says is, American exceptionalism has declared our country unique in the world, the one truly free and modern country. And instead of ever, considering that exceptionalism was no different from any other country’s nationalistic propaganda, I had internalized this belief as a basis of my reality. Wasn’t that indeed what successful propaganda was supposed to do? She also said, she was talking about this conversation she was having with one of her friends and what she said to her friend, we’re told it’s the greatest country on Earth, the thing is, will never reconsider that narrative the way you’re doing just now. Because to us, that isn’t propaganda. It’s a truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we’ll never question any of it. Because at the same time, all we’re being told is how free thinking we are that we’re free. So we don’t know that there’s anything wrong and believing our country is the greatest on Earth, the whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion. Wow, a friend once replied, how strange. That’s a quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it? That just it just saw patriotism versus nationalism, and the myth of American exceptionalism? I just think it it ties together so nicely, you know, we believe that universities in the US are the best, because that’s what we’re told to believe. Sure, we have the most universities at the top of the global rankings. But as you know, if you listen to our podcast about rankings, they’re almost always based primarily on research related indicators. And these have nothing to do with educational experience or outcomes. There’s another great book I read by Tony Wagner, it’s called “Most Likely to Succeed.” There’s a read in this book that I learned about the research done by Richard a room, and Joe’s pizza Rosca, when they were, which they documented in their book Academically Adrift. So they wanted to find out how much students were learning in college, they administered a test, it’s not multiple choice. There are a number of complex questions that gauge problem solving, complex reasoning, critical thinking, critical reading and evaluation, scientific and quantitative reasoning. This test is called the collegiate learning assessment. And they found that students learn little or nothing on the dimensions of critical thinking and analysis, complex reasoning, and writing. And further, they found that this has gotten worse in the past few decades. This is so incredibly disturbing to me. Of course, I wonder if what was being done differently elsewhere. Many of us are far more familiar with the problems with education. When our kids live at home, we see the issues firsthand. And we talk to other parents, we see the homework, we see the grades, we see the emphasis on on the standardized testing. Whenever I post something on our Facebook page about what they’re doing with education in Finland, just at the high school elementary level, I’m always amazed by the number of clicks the article gets. As parents, we know that things could be better for our kids educationally. At this level, we have less of an understanding of what goes on when they’re at college, we assume that they must be getting a good education because it’s at a reputable school. So I’m going to challenge your thinking on this today. We’re going to start by talking to our guests about her educational experiences in Europe. And then afterwards, we’ll dive deeper into some of the differences she discussed. 

Jenn Viemont: Today we’re talking to Samantha Savage. Samantha’s an American who got her undergraduate degree here in the US and then went to Malmo University in Sweden for her master’s degree. She stayed in Sweden and is now with international marketing and recruitment for Mama Hi, Samantha, thanks so much for joining us today. I think you offer a really interesting perspective since you had your undergraduate experience at a traditional university in the states and then went to Sweden. So can you tell our listeners a little bit about where you’re from? Where you got your bachelor’s degree? And what led you abroad for your masters?

Samantha Savage: Sure. I’m from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And I got my bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And I always knew that I wanted to study abroad, especially somewhere in Europe. So at the time that I studied in Sweden, it was actually free education. Wow. So that was the main driving point for coming here. Specifically,

Jenn Viemont: Did you do a semester abroad when you were working on your undergraduate degree?

Samantha Savage: Yes, I did. I was studying International Studies. And I did actually was a summer semester at it was insectivore. Chile. Oh, nice. Nice. Yeah. And it was parents, so I definitely knew I want to study abroad, continuing my education,

Jenn Viemont: And so, you got your masters at Malmo? Is that correct?

Samantha Savage: That’s correct. Now, my university,

Jenn Viemont: What was your master’s degree in?

Samantha Savage: Global Studies.

Jenn Viemont: One of the things I really liked about Malmo, I visited Malmo actually, before we started be on the States when I was still in the research stage. And one of the things that really drew me to it, besides the fact that it’s, you know, so easy from Copenhagen to get to, which is where I was staying were how relevant the degree programs are, you know, that you have a bachelor’s degree program in international migrations and ethnic relations, which is just so cool and so timely, and the master’s degree programs to I mean, there are a lot more of those. And it’s, it’s really cool.

