By Kevin Wang
To be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa is to take part in a rich national history of intellectual passion and academic dedication. Through a highly selective, merit-based invitation process, each chapter takes into consideration the academic success and breadth of study among eligible students. ΦBK membership is high bar for any student, but is it perhaps more difficult for international students unfamiliar with the culture of higher education in America? Three students who came from around the world to study in the United States share their perspectives and the paths they trekked to earn a spot in the nation’s oldest academic honor society.
For Fangfang Wan (ΦBK ’16), a senior economics major at Cornell University, the day she was inducted into ΦBK was just another day. She had kept up with her grades and knew that she was doing well, so news of the induction was not much of a surprise. It was, however, a personal triumph over barriers she faced as an international student from China. She said that even after almost four years of attending college in the States, her English is still not natural or intuitive. Wan worked to overcome this barrier by talking with her American friends as much as she could and by frequently attending professors’ office hours to discuss phrases mentioned in their lectures that she could not understand.
In addition to facing communication issues, Wan noticed a dramatic rift between the educational approaches of China and the States. In China, she learned to memorize and accumulate knowledge. To her surprise and discomfort, she encountered very different academic expectations in her first year at Cornell. Critical thinking reigned supreme. Though she found the transition in learning style challenging, she rose to the challenge and even transferred from the College of Engineering to the College of Arts and Sciences to further hone her critical thinking abilities and expand the scope of her education.
On the other hand, James Ellsmoor (ΦBK ’16), a 2016 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and international student from England, did not find that he had to make a significant change in thinking style upon starting his education in the States. But he had his own challenges to face. “I think it’s easy to underestimate the cultural differences between the UK and the US,” he said. He noted that UK undergraduate education was much more independently driven, with professors often assigning only two or three major essays or exams over the course of a semester as opposed to weekly assignments as found in most college courses here. Though he thought the introductory courses at UNC were too hands-on in guiding students’ learning, he nevertheless found the adjustment challenging at first, as he says it was hard to estimate the amount of work he had to put in to each assignment, often overshooting the commitment expectations.
Ellsmoor also cites breadth as a distinguishing feature of his American liberal arts education. At UNC, Ellsmoor was able to double major in economics and geography with a minor in sustainability while founding and heading a non-profit to advise Caribbean and Pacific island governments on utilizing solar energy. He says that an education in the UK would have most likely required him to focus more on his economics studies. The breadth of his undergraduate education in the States was often hard to understand for his friends and family back home. “It was a bit odd explaining what I was doing, and it was confusing to them as to why I was doing all these different things,” he said. “But I liked the breadth.”
So did Christopher Dee (ΦBK ’13), a Filipino student who graduated from Yale University in 2015 as a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major. For Dee, a liberal arts education meant learning to question everything, but more importantly, learning how to learn. Upon entering Yale as a science major, he thought he was just going to “tick the boxes for the humanities,” but instead found that his favorite class was a course on the Catholic intellectual tradition. The other humanities courses he took, which included history courses and English writing seminars, also turned out to be some of his favorites.
Though originally from the Philippines, Dee had attended high school in Canada, and English was his first language. He found the biggest disparity between the American and the Canadian education systems to be the writing style. He noted that he had to shift from the wordier writing style of Canadian schools, which he says are still very heavily influenced by the British system, to the punchy style of American writing. Overcoming this learning curve, however, was one of the most valuable experiences he gained from his undergraduate education.
Wan, Ellsmoor, and Dee all had unique cultural challenges to overcome on their way to earning Phi Beta Kappa membership. But despite these difficulties and adjustments, one clear theme emerges: there is tremendous value in the breadth of a liberal arts education. The American education system has its flaws, but the fact that US campuses currently house more than a million international students from across the globe is testament to its success.
Kevin Wang is a senior at Yale University majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He was elected to ΦBK as a junior and is currently serving as vice-president of the Yale Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Yale is home to the Alpha of Connecticut Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1780.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kkwang23.