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Watch out for the ‘study abroad’ industry that is luring our kids

When we do something because everybody else is doing it, then it is problematic. It is like getting on a treadmill which is not going to get us anywhere

Written by Shelja Sen | New Delhi | Updated: December 28, 2019 5:12:23 pm
 study abroad, how to plan study aborad, best country to study, what to study after 12, study visa us, study visa Australia, education news Many times, students and parents get lured by fancy brochures and websites, where the acceptance rate is high and the fees relatively low. (Source: Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Over the past decade, we have been observing an alarming trend in cities – the growing obsession of sending our children abroad after school. As soon as they enter the middle school, pressure builds on the parents to start “planning their children’s future”.

Agencies are mushrooming all over the country that promise “a brighter and successful future” for your child. All that you have to do is enrol them into these mightily expensive factories with neat assembly lines of PSATs, SATs, ACTs, APs that will churn them out, stamped with top university labels. What is there not to like?

I think the whole concept is highly problematic if you think about the fortune that gets spent by the vulnerable and anxious parents who are willing to do anything to ensure their children’s future. And the stress on the students who have to keep up with these classes along with their regular school, homework, exams and tuitions. Not to mention the unethical practices that infest most of these “future building factories.” It is an unspoken fact that many of them will write the students’ statement of purpose (SOP), common application essay, prepare their portfolios – ensured admission to top colleges abroad for a price.

In video| How and when to plan study abroad

One thing which is highly disturbing, if not a little amusing, is the way students are being pushed to take part in social initiatives and service so that they can get admission in a good college which looks for students who are socially aware. There is a rush for meaningless internships, shady project work and even NGOs being floated and abandoned after admission. There is something problematic with that as social initiatives cannot become a means to an end – they need to be at the core of all meaningful education and not just a tick mark.

Then, of course, we have so many students, especially from smaller towns who get caught in the racket of fake universities, diploma mills and the subsequent loss of huge amounts of money and deportation.

As part of the research for this article, I asked a group of high school students what they thought universities abroad were looking for in students? “Money,” was their quick answer in a chorus! Jokes aside, studying abroad has become a money churning industry. I also have to state that taking a unilateral perspective on such a complex issue is not fair. The ridiculously high cut-offs for Indian colleges, archaic academic structures and rigidity of their curriculum pushes a lot of young people and parents to consider colleges abroad.
Let’s try to take a balanced view and consider different perspectives. I would suggest that read it along with your children and then do some brainstorming:

Read| Indian researchers opting to go abroad falls to lowest in three years

On the one hand

Education system – our Indian pedagogical system focuses primarily on rote learning and mindless cramming of knowledge. There is not much scope for thinking, questioning, reflecting and exploring education in a dynamic way. Some new colleges in India are doing this too, but they are few and far between.

Choices – most universities, especially in the US, let students take unusual combinations, for example, biology and music, medicine and film studies, computer application and media. It makes so much more sense rather than putting students in iron-clad science, humanities and commerce streams.

International exposure – they get to meet students from across the world, learn about other cultures, languages and open their minds to so many different world-views and global perspectives.

Facilities – most well-known international universities have brilliant libraries, tutorials, clubs, societies, and learning support for students with learning disabilities.

Growth potential – in our culture, we tend to de-skill our children in terms of independent living skills. Leaving home, fending for themselves and learning to manage everything from their finances, studies to washing, cleaning, cooking has a huge potential for growth.

On the other hand

Preparedness – there are some young people who are ready to take this step and there are some who are not. They do not have the necessary “executive skills” (persistence, time management, organisational skills, goal persistence, etc) or the bandwidth to manage the level of responsibilities. Till school, we might provide them with a heavy scaffolding, but in college, they will be expected to manage on their own. I have seen many students who were suspended from college or had to leave as they could not cope.  I have also met many students who were emotionally not ready for such a drastic move. Sense of isolation, social and emotional difficulties led to severe depression and anxiety problems, due to which they had to leave college midway.

The illusion of ‘western education’ – many times, students and parents get lured by fancy brochures and websites, where the acceptance rate is high and the fees relatively low. It’s only after some time, when they have paid up, that they start seeing the cracks in the shiny surface. So, make sure you do sound research before paying up.

Location – one of the students applying abroad explained to me that it was very important for her to choose a university which was in a big city as she could not think of being in a place which was far removed from the hub of life. Very few people like to be in secluded places in a strange country as these places also might end up being more provincial and racist.

Money – for parents who have enough resources, sending their children to universities abroad is a non-issue. And then there might be many who get scholarship or opt to take a student loan as they are getting a rare opportunity to study in a brilliant college that would open up possibilities. But do think through if this option will only lead to draining of your savings and burden of loans.

Herd mentality – when we do something because everybody else is doing it, then it is problematic. It is like getting on a treadmill which is not going to get us anywhere. Most students are just exploring their areas of interest in college and might not pursue it for the rest of their life. Students in science might go into design, or the ones doing law might switch to film making. Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous writer, described how some people are like jackhammers.

They focus intensely on one thing, diving in deep and tuning out any other pursuit. But others are like hummingbirds, flitting from flower to flower – letting curiosity lead them from one interest to another – and making the world a better place by cross-pollinating various interests with their unique contribution. We need more of hummingbirds and not just jackhammers.

Young people who are curious, who are willing to experiment, play around, question and not decide too early who they are, what they want to be and how they want to live their life. College is not going to determine their future and it is not their final destination but just one step in the multiple, crisscrossing paths they will navigate through their lives.

— The author is therapist, writer and co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute.

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