American College Student Life

I. American Student Life

Many students here in China are intensely interested in all aspects of life in the United States.  I will begin this part of my blog with student life, since that is the first aspect of America life an exchange student will face in America. At-the-Columns02 According to my observations and experience, student life varies from place to place to some degree, so that some feature of what I will describe may be non-existent at one university, but very significant at another. I will describe what I perceive to be the generic case. Even using this concept as my approach to this subject, there are several overarching factors that shape the particular aspects of student life on a given campus. The first factor to bear in mind is whether the student is an undergraduate or a postgraduate. If we are considering undergraduates, the next level of consideration is whether the student is a traditional student (17-24 years old, living on or near campus) or a non-traditional student (a commuter, a married student, an older student, or a combination of these).

College Life for the Traditional American Undergraduate Student.

Class-related activities.

37 Students are expected to actively participate in the class session by 1) coming to class prepared for the topic to be discussed, 2) paying attention, 3) thinking about the material being presented, and 4) formulating their own understanding of the subjects. This expresses itself by students taking careful notes, accurately paraphrasing the subjects presented; asking pertinent questions and answering questions the teacher poses as the lesson is being taught; and achieving a sufficient command of the subject matter to be able to use the principles presented to solve practical and real or hypothetical problems that relate to the subject being presented. The student should be able to independently solve complex problems that require the appropriate application of several principles simultaneously. The basic strategy used by most American professors is to require students to step beyond the material used to teach the subject matter and to demonstrate an ability to critically analyze pertinent situations and use learned principles to solve problems. Basically, the philosophy is, “anyone can memorize text and lecture material, but to understand it, one must be able to solve issues that were not specifically presented in class or text books.

Students are expected to take on progressively more sophisticated individual and team projects as they advance from year to year in their studies. Some examples of these types of projects include writing short documents about the concepts discussed in class, term papers (a longer, well-researched document concerning some topic pertinent to the material presented in class), a team project with an oral and written report of the team’s work and outcomes, and so forth. These projects are important supplements to the lectures and texts in that they give students the opportunity to learn how to use the knowledge that has been gained in increasingly powerful ways and to learn from each other in the process. The ability to think critically and to solve practical problems is very highly prized.

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Additionally, many academic programs in the United States offer opportunities for students to be engaged in research as undergraduates, and some degree programs require the completion of an undergraduate research project and publication or formal presentation of the research outcomes to fulfill the degree requirements. Likewise, many academic programs arrange for students to do internships with organizations and/or businesses in the student’s field. These provide students with additional practical knowledge within the field of study. Some programs require completion of an internship before graduation.

Extracurricular activities. Most American Universities have a Division of Student Life (or something with a similar name) that, among many other services to students, provides many opportunities for learning outside the classroom and for social activities. Traditional students benefit from the many learning opportunities outside the classroom. To be the best possible citizens, students are offered the opportunity to gain leadership experience, engage in service learning, as well as to engage in social activities. Many studies indicate that student success in college is highly correlated with how deeply they become engaged in activities on campus, especially with other students and faculty and the sooner they do so, the better. Therefore, I strongly recommend becoming as involved in student life on campus as possible while being careful to allocate enough time to class work and study. Remember, as a student of the institution, you are entitled to freely participate in any program operated for the benefit of students.

Student Life (and often Student Government) sponsor concerts, shows, dances, and other events that appeal to students throughout the year. The cost of these events is free, or very nearly free, to students and these offer many opportunities for fun and often educational activities for students.


There are numerous opportunities for students to enjoy educational and entertaining events scheduled by academic departments (in which students and faculty from those departments conduct seminars, recitals, and exhibits). These are excellent opportunities for international students to experience western culture and artistic expression.


A very large number of student organizations exist on American university campuses, largely to promote extracurricular learning and leadership development.

Clubs and other student organizations.