Samantha Savage: Yeah, definitely, I would say, even with like the global political studies, the classroom was so international, that we had a lot of students from different countries where we were discussing the types of issues. And they were actually from those countries. So I definitely think that the programs are, are really up to date. And with current issues, international migration and ethnic relations is really popular. And we have so many different cultures that live in Sweden and mom, and especially so it’s definitely something that students can relate to. You talked

Jenn Viemont: About how, you know, in your program, you had so many different perspectives in the classroom, which is something I think is so important, and that students get out of their their educational experience in Europe, especially if you’re studying something like international relations, global politics, international business, you’re getting a true international perspective. And I’m wondering how that was different than your experience as an undergrad in International Studies was your when you were in the US studying? Was it more homogeneous?

Samantha Savage: Yeah, definitely, I would say that the perspectives here are so diverse, that it really opened up my eyes. And I could hear from students who one of the courses that I took was peace and conflict studies, which they also offer as a bachelor’s degree. And we had students who were who were talking about issues that they had at home. So for that, for me, it was so international compared to my Bachelor’s studies where we were more reading and talking about it, where we didn’t really have people in the classroom that had gone through some kind of experience what we were discussing.

Jenn Viemont: I’m reading this book right now. I’ve talked about it in other episodes, because I’m so just fascinated by this book. It’s called notes on a foreign land. And it’s by this author Suzy, and it’s about her experience, when she moved to Istanbul and sort of what learning this whole international perspective did to her own identity and her own way of thinking. And I think it’s just so powerful. When you are sitting next to someone who, you know, is personally affected by by the issues that we read about in the paper or that you read about in a textbook here. 

Samantha Savage: You know, it can really change your life, I would say, yeah, for sure. I think my perspective has really been opened up since studying abroad. It is a life changing thing.

Jenn Viemont: Yeah, yeah. And just such a cool experience. And now you said it was free when you started your program. I know. A lot of the countries have changed from that Finland used to be free for international students, and now they have tuition fees, but your programs are still really reasonable. It looks like your Bachelor’s are about 8600 US dollars a year, but your masters are between 9800 and about 18,000 A year is that correct?

Samantha Savage: That’s correct. And the social science programs are those ones. The master ones that are on the lower side but they’re still affordable. So they’re they’re affordable prices. Is there still quite low compared to studying abroad in the UK or even sitting at home in the US?

Jenn Viemont: So we talked about sort of the International classroom and the perspective you get from that we talked about the cost, what would you say the other biggest educational differences are between your experience in the US and your experience? in Malmo,

Samantha Savage: I would say that the biggest difference would be the teaching style, the learning approach they have here in Sweden, one of the main things is, is a lot of independent self study, or it could be group setting as well, but we don’t have as many hours in the classroom as we did in the US. But you’re still expected to do the same amount of work. So a lot of times we would work in groups together, or you would have to do work on your own, but it would still be considered hours

Jenn Viemont: Was it class time more or less, or kind of discussions? 

Samantha Savage: It’s more discussion, the big thing here is critical thinking and really pushing that. So it is more of a discussion that you have, there’s a lot of reading that you do, and then you’re supposed to bring, bring back your thoughts and critical thinking from that. So it’s really strong in that way. But this independent self study that they do here in Sweden, in general, it’s like that over the whole nation, but it’s really supposed to help you prepare yourself for the work life and to be able to push yourself and to teach yourself, these types of learning approach.

Jenn Viemont: It’s cool, you know, when I even in my master’s degree program, when I mean, it was many, many years ago, but I remember it, it felt like, well, I can do the reading, or I can go to class, you know, it didn’t, it felt like they kind of duplicated each other so much that it’s cool that you have this part that you do by yourself. And then you sort of discuss it and apply it more in the classroom. It sounds like, Yeah, one thing I had read or learned about I think it was Denmark was, but I’m wondering if this applies sort of throughout Northern Europe, is the flat hierarchy and how that affects relationships with the professors. And when you say critical thinking, I know in Denmark, students are really encouraged to bring alternate points of view, even encouraged to kind of argue with the professor would, in that that scene that sort of the critical thinking that they’re looking for. Is that in Sweden as well?

