Studying in North America: Cultural diversity across the pond

They're epically large, massively varied English-speaking countries – could a US or Canadian institution be right for you?

At first glance, everything about North America and Canada seems to be on a bigger scale and it can be intimidating. Whether it's the size of the breakfasts or the black bears, there are some weighty things to consider, and that doesn't change when considering committing to that transatlantic flight and studying overseas. It's a big decision to suit big countries, but as many students find out there are a large number of reasons to give study in the US and Canada some serious thought.

First among them might be the volume of choice available. With over 4,000 institutions in the US and 10,000 degree programmes on offer in Canada it's hardly surprising that thousands of UK students chose to study across the pond last year (4,500 in the US alone). However, the geographical spread of institutions and the sheer size of both countries also makes it unlikely that those electing to study abroad will find themselves surrounded by Brits.

In fact, geography can be a major selling point in its own right to anyone from our small island. The experience of living and potentially travelling through America or Canada has real value, suggests Tania Castaneda, director of international recruitment at Rutgers university, New Jersey. "Students who study overseas visit iconic sites, taste new cuisines, try out new things for fun – all of this creates memories that last a lifetime, and a more adventurous spirit for future travel."

Both nations offer astonishing diversity to captivate the curious traveller. An overland coast-to-coast journey across the US takes in snow-capped mountains still prowled by wolves, desert plains that are among the driest places on Earth, inimitable prairies with widescreen skies and national parks perched on top of not-quite-asleep volcanoes. Canada meanwhile is the world's second largest country and packs a lot in, from the mirrored lakes of Banff National Park, the icebergs of the Northern Peninsula or a little water feature known as Niagara Falls (which straddles the Canadian/US border).

Breaking up all that wilderness are towns and cities with radically different personalities, home to a range of educational institutions and offering cultural experiences to suit every taste. Perma-sunlit LA or the iconic bustle of New York need little introduction, but there's the hilly eccentricity of San Francisco or Chicago's breezy chic to consider in the US; likewise Quebec's old town is steeped in history while Toronto's futuristic skyline towers over a tolerant, diverse city famed for music and film, as well as a multicultural population.

Diversity

Diversity is a key word to bear in mind, and applies to the cultures of the US and Canada as a whole as well as to their respective education systems. Language alone is remarkably varied and even the American version of English can prove baffling to Brits asking for chips and only getting crisps (confusion over exactly what "pants" are can also be entertaining). The variation is even more pronounced in bilingual Canada, which has both English and French as official languages – they're the native tongues of around 57 per cent and 22 per cent of the population respectively.

There's also a rich national history to explore beyond the campus. Canada's aboriginal population and culture thrives, particularly among the Haida of the Pacific Northwest, while America's relationship with its indigenous people is more complex, alongside a comparatively recent revolutionary past that can give it a unique mindset alien to citizens of Europe; and that's just the tip of the cultural iceberg.

From pop culture to politics, and movies to maple syrup, there's plenty for overseas students to discover about their new homes. Similarly, students can expect plenty of variety in the academic sphere too. "You need to be prepared to make adjustments," says Castaneda. "You may need to adjust to new teaching approaches, expectations in the classroom, or grading and scoring systems."

A different mindset

While there are broad similarities in terms of qualifications offered, educational philosophies can be quite different to those at home. "One of the big attractions of the US is the liberal arts degree, offering opportunities for breadth of study, rather than the specialisation traditional in the UK," says Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs. Although some universities, such as MIT, offer specific science programmes, many don't require students to choose a preferred subject – or major – until the second or third year of a four year course, adds Jamie Dunn of the Fulbright Commission. "It's great for students looking for a well-rounded degree and the flexibility to explore their interests before selecting a major area of study."