Many types of student organizations exist, and they offer students a rich variety of activities in which to participate. Some organizations focus of academic major enrichment — for example, German club, chemistry clubs, theatre clubs, Block and Bridle, dance clubs, poetry clubs, international students clubs, political science clubs, etc. Practically every degree program will have a student club with a faculty advisor for that major. The clubs sponsor programming that is of particular interest to students in the major and builds connections to similar clubs in other universities nationally and internationally. Another type of student organization is devoted to learning more about gender, ethnicity, religion, politics, or anything that a group of students think is interesting. An especially valuable student program is the American Democracy Project (a student organization designed to encourage informed and thoughtful citizenship). If this program is operating on your campus, it is open to anyone and it is an exceptionally valuable activity, regardless of one’s major.

Other kinds of student clubs focus on elevating the visibility and celebrating the diversity of minority groups or other kinds of special interest groups. The clubs develop programming to heighten campus and community awareness of the customs, traditions, and values of the people the club represent or seek to understand better. The activities of these groups increase the cultural diversity and variety of the campus and so are of particular value to campus life. Some examples of kinds of activities these clubs offer are: Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) by the Chinese Student Association, Cinco de Mayo by the Mexican Student Association, and Sakura Festival by the Japanese Student Association.


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On-campus Entertainment

As stated above, Student Life (and often Student Government) sponsor concerts, shows, dances, and other events that appeal to students throughout the year. A special kind of on-campus educational entertainment is the intramural athletic program. Students can organize athletic clubs in virtually any kind of sport and compete with other student teams in that sport. Campuses offer a large variety of intramural sports competitions to encourage a large number of students to participate.


Almost all colleges and universities participate at some level of intercollegiate athletic competition. These competitions are regional or national in scale. Although only direct participation in the sports is limited to students who have been recruited or selected for their talent in the particular sport, the full set of activities surrounding the competition season for each of the school’s intercollegiate athletic sports offerings a huge amount of entertainment and engagement opportunity of all students.


Experiential Learning

Most American universities and colleges offer many ways to enhance one’s knowledge and experience under a variety of activities that are considered experiential education. Studies have demonstrated that actively engaged students learn more and more useful information, which is retained by the learner much longer than information gained by passive, didactic teaching. As Kǒng Fūzǐ said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” So, experiential learning has many advantages and most colleges and universities are always looking for ways to increase the types and quality of experiential learning programs.

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These programs provide opportunities for student leadership experience, service learning, and service beyond oneself. A (very) few examples of these kinds of activities are:

1. Organized service visits to areas experiencing natural disasters during university holidays. Students wishing to volunteer to help with clean up and community assistance work in such situations are encouraged to do so through organized programs coordinated with the affects communities.

2. Habitat for Humanity is an international program that builds houses at very low costs for persons in need and who have requested the support. Often there are local Habitat for Humanity organizations that work in the community in which the university is located, so students can be engaged in this service learning activity on an ongoing basis and still be enrolled in their university classes. In addition, international Habitat for Humanity projects offer the combination of service learning and international travel.

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3. American Democracy Project.   “The goal of the American Democracy Project is to produce graduates who are committed to being active, involved citizens in their communities.   The over 220 participating colleges and universities, as members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, have been described as ‘Stewards of Place.’  As today’s undergraduates complete their studies and return to their communities, universities must prepare the next generation of citizens to become tomorrow’s ‘Stewards of Place.’” —   This is an especially valuable student program, designed to encourage informed and thoughtful citizenship. If this program is operating on your campus, it is open to anyone and it is an exceptionally valuable activity, regardless of one’s major.


4. Campus Kitchens (a student run service organization to provide meals for people who are place bound or need help). Campus Kitchen uses surplus food from campus facilities and local participating restaurants and grocery stores, and students (after training to comply with food handling and preparation health and safety standards) use the fresh food to prepare balanced and healthy meals that other students deliver the meals to the recipients.