Samantha Savage: Yeah, that’s exactly how it is here. And they, they almost encourage you to to, you know, question what they’re saying. But also, it is very casual between the teacher or the professors and the students. They want to have this open relationship, open dialogue to where there’s no hierarchy and any sense it’s more of peers and less learn and, and like widen our knowledge together.

Jenn Viemont: I would say, that’s so cool. That’s really cool to make that. So I read about something you have the career mentoring program. Can you tell me about that a little bit?

Samantha Savage: Yeah, we do. For the Master’s studies that have two year study programs, we do offer career mentoring program. And this is basically where we link a student with a company here in mama or even in the greater Copenhagen area. And this is mostly to bridge the gap between life as a student and life as a professional, but also to connect the students with companies and to get some kind of experience of what it’s like working also in a foreign country.

Jenn Viemont: So does it involve internships, or is that something that’s separate?

Samantha Savage: It’s an internship. Basically, what it was what it is, is technically it’s internships. Okay, that’s, yeah. And you’re hooked up with one person who is from a company, and you’re working together. And this mentor is explaining and showing you what they’re doing and yeah.

Jenn Viemont: So it sounds like an internship that’s, that’s kind of structured and deliberate as opposed to like an internship where you’re going to be, you know, fetching coffee.

Samantha Savage: Yeah, exactly. It’s definitely structured, you know a little bit about what you’re going to be doing already, because you’re working with somebody who actually your mentor is actually working for the company.

Jenn Viemont: So can you tell me a little bit about the social differences, the group study

Samantha Savage: That they have here, you really get to know the other students that are in your classroom. So I think it Karolina, for me, I had a lot of friends and it was very social, but not so much with the students who were actually in my classroom, but this was here at Mommy university, you really become friends with like the whole classroom.

Jenn Viemont: It’s a really nice feeling that I would say, and I’ve talked about, on other episodes how this can often lead to This is greater sense of connection because you are surrounded by number one other international students, which means that you have this this value, this really important value and also this important experience of living in a foreign land and common, and also your people you’re studying with, you have the shared passion about whatever your study area is. So often, these friendships are on a much deeper level than somebody you meet, who’s just, you know, you become friends, because you know, you’re on the same floor of a dorm, you know, the interests are much more significant. Yeah

Samantha Savage: That’s a great way to put it. And I think these friendships that you make when you’re sitting abroad, this connection is really strong. And it’s something that you keep for a long time as well, because it is something that you carry on with you. And it is they become a little bit of a part of who you are, when it comes to if you’re passionate about international rights are human migration, that you really connect with these people, and you want to stay in touch with them as well. So,

Jenn Viemont: So tell me this, I really, I love the city of Malmo. And I went there, like I said, to visit the school a few years ago, and then this summer, we were doing a family trip in Scandinavia, and I brought my family there, mostly because I had been dreaming about the falafel I had a few years earlier, and had to recreate. But um, can you tell us a little bit about the city and what it’s like to be a student there and living there and all that? So young city, right. 

Samantha Savage: Yeah, I think it’s 35 is maybe the the average age, but it is definitely a young city. And we do have a lot of students. It’s a student city as well, it feels like so that’s quite nice. But it’s, it’s it’s about 300,000 people, it’s the third largest city in Sweden. And it’s really multicultural. We have like 175 different nationalities. So you hear different languages, just walking down the street. But also it kind of has there’s like both skills, because it kind of feels like a big city. But at the same time, you can get from one side of the city to the other by bike quite easily. And you see people that you know, sometimes but it also is, there’s a lot of people out on the streets as well. So it kind of has this big city, not too big city still. But being a student here biking. As I mentioned before, it’s the number one way to transport it’s actually how I get to work every day. And it’s one of the first things students do they buy a bike? Because it’s I think it’s the sixth bicycle most friendly bicycle city in Europe. Wow. Yeah. So that’s, it feels great to see the bike everywhere and to this always bike lane.

