Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Europe? Part 1: The Audacity of the Question.

[This is Part 1 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 2 | Part 3]

I get the same question all the time. Whether being asked by an American from home, or from a foreigner (or even an Italian!).

"Why did you come to Europe?"

I encountered two particularly memorable incidents at the Universities of Bolzano and Trento in Italy. Let's recap.

Bolzano. Located at the base of the Alps in Northern Italy. I, a then-master's student, am sitting in a computer science lab. For the first half of the semester, the professor escaped the need to remember his student's names by referring to all of them as "Your Colleague." Quite a witty idea, actually!

I was working on a project with a Pakistani and an Indonesian student. The professor overheard me speaking and, noticing me for the first time, decided to talk to me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.
"The United States."
"Ah, I thought you were American. Why are you here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Italy. Bolzano. Why are you here?"
"It's a nice university and a good opportunity--"
"But there are plenty of good places in the US."

Our conversation went on and he grew more and more interested in this American coming to Italy. He didn't forget my name after that and seemed to find other opportunities to talk to me.

Trento. Similar story. As a PhD student, I was attending a class chock-full of international students -- again, I was the only American. The professor on the first day of class asked every student to give an introduction. So I gave my introduction in my American English accent: the content of the introduction was no better than my colleagues. Later on, the professor asks me the age-old question:

"What are you doing here?"
"Well, I completed a master's degree in Europe and I had an excellent opportunity to continue my PhD in Trento."
"But you could do it in the US. Tell me, why not just go to the US?"
"What about the other students here?" [gesturing to the others in the class]
"Well, I know why many of them are here, but why would an American"

Frustration. This simple "Why Europe?" question is loaded with biases and false assumptions. It's weighed down by expectations and stereotypes about Americans and other nationalities. The question itself is audacious. "Why NOT Europe?" Why can't an American decide that there are excellent opportunities outside of the "Land of the Free?" Let's break down some of the problems with this question.
  1. The question assumes that the US is the best, period. We've all heard it. The US is the "Land of Opportunity." Now, I don't want to disrespect my homeland. There are excellent opportunities in the US. News articles in late 2012 cited over 750,000 international students in the US. Naturally, so many wouldn't be coming if the US didn't have something to offer. That's not my problem. The problem is the ego associated with the statistics. 
  2. The US can't offer everything. Even with great educational statistics and an increasing international community, international students still experience isolation from Americans. The same news article says:
  3. A study in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication suggests that many international students are disappointed in their relationships with U.S. students. Author Elisabeth Gareis found that 38% of 454 international students attending 10 public universities had reported no strong friendships with U.S. students, and 27% were not satisfied with the quality of the friends they had made. Students from China and East Asia were most likely to be unhappy with relationships.
    While the US is certainly a place that many internationals go to, it doesn't mean it's international. Europe, on the other hand, better represents linguistic groups and cultures, which seems to make it a better place to experience a truly international environment.
  4. The question assumes that Americans form a higher class. Caste systems aren't implemented in most governments in the world. However, discrimination still occurs among ethnic groups -- particularly along socioeconomic lines. Should educators really write off an African or Asian student as coming to Europe for better money and better opportunities, while questioning the judgment of an American? Am I really just a fool leaving a land of riches for folly? In reality, I'm no better than these same African or Asian students.
  5. The question perpetuates the Rest vs. West mentality. Times are changing. The West needs to respond to globalization in a way that recognizes the growth of the international world. Instead of asking Americans "Why Europe?", why not ask the others? Find out their stories. Understand their ambition. While some might not be able to articulate it in such a romantic way as a native English speaker, it doesn't make their stories any less grand. Singling out Americans or other Westerners just makes us more disliked in the long run.
Now don't get me wrong: had the right opportunity (i.e. the "best" opportunity) risen in the United States, I would have ended up there. But that opportunity didn't come. Instead, I was surprised by opportunities in Europe. In this series, I will try to answer the question "Why Europe?" along several assessments. Again, keep in mind what I said in my reintroduction. I'm coming at this question from different disciplines/backgrounds, so some of the answers might not be what you'd expect.


Zekarias Tilahun said...

Share your view Nick, Bless you!

Ali Reza Ebadat said...

Well, I asked the same question from my American friend who came to EU for his master and stayed here after that. I was surprised to see him in EU when mostly people move to US instead. I have also some friends from other nations in EU while they had similar opportunities in the US universities; but they decided to stay in Europe. Your explanations are reasonable. Now, I can understand the reasons better (at least your point of view was new for me).

Jessica said...

AWESOME part one! I look forward to reading the next installments!

Eric Kwaku Akortse said...

I've actually been asking myself the same question just that I don't think I asked you directly. I did so with this other guy in the Faculty of Engineering. Anyways, good piece..

Casey Redd Kennington said...

I get the same question all the time. But, I never looked at it the way you described it. People ask "why Bielefeld?" and they may be wondering why a U.S. student came here when there are great schools in the U.S., but I always took the opportunity to talk up Bielefeld and explain that the Uni is good, the professor I work with is excellent, among other things.

Le Titus said...

I love this post, Nick. May I share it?

nickruiz said...

Yes, please feel free to share, Le!

Nick Ruiz said...

Casey, I do the same and talk up Trento, but usually people like the ones I've described aren't looking for those answers. Of course, this doesn't describe everyone who asks the question.