The Ins and Outs of the US University System

After living in the US for more than 10 weeks, I would say I have become familiarized with some of the cultural practices and institutions, but there has still been nowhere near enough time to get comfortable with all of them. It would probably have been delusional to expect it otherwise, though. However, there is one major part of my daily life that I really had to get used to, namely the US university system.

Studying Business Administration in Bern primarily consists of attending classes in-person or online, sometimes doing group projects and then writing an exam in the end, which covers all the topics learned in the semester. Therefore, I am used to having a mediocre workload during the semester and a crammed, intensive study period towards the end before the exams take place. The classes themselves are mostly self-serving, the professor teaches his theories and the students take notes. Only brave professors dare to ask questions because they are all too often faced with silence. We Swiss students are not necessarily known for being eager to talk in class.

Having said that, this is not at all what studying in Wyoming looks like. Instead of holding a monologue for 75 minutes, professors want the students to actively engage in class. To force these interactions, in most of my classes the participation counts for at least 20% of the final grade. However, this forced participation sometimes leads to discussions that cover entirely different topics than what the class was supposed to be about. It might or might not be because not everyone takes the time to read the articles that are assigned as a basis for the discussion in class, which then leads to more open discussions. Another difference is the grading itself, and I am not only talking about the letters that resemble the grades here in comparison to Switzerland where the grades are represented as numbers. The composition of the grading is different because all of my final grades consist of at least 4 different assessments. They can be based on submitted homework, assigned case studies, presentations, participation, professional behavior, or classic exams. In my experience so far, this system makes it easier for students to receive a satisfying or excellent final grade, because they are provided several opportunities to make up for not-so-good grades.

After I got introduced into this university system, I dreaded going to my first classes. The prospect of attending classes where I do not know anyone yet and being forced to talk, on top of being a naturally shy person, was intimidating. However, I was not really given any other choice. So, I just tried to make the best out of this situation and prepared very well for all my classes. I soon realized, though, that there was not really any reason to be intimidated. Contrary to my professors at my home university, the professors here do not necessarily aim at hearing a specific correct answer. They are genuinely interested in what you are thinking. There is much less black and white, but rather several shades of grey regarding the correctness of an answer. Despite these positive aspects, the downside of the system is the heavy workload during the whole semester, due to all the preparation. Nevertheless, I do hope that this consistent intensive engagement will work in my favor when studying for the final exams.

Now, the remaining question is, how did I get familiar with this system? I guess it takes a while for everyone to get used to a new situation and new standards in general. For me personally, it helped a lot to be well prepared for my classes. I always have potential comments or solutions regarding the assignments prepared, which makes it easier to actually talk in class because I do not have to think about what I could say. The only challenge that remains is to raise my hand and talk. Additionally, making friends in my classes helped to lower my fear of speaking in public, because they were no longer strangers to me. I would not say that it has suddenly become very easy for me to speak in class, but I am getting used to it more and more. I have also grown to like the possibility of sharing ideas with my classmates and having in-depth conversations about the topics approached in class. I am curious to see how I will feel about the different class structures when I am back in Bern. It is possible that I will miss the lively discussions, even if I had to actively participate in them, too.

Sophia Obi

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