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Taking Nothing For Granted
November 23, 2014

From the Field


I recently invited two of our top scholarship students to spend a weekend at my home in Chiang Mai, where I could treat them to special activities tailored to their interests. One student has been studying French and is a budding Francophile—her, I invited so I could share French movies with Thai subtitles, fresh baked pastries by a local French chef and his wife, and a dinner out for her first taste of French cuisine. The other student had mentioned her dream to study at an American university, so I gave her books for the TOEFL exam and dedicated time to discussing the ins and outs of the American university system (as I had previously taught at UC Santa Barbara), what she would need to prepare for applications, and how to prepare for life abroad. I presumed she would have some basic notions of what would be required of her—boy was I shocked.

In my experience in the U.S., both as a former student and as an educator, college track students are practically shepherded through every step of the process, beginning years in advance of applications and admissions. I assumed the same would be true for our student who receives top grades and even has a scholarship for extra English language studies. When she told me she wanted to study in the U.S., I assumed she was talking about a few years down the line. It was my great surprise to discover that she is graduating in just a few months and, aside from visiting with me, not one concrete step had been taken in preparation for making her dream of studying in the U.S. a reality.

I had invited her for this weekend to encourage her dreams. How on earth was I going to tell her:

–           she needs far more English language training to compete (or at least not feel totally at sea) on a university level in an American university

–           that training would take months before she’d be ready to take the TOEFL exam, after which she would need to await the results, which she would need for her applications

–           most American universities call for applications around October or November of the year prior to entrance, and here we were, already in October, and that

–           higher education in America is expensive, especially for foreign students—we could try to get her grants and scholarships, and student visas do allow for limited kinds of work opportunities on campus…but she would need to think about how to fund four years’ worth of tuition, books, transportation, and living costs, and how would she be able to afford all that?

We hammered out strategies. I told her that her dreams are NOT impossible, but that she should have back up plans and I would be ready to help out every step of the way. Plan A, which was her dream, would be to apply to American universities…but I recommended that she would need to plan on taking at least a year for preparation, mainly in getting her language skills up. I encouraged her to consider applying to community colleges first, where she could first take more language courses and then transition to other general education classes. After two years there, she could try to transfer to a 4-year college or university. Plan B would be to go to a Thai university and then try to do a semester or year abroad through an exchange program, of which there are many. I could tell she did not like this idea, however, her heart was set on a 4-year university in the States. And Plan C was to do her bachelor’s degree at a Thai university and then go, better prepared, for her master’s degree in the States.

I share this tale not to berate her in any way, but to share how thoroughly unprepared the schools serving this segment of society leave even the best students. I cannot say how all schools are; I daresay many of the better ones do give quite a bit of help to their students in preparation for university life. But that only serves to underscore the great inequality SOLD students and their peers face in trying to carve out a successful path for themselves. It’s stunning the gap between where our student stands and where her dreams lie. And we at SOLD push them to dream big. How daunting it must have been to her to have the veil shrouding her dreams pulled aside, and to see how wide the chasm she still, after all her hard work, must leap.

She was quiet that weekend, trying hard to process all the information I was throwing at her about language exams, application requirements, funding, university life, and well…the U.S. is big. Where does she even want to go, exactly? It was a lot to take in.

But a couple of days later, I got a message from her. Today is my birthday, she said. I am ready to make a change. I am starting by committing to really learning English.

I was so proud of her. She has a lot of hurdles in front of her, but she is not shying away. It would be so easy to give up. But she is taking the first step and facing it head on.

And I promised I would be there for her every step of the way.

— Dr. Jade Keller

Education Program Manager

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