After getting a green light from the US Embassy in Tallinn, I started preparing myself mentally for the university life in the States. Since my priorities are clearly in tact, I decided to re-watch Gilmore Girls. Rory’s life in Yale was exactly what I expected from my program as well. (Pardon, #nerdalert). Clearly, a summer program is nowhere near to being enrolled for full degree studies, but compared to Europe my experience was sure to be iconically American as well.
Since my program took place in Boston, it held even more significance. Boston, being one of the most sacred cities of education in the world, hosts significant universities as MIT (officially the best university in the world!) and Harvard. Essentially this means that the habitants of Boston are largely the ultimate educational elite of both the USA and the world — the city is full of scientists and pHd is a standard for all the young people. It was unbelievable how many astrophysicists I met throughout the summer. Can you imagine, interstellar chemistry was a normal small talk topic to discuss over a drink! I don’t know a single astrophysicist in Estonia. Living in this bubble of science seemed like a completely new universe for me and I enjoyed every moment of it.
I spent my weeks in a public school, at University of Massachusetts Boston. By American standards it is quite an average school, despite the fact that the tuition exceeds $30 000 per year. As a comparison, Harvards tuition is about $56 000 and the best universities in Europe, like Oxford and Cambridge charge around $30-35 000. For me it is still unclear why would anyone pay this much for mediocrity, yet there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of students anywhere in the States. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful — my summer at UMASS Boston was full of vivid experiences and I am sincerely grateful for being given this chance. Yet I didn’t really get the impression as if the tuition and quality of education would be in sync in there. Even in my program, what appeared to be hard work for local students, seemed more like a long introduction to us.
Moving on to the academical part our program: for a good share of our time we compared the educational systems of different countries and debated over contradictory topics like free higher education vs charging a tuition, public schools vs private schools, vocational training vs higher education, sciences vs soft skills etc. The Americans clearly supported charging a tuition for education and didn’t seem to even try to understand how do we, European hippies and anarchists, actually benefit from offering education for free. Debates themselves were interesting and thought-provoking. Even I had to admit that the most important aspect of education is not its price tag, but quality. Yet it seemed that despite the high tuitions, American universities do not really compare to the quality of education that we receive here in Europe; except the few elite school, of course.
But so much about education. It was a completely unique cultural experience to live in UMASS dorms. The university has a humongous American-style university campus, where everything you could ever need was available right in the campus. Essentially you didn’t even have to leave the university, since cafes-gyms-shops-bookstores-restaurants-pools-yacht clubs-museums were part of the enormous UMASS campus. Residence halls - two 10-story tower buildings - had been opened just this summer, thus we were some of the first residents of the dorms. Rooms were quite simple, being furnished with a bed, desk and a chair, a dresser and a mirror and included a small bathroom. I, as an introverted Estonian, was quite happy to learn that we were accommodated in private dorm rooms, so I could easily hide myself from people when I got tired of interaction. And when you have live together with 20 strangers for more than a month, then you can be sure, that you will need to hide yourself every once in a while.
Yet despite the challenges of communal living, mornings in the campus were incredibly convenient. In order to reach the classroom, we simply had to walk over to the next building, with a warm coffee cup slowly waking us up. However walking over to the next building was not always that fast. Due to the size of the campus, you could easily spend 20 minutes walking from one building to another. There were 3 different bus lines serving the campus. Yes, designated bus lines just for the university campus! This was completely unheard of for us, European students. For those who didn’t enjoy the summer heat, it was also an option to move between different buildings through glass tunnels. Terrible navigator as I am, I was constantly confused by the tunnels and whenever I would walk around on my own, it would be sure that I will get lost. I finally memorised my routes by the last week of my stay. Well that’s still a personal victory, right?
However the most important part of university life in Boston for me was experiencing the general educational vibe. Boston is a university city in its most direct meaning - it hosts an insane number of 35 different universities and a big share of the population is made up of students. The city also welcomes a lot of foreign students, including Europeans. Even some Estonians! I met an incredible Estonian woman Kertu who’s currently in a PhD program in Boston. It was refreshing to be amongst people with such high standards that even I started considering going for PhD one day. By the end of the summer I also stayed at another university in Florida, however the attitudes and university spirit wasn’t even comparable to the high energy in Boston. So if one day I should consider the United States as an option for continuing my educational path, then Boston would be my first choice.