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5. Student affiliate clubs with community service clubs such as Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary These groups develop service programs and conduct them in the community, as well as international service projects. For example, club responses to Earthquakes and floods in Pakistan, India, Haiti, and Chile in recent months.

6. Volunteer and intern opportunities with local volunteer and public service agencies, such as schools, parks, museums, hospitals, etc. Many of these activities require training and certifications for some kinds of services to be provided.

7. Many area and regional businesses offer internships for students in particular majors, and some academic programs actively work with these businesses to coordinate the placement of students into the intern opportunities. Indeed, some academic majors require a certain number of hours of service in appropriate internships to complete the degree requirements.

Student Work (for compensation). The vast majority of American students work during the academic year. This is a particularly important thing for international students to fully understand because in contrast to almost everything else mentioned in this summary of American student life, a mistake can cost an international student his or her visa status as an international student. Basically, international students can work up to 20 hours per week in on-campus jobs, but may not work off campus.

On-campus jobs. U.S. Federal funded work-study programs provide opportunity for employment on campus for a limited number of students. These jobs include a wide variety of activities, ranging from work in offices, various student services, and research activities, and the jobs are limited to 20 hours per week at the prevailing U.S. minimum wage, usually. These jobs are available on a competitive basis to both American students and international students.

Other kinds of on-campus jobs are available as well. These may be funded by grants or by specialty offices, and as is the case for other on-campus jobs, the maximum number of hours of employment per week is 20 hours.

Off-campus jobs. Many American students work 40 or more hours per week while taking a full load of classes. This is not wise academically, but many students feel that they have no choice, but to work a great deal in order to pay for their educational expenses. Students find jobs in all kinds of businesses and public offices in the community. Serving as a member of the wait staff at restaurants are sometimes among the highest paying (largely due to the expectation of Americans to offer the wait staff members a substantial gratuity (or tip). It is not unusual for an American student to be extremely busy, balancing her or his time among classes, study, campus extracurricular activities, social activities, and work. Remember that international students may only work on campus and a maximum of 20 hours per week.

Social Activities. Most students enjoy very active social lives — visiting with friends, going out to clubs in town, dating, and all the activities on campus. These are invaluable activities that promote life-long friendships and relationships.

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College Life for Non-Traditional Students may be somewhat different from that of traditional students due to a number of factors, such as being married, having children, being older, being place-bound or commuting a substantial distance, having a full-time job, or other such factors that affect time availability and personal interests.  However, all services, and opportunities available to traditional students are also available to all non-traditional students should they wish to and have time to participate.  On many American campuses today, non-traditional students out number traditional students to a substantial degree.  Many colleges establish special lounges to support the commuter students while they are on campus – giving them a place to study between classes and providing contacts for the other aspects of student life on campus so that they may become involved as easily as possible.  Colleges try to encourage non-traditional student involvement, while respecting the facts that for many, the social outlets and entertainment options are not as important as is the case for traditional students.  Colleges often schedule classes that non-traditional students need in evenings and weekends to enable the students to take the needed classes without interfering with their jobs.

Non-traditional students, by virtue of their greater range of life experiences, are often excellent sources of information and advice on these experiences they bring to the campus.

Post-Graduate Student Life.  To a large extent graduate students are more similar to non-traditional undergraduate students than to traditional undergraduate students – due to age, life situations (marriage and/or children), etc.  However, the overarching difference for post-graduate students are the more-demanding courses and the commitment to research and scholarship.  Post-graduate students tend to be much more intensely and narrowly focused on the various aspects of their formal study than undergraduate students.  These students tend not to have much time for the extracurricular activities on a campus.  However, to the extent that a graduate student wishes to be involved, the services and opportunities described for undergraduates students are just as available to the graduate student as to the undergraduate student.

Post-graduate students in America very often are excellent mentors to undergraduates, and in fact, teach aspects of undergraduate courses or laboratories.  These activities, which often provide financial assistance to graduate students, are very important training activities for students who aspire to become college or university faculty.

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