December 9, 2023


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What a U.S. Liberal Arts Education Can Provide International Students | Best Colleges

German national Tim Steinebach says he was interested in almost everything related to philosophy, but never really considered applying to a U.S. liberal arts college. That is, until an admissions officer from this type of college visited his school.

“I learned about St. John’s and immediately fell in love with the idea of reading 200 of the greatest books of the West and discussing them without the authoritative interpretations of secondary literature or lecturing professors,” says Steinebach, now a sophomore at St. John’s College in New Mexico, which along with its Maryland location, has a single academic program called the Great Books program.

Liberal arts colleges offer four-year degrees that are broad in breadth – providing the ability to explore other interests beyond an academic major – and are focused on the humanities, sciences and social sciences.

“The U.S. is the home of this style of education – it originated here. Other countries are starting to adopt liberal arts and sciences education, but we have long-standing expertise in how to deliver it,” says Amy E. Markham, director of international admission at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She says the school currently has more than 500 international students.

Here are four things international students can receive through a liberal arts education in the U.S.:

  • Interdisciplinary approach to learning
  • More interaction with faculty
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Learning outside the classroom

Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning

Apart from becoming scholars in their selected field, international students who choose to study at liberal arts colleges can expect to receive a more well-rounded education.

“We often see international students who were sorted into an academic track early on, either of their own volition or someone else’s. The true gift of a liberal arts education is that it asks students to study widely, often outside of their intended discipline and comfort zone,” says Amanda Barnes Stevens, director of international recruitment for both St. John’s College locations.

Steinebach, who has no specified major – a feature at some liberal arts colleges – says he has benefited from the Great Books program by accumulating a lot of knowledge from all fields regarding the nature of the world and the human condition.

“People would typically think of liberal arts as something very broad to cover a wide range of interests. At St. John’s, however, it is rather narrow and specific in terms of choosing whatever interests you,” Steinebach says. “My liberal arts education enabled me so far to learn from a broad range of fields whilst constantly pointing to what is essential and common to all of them. It barely seems as though something is lacking within my course of study.”

Many liberal arts colleges, however, do offer majors. For international students coming from a system that requires them to pick a specialization from the first semester of college, in contrast, “a liberal arts education provides a more expansive opportunity to explore other areas of study and the flexibility to change and/or combine areas of interest,” says Brett Grimmer, interim director of admissions at Principia College in Illinois.

More Interaction With Faculty

International students may not be accustomed to direct interaction with their instructors back home, but liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller class sizes, which provide more access to professors.

“The close one-on-one interactions students have with faculty and peers, inside and outside the classroom, helps build strong relationships that drive success,” says Andrew Woolsey, dean of enrollment services at Soka University of America in California.

He says international students will often gain foundational knowledge in a broad range of interdisciplinary subjects “taught by faculty committed to their success rather than just focusing narrowly on research.”

But international students considering liberal arts colleges should also be prepared for a learning environment that demands more interaction from students.

“For international students who have spent the entirety of their time in a classroom with forward-facing desks and an instructor lecturing from a blackboard, being thrust into a discussion-based classroom where they are expected to contribute to the conversation can be a daunting prospect,” Stevens says. “However, they’re often surprised at how quickly they pick up on the ebb and flow of these academic discussions.”

Critical Thinking Skills

Through a liberal arts education in the U.S., international students can also expect to learn problem-solving and critical thinking skills, focusing on how to think rather than what to think.

“In many other countries, the style of education is very knowledge- and fact-based,” Markham says. “What students are getting here balances knowledge acquisition with the ability to collaborate, problem-solve and innovate. This flexible, critical thinking emphasized by the liberal arts and sciences allows students to thrive and to adapt future unknowns.”

Another benefit for international students, Woolsey says, is that students at liberal arts colleges often are required “to see the connections across various disciplines and in the world around them, helping to enhance their creativity, communication, critical thinking and leadership skills.”

Critical thinking skills, experts say, can be learned from all aspects of U.S. college life.

“As active participants in rigorous, discussion-based classes, student-run organizations, athletic teams and arts ensembles – even the classic late night dorm hangout – students learn how to engage, to ask good questions, to be respectful listeners and to think and write critically,” says Jonathan C. Edwards, senior associate director of admission and coordinator of international recruitment at Grinnell College in Iowa. “These habits of mind will serve them well in any professional field and in their life and relationships in general.”

Learning Outside the Classroom

At liberal arts colleges, international students will also gain experience through hands-on field trips that can prove useful for future career objectives and opportunities in the U.S. or at home.

At Principia College, for example, the classroom experience could take place at a stream, theater, museum, observatory or national park, according to the school’s website. Most geology classes at Pomona College in California take field trips to geologic settings to complement classroom and laboratory experiences, such as day trips to local canyons and mountains and longer trips around California and Utah, per the school’s website.

“Many international students who attend a liberal arts college leave well-rounded because of the high level of cross-cultural engagement they experience through participation in mentoring programs, curricular practical training, study abroad, athletics, residential life and student activities,” Woolsey says.

And the learning doesn’t stop after graduation. Stevens says students embark on a wide range of careers and notes that some 70% to 80% of St. John’s College graduates pursue advanced degrees at some point because they are choosing careers, such as law and medicine, that require them – “not because they finish at St. John’s and find themselves unemployable.”

The school’s international students who pursue advanced degrees have sought graduate schools in both the U.S. and in their home countries, she says. Stevens also notes that, based on a recent Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study, liberal arts college graduates will on average make more money in the long run than those who studied at other types of colleges.

“A student who decides to pursue a liberal arts education in the States is in for an experience unlike any other,” Stevens says.

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