On the eve of departure …

It is the eve of departure. The departure of the Global Perspectives Program Class of 2019. This trip will provide each of us with a unique experience that brings together students across disciplines who have a common interest – that of learning about higher education from a global perspective. I am very excited to begin this new adventure that I am sure will teach me a lot about myself, my peers, and about higher education in Europe. I feel immensely appreciative to have been provided this opportunity and look forward to embracing as many experiences as possible while abroad. As I prepare for a career in academia, I am particularly interested in learning more about the differences between American and European higher education systems and how each system can complement the other. Having the opportunity to interact with colleagues from several other universities and learn first-hand of their individual and collaborative experiences is exciting! Additionally, I look forward to learning more about my peers travelling with me – what their research interests are, what they do for fun, how their previous experiences differ, what their career aspirations are, etc. I anticipate many meaningful conversations that I am sure will leave lasting impressions on me and will further culminate my interest in and understanding of global practices in academia.

It is the eve of departure. And while I may be a little nervous, I once heard that “if we were meant to stay in one place, we would have roots, not feet.” So “alpaca” my bags and let my feet lead the way to a great adventure.

Surprises About Switzerland

It was very interesting to learn about Switzerland at our last GPP meeting from citizens. There were many things that were discussed that surprised me, though I think the fact that surprised me the most concerned how the Swiss government is structured. More specifically, the three political levels include: (1) federal/confederation, (2) 26 cantons, and (3) 2721 municipalities/communes. There is a decentralized division of power, where issues are solved at the lowest level possible. The government is also run on the basis of solidarity, where fiscal transfers occur from richer to poorer regions.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the government system is that the President changes every year! The President is a member of a 7-person cabinet, where each cabinet member is elected by the 2 chambers of parliament (coming from 4 different parties, as opposed to our two party system in the United States). These members go up for re-election every 4 years, where most members will be continuously reelected until they choose to retire. Cabinet members may retire within a given 4-year term, at which instance, an election is held to fill that one position. I was also surprised that there were no term limits for cabinet positions and that the only requirement to serve on the cabinet is that you are 18 years old, though nobody has ever been elected when that young.

The President is one of the 7 cabinet members. Typically, who becomes the President is based on seniority. After serving for one year, the next senior member tends to take over as President. A major difference between the President in the United States and the President of Switzerland is that the President of Switzerland has very little power in and if him/herself. Their major job is to lead all of the cabinet meetings and to welcome any foreign delegates visiting Switzerland. Additionally, members of the cabinet are not allowed to discuss their own personal views on political matters – they are expected to stand for the views of the political party, regardless of their own personal opinions on different matters. In fact, they can get in trouble if they make statements that do not directly align with their political party’s. This is in stark contrast to the political opinions of politicians in the United States – where people tend to fall within one party or another, but most politicians do not hesitate to express their person opinions on given matters, regardless of how well it may align with their party’s view. There seems to be a lot more “gray” area in American politics.

Overall, our government and the Swiss government appear to be very different on many levels. It will be very interesting to learn more and see first-hand what these differences are and how politics does, or does not, affect higher education in Switzerland (France and Italy too)!

US Higher Education

I am 30 years old, and I have been in “college” since I was 18 (with less than 1 year break somewhere in the middle). This is my 11 year in higher education within the United States system. One might say that this amount of time in “the system” makes me knowledgeable. Perhaps, in some ways, I am. However, I still learn more and more about the United States system every day.

Wikipedia defines higher education in the United States as “ … an optional final stage of formal learning following secondary education. Higher education, also referred to as post-secondary education, third stage, or tertiary education, occurs most commonly at one of the 4,360 Title IV degree-granting institutions, either colleges of universities in the country. These may be public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or for-profit colleges. Higher education in the United States is loosely regulated by a number of third-party organizations that vary in quality.”

This definition, even, has taught me something new about higher education in the United States. I did not know what Title IV meant, so I googled it. Title IV refers to a portion of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that talks about federal student financial aid programs. As discussed in a previous reflection, higher education in the United States is IMMENSELY expensive. People spend decades paying off federal and private loans that payed for their higher education. While I have been very fortunate in that I have received scholarships, fellowships, and grants that have covered 100% of my higher education (bachelors, masters, and doctoral), I fully recognize that this is not the norm. My wife is in a lot of debt from her undergraduate degree, and we are now accruing more debt as she pursues a doctorate in physical therapy. Her debt is becoming mine, which makes me more and more (painfully) aware at the stress that debt causes.

Currently, 44 million people collectively owe $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt in the United States (Forbes 2018). One. Point. Five. TRILLION. Dollars. Sheesh – it is hard to comprehend this. And, the average person who owes student loan debt, owe nearly $40,000! It is depressing. We go to college to get an education so that we can get a job and support ourselves (and sometimes others). But, we continue to drag the ball and chain of a huge amount of debt long after we “finish” our degree. Something needs to change. Education reform needs to happen. How do you fix this? I do not know. Maybe a few more years in higher education will give me the answers. LOL.

That all said, I am greatly appreciative of my education and the opportunities it has presented to me. I have been fortunate and have had numerous excellent experiences. But … I am not personally in debt.

European Higher Education

Last weekend, I was visiting with my family in Richmond. Our neighbors, a nice couple in their late 70s, are good friends of ours. Dr. Bergland is a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) who has traveled the world. He told me that, based on his experiences abroad, it seemed like European universities were trying to adopt a more American approach to graduate education. For example, he mentioned that graduate students do not appear to get as much one-on-one time and attention from their advisors, which sometimes leads to discontent among graduate students who feel they still have a lot to learn. He also mentioned that many graduate students in Europe do not have committees – they are solely advised by one advisor. The benefit of having a committee, as opposed to one advisor, is that you have more direct access to a number of researchers with various areas of expertise that you can utilize for your Master’s degree and/or dissertation.

That all said, it seems like we (in America) would like to adapt more European qualities prevalent in higher education. For example, the Bologna Process, signed in 1999, helped make higher education much more affordable for anyone attending university in the 19 countries that signed. In Europe, higher education is heavily subsidized by local governments; thus, higher education costs range from free to the equivalent of a couple hundred dollars per semester. Additionally, graduate students are also considered employees and are payed as such (with benefits). In high contrast, higher education in the United States costs upwards of $25,000/year (at more “reasonably” priced universities), which puts people in thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt. It seems that people are told that to get a “good” job and make “good” money, one must obtain at least a bachelor’s degree. However, to go to college, we spend a huge amount of money and often end up in debt that takes decades to pay off. Higher education is becoming more and more of a “required luxury” so to speak in the United States. We need to go to make money, but we will be paying for it for the rest of our lives. Furthermore, in the United States, graduate students make little if any money, are provided limited (if any) benefits, and often have to pay their tuition (even if it is “research” hours).

While these are only two areas that strongly differ between higher education in the US and higher education in Europe, it appears that perhaps a compromised approach to higher education is mandated. The European models perhaps should add more emphasis on post-bachelorette instruction, while the American model needs to determine how to make higher education more affordable. Perhaps if more students and more universities create and participate in programs such as Virginia Tech’s Global Perspectives Program, a happy medium can be created using the strengths of both approaches and improving upon the weaknesses of both. I will be very interested to learn more about these differences, and I am sure countless others, while I am abroad this summer. I am especially interested in learning more about diversity-related issues in Europe, mental health awareness, and approaches to disrupting academic bullying.