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Introduction to the 1st Edition of Uni in the USA, 2004

The concept for this website has its origins in a book published in 2004. It was written by Brit Alice Fishburn, who had crossed the Atlantic to attend Harvard a few years earlier and lived to tell the tale. Here is her story...

John Harvard statue

I have a confession to make. I owned a pair of Harvard pyjamas as a child. There are pictures of me looking charming in them and reading Beatrix Potter. My indoctrination in the merits of an American education may well have started at this point, although I am certain I held out for a good many years.

But finally, having spent the better part of my teenage years ignoring parental suggestions, I ploughed my way through my SATS as well as my A Levels, submitted my applications and found myself on a plane to Boston. Now, in my final year at Harvard, I am the recipient of an education that has been considerably harder than Peter Rabbit but just as rewarding. And as the deadly date of graduation creeps ever nearer, I find myself thinking back over the decisions that got me here.

Try as I might, I don’t think I can blame the pyjamas. Even the skilled psychological tactics of my parents were not the deciding factor. Instead I realised I simply couldn’t get what I wanted from England. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and the thought that, aged 18, I would be limited to one academic subject for the next three years gave me claustrophobia. America, on the other hand, refused to let me confine myself. I had to take a variety of courses – in three years here I have studied physics, Chinese politics and musical theory while majoring in history and literature.

I was given the freedom to choose what I wanted to do and the flexibility to go back and correct any initial mistakes (did I really think I wanted a degree in Classics?). The American education offered me the chance both to explore and to specialise – an option that many undecided students in the UK are simply not aware of.

I jumped at the chance to write this book because it gave me the opportunity to dispel several of the myths that persist about college in America. Try as we might, we Brits can often not refrain from viewing education on that side of the pond with a certain amount of disdain. The thought that I, a quintessentially British girl in both birth and education, would want to throw in my lot with a bunch of Americans came as a nasty surprise to many of my friends and teachers.

But what school teachers particularly fail to recognise is that today American universities are some of the most successful and prosperous around. Indeed, when the Times Higher Educational Supplement recently ranked the top ten universities in the world, seven American schools were among them (a certain amount of school pride requires me to admit that Harvard was number one) – and by the time you get down to Newcastle University you have dropped below another 47 US unis on the way. British applicants have begun to wake up to this reality. I am the second generation in my family to go to Harvard, but I am the first to find myself surrounded by Brits who have chosen the same track.

Many refuse to even consider the USA option because they believe it is simply too expensive for them. But the rise of tuition fees in England is slowly forcing people to look across the Atlantic. The excellent financial aid and bursary programmes in place at most American universities ensure that many British students can afford to go, regardless of their educational background or economic status. The recent slide of the dollar puts living expenses within reach. Most students will graduate with less debt than their British contemporaries.

Not every part of the American educational system has been wonderful. I have worked harder at Harvard than ever before in my life. I have undergone culture shock, missed my friends and family and developed an increasingly bizarre way of speaking. I have also made a dent in the bank balance of several very special people. But none of these obstacles would stand in my way if I had to choose my college path all over again. America has offered me something I couldn’t find in England – a freedom to explore both academically and personally, and a chance to make friends with people who I would never have met back home.

This book is designed to answer all the questions you might have about the American college system. It will tell you who to see, what to ask and when to do it by. It looks at a selection of the many excellent schools and tries to give you an idea of what life would be like for you on the inside. But most of all, we hope, it will inspire you to at least consider the idea of America as you begin to make those nerve-wracking decisions about what you actually want from life.

Alice Fishburn

Author, Uni in the USA

Boston, Massachusetts, 2004

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