Jenn Viemont: So is there any advice you would you would give to Americans who are considering the option of seeking the full degree? In Europe?

Samantha Savage: Definitely. I would say just go for it. Definitely do it. If you’re thinking about it, it’s it’s something that you should just make sure that you do because it’s such a life changing experience. And I think that it really helped on so many different levels, but personal development, but also on your career and being able to live in another country and living with different international. I would say the biggest thing is just to make sure that you that you do it. 

Jenn Viemont: Samantha, thanks so much for joining us today.

Samantha Savage: Thank you.

Jenn Viemont: Samantha touched on a number of differences that I’ve heard from American students who are studying in many different countries throughout Europe. She talks about her experience as an undergrad in the US, and how learning was primarily expected to take place through lectures and readings. There’s a study done by Joy Edom, where they monitored the brain activity of a student of students, not just one for a week, and they found that the brain is in its most dormant stage during lectures, even more dormant than when we’re asleep. We also know that meaningful learning comes from applying knowledge to new situations or problems through peer interactions, research projects, and experiences. Yet huge lectures are still a big part of the American educational experience. When I was a student many, many years ago, I did number of classes where I could just do the reading or go to class. Many students just choose not to go and others attended mindlessly copy down with the professor saying, I think a lot of this might have to do with the general education requirements here in the US. Those classes are usually taken at an introductory level, which is when you often have the big lectures. The general education requirement is actually usually larger than the amount of classes a student has to take for their major. So that leads me into my next point, which is that there’s this mishmash approach to course selection in the US. That leads to knowing a little about a lot at best. Sometimes people are afraid of the European approach. It’s more specialized from day One, but I think that the learning can be so much more meaningful when your core classes are actually related to your interest area and presented in a meaningful way. This doesn’t mean that you’re not exposed to other academic areas, there are always electives and often the opportunity for a minor, but it’s sort of the reverse focus instead of the first couple of years being focused on these genetic requirements. It’s more about, let’s focus on the knowledge you need in this program that’s going to be laid out for you with little choice. And then you can explore other interest areas through electives. So, let’s go back to the lectures versus seminars for a minute. Lectures are used in many European schools too, but many of them supplement the course with the seminar component. It’s true that US schools do this as well. But in many cases, it’s a TA or grad student leaving the seminars even though the seminars could be a lot more important to the educational experience in the lecture. There’s a former Wall Street Journal writer who wrote a book called The faculty lounges and other reasons you won’t get the college education you paid for. She spoke of a study done by the Journal of higher education, and found that the more time a college professor spends teaching, the less he or she gets paid. And this holds true at large universities and small liberal arts colleges. college professors don’t have the incentive to focus on being inspiring educators. So most of the seminars in Europe are led by the professor and a Samantha told us in many countries, particularly the north where there’s a flat hierarchy, students are encouraged to bring their points of view to the table and even debate with the professor. What an incredible educational experience. Samantha noted the more homogeneous student body as an undergrad in the US. As I’ve mentioned before, most of the English taught programs in Europe are filled with students from around the world, the other students expressing their opinions in the seminars and through the group work. It brings us perspective and experience to the table that further enriches the educational experience. All of this leads to the critical thinking skills that so many American college kids graduate without developing. Are there colleges and universities in the US where you can get a great educational experience and develop these skills? Absolutely. My issue is a difficulty sussing these schools out when the propaganda tells us that many more provide this than actually do. And once you do have an idea of the schools in the US that are focused on the educational experience and outcomes, you still have the cost admissions to deal with. These are just a few of the reasons why I’m so happy to have found the options in Europe that provide alternatives to these problems. So thanks so much for joining me for this episode. Today. You can find the show notes on our website beyond the You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And if you enjoy the podcast, we’d love for you to rate us on iTunes or Stitcher. Thanks for joining me.