With courses taught in both English and French, Canadian universities offer the chance to brush up on some language skills alongside your studies. "Canada, as a bilingual and multicultural country, offers great opportunities," says Merrick. "It's also currently a good bet if you think you may want to stay on after your studies, as they are keen to attract international students as future migrants." Canada's universities follow a similar pattern to the US model and vary in size in the same way, from small liberal arts colleges and private institutions to much larger publicly funded campus universities. Where the two countries differ, though, is cost, with average tuition fees in Canada coming in significantly cheaper than those in the US.

Of course, cost will be a factor for students going anywhere in the world and there are funding options in both countries to explore including scholarships from independent bodies and individual institutions. It's all part of weighing up the pros and cons, and it's important to be realistic not just about affording your studies, but about how you might cope far from home in a land that can seem all the stranger for being similar.

"Studying abroad is exciting and there are enormous benefits to doing so, but living far away from home can take its toll," says Castaneda. Social media can help students feel connected to home, but there's plenty to be done in-country too. "Get out there socially and put real effort into making friends – join a club, play a sport, go to a campus event – commit to doing this!" she adds, also recommending that students use the international office, if available, to seek out advice and support.

There are a lot of choices to be made and differences to investigate when considering foreign study, but perhaps the unifying factors when it comes to the US and Canada are the personal and professional benefits to be gained from the experience. Overseas study can be very appealing to employers, whether students return home or seek work elsewhere, as it fosters all the critical thinking of university level study along with a degree of independence and confidence that only fending for yourself in a foreign country can instil. Equally, it can be life-changing on many levels for students, whether in terms of the cultures they encounter, the challenges they overcome or even the sports they master (lacrosse, anyone?).

Find out more

Prospective students can find out more from individual institutions and by going to open days – or for those who can't make the overseas trip, student fairs such as The Student World fair (in Manchester on 29 September and London on 6 October) and USA College Day (in London from 28-29 September) offer the chance to meet students and staff from international universities and colleges face to face.

Armed with the facts, it's time to make the big decision, and according to Castaneda it's well worth taking the plunge. "There will be few times in your life where you will be able to fully immerse yourself in another culture and have enough time to savour it," she says. "Assuming that you've decided a university degree is essential to your future, why not combine that need with overseas study that will likely be one of the most enriching experiences of your life?" When it comes to studying in the US or Canada, the only large-scale factor really worth paying attention to might just be the size of the opportunity.

"It encouraged me to grow up faster"

Sophie Wright is from a small village in Wiltshire, and is currently working towards a degree in exercise science at New Jersey's Rutgers university.

"I made the decision to study in the US as I was offered a full scholarship to play hockey at Rutgers university. This meant that the university paid for books, accommodation, tuition and food. I hadn't heard a great deal about the American education system, other than the fact that most degrees take four years rather than three, but after researching and visiting the university, it greatly appealed to me.

I feel that being overseas has encouraged me to grow up faster as many decisions are down to me and me alone. Of course, the most challenging aspect is being away from friends and family.

In the US there's greater emphasis on performance and winning than experience and participation, which can make it very intense.

I would encourage anybody given the opportunity to grab hold and go for it, I've learned a tremendous amount in my year here. Being part of a university full of pride and spirit is what makes studying abroad so unique and special."

"Contact time with tutors is 12 hours"

Sally Crampton studied history, art history and literature at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

"I decided to study in Canada because it had a good, stable economy, the great outdoors and a good education system. Vancouver appealed to me because of the climate, the proximity to Whistler (for skiing) and the fact that it's a vibrant, cultural city with beaches and mountains on its front doorstep.

UBC has a strong YouTube presence, and I was able to really get a feel for Canadian student life beforehand. I would say that the culture shock was actually quite difficult at first, as Canadian students have a very different approach to study than students in the UK. The workload is heavier and constant and your contact time with tutors is 12 hours, which is unheard of in most UK universities (my friends in their third year had two hours).

The best aspect of studying abroad was meeting people. I've made friends all over the world who I still speak to. It also absolutely helps when securing a job – it shows you're able to adapt to different cultures and people, and that you're independent."

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