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What Does Speaking Up Have To Do With An Education In The United States ?

February 23, 2017

This post seeks to attribute the importance of free speech and expression that makes the U.S college experience unique and compelling.

 The University of Chicago Campus - Source:


According to the 2016 – 2017 World University Rankings published by the Times Higher education website, U.S based universities continue to dominate the rankings, taking 15 of the world’s top 20 rankings. Given that the ranking calculations are based on carefully calibrated key performance indicators (such as teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income), I will be hard pressed to add further value towards its refinement. However, I do have a different hypothesis as to why a U.S based education continues to be a unique and compelling proposition for any prospective international student! So here goes. 


The classroom in a U.S University is and remains a safe haven for both local and international students to speak up and voice their opinions without prejudice or judgment. This enduring practice exemplifies the essence of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – where everyone has a right to exercise the freedom of speech. 


I know that this is a bold claim given that I am making this assertion on one empirical data point – my own unique U.S college experience. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is a noteworthy point to highlight to prospective international students because this key attribute has not been widely captured in ranking websites given its qualitative and experiential nature. Yet it is such an important element in my college experience that this liberal philosophy in free speech has shaped me to become a better communicator and speaker. 

Non Native Speaker

Given that American English is not my native language,  I can certainly empathize with prospective non-native international students who must feel the valid concerns of studying, communicating and thinking in English. As English continues to be the predominant language used in the developed world, it is not a surprise that English bridging programs have become increasingly popular in greater Asia and in many developing countries. Parents that have an eye for sending their kids overseas to study spare no expense when it comes to helping them develop this much needed proficiency. 


With that in mind, I cannot over stress that it is precisely because the U.S education system rewards a students’ outspokenness that contribute to the learning of other students, that has inadvertently molded me to become a better speaker and communicator.


Reap the Rewards of Speaking Up

One of the key distinctive aspects of a U.S education is the fact that students are​​ highly encouraged to speak up and express their thoughts. Most professors even go to the extent of adding a class contribution element into the final grade in an effort to encourage and reward outspokenness among the students. This means that class participation will likely make up a good percentage of one’s final course grade (10% or so). From a professor’s point of view, it is also to deter students from skipping classes. After all, one can’t participate in class if he or she does not attend it!


Overcoming the Fear of Speaking

As I reminisce my own personal experience with trying to shake off the discomfort and fear to speak up in class, I realized that what got me to raise my hand and speak (up) was that I feared more of the prospect of losing the participation points! Tip: I would set up this (mental) strategy going into (attending) each class – that is to speak first and clarify any early doubts ahead of time, and once I have done so I wouldn’t have worry about saying anything later in class! This ensured that I would always bag the full 10% of my grades. Easy!


This theme of speaking up in class is not uncommon in the United States. More often than not, local students are conditioned to speak up and express themselves at a young age. And of course this does not absolve all local students from the fear of speaking in public. As a matter of fact, the general consensus here is that public speaking is absolutely terrifying and completely unnatural for the most of us! Countless articles/surveys have shown duly pointed out that public speaking feels worse than death. While this assertion is wildly exaggerated, I can vividly recall how scary it felt to speak up in the beginning during my formative college years.


In other words, you are not alone!


Punching Above Humility and Respect
Given that it is not uncommon for the education culture in many regions around the world to be top down and prescribed, where every word uttered from the teacher is considered gospel and true, it has conditioned generations of graduating high-school students to accept the teaching doctrines wholeheartedly and leaving little or no room for constructive debate. Regrettably, this could be a major contributing factor as to why international students are apprehensive towards speaking up in class, subconsciously choosing to fall back on the de-facto mindset of  respect and inclination towards conformance. After all, why would someone who has been taught to not question a teacher's wisdom for so many years suddenly change their minds and speak up?! One would think: "If this mindset has gotten me so far to where I am, why change or fix it?" This further exacerbates an international students’ tendency to avoid speaking up in class. As the saying goes, good (and old) habits die hard! 


It is therefore imperative that the international student consciously remind himself to be comfortable speaking up and not feel that this act of courage is misinterpreted as being confrontational or disrespectful!


Final Word

Lest to say, there isn’t really a shortcut when it comes to mastering a language except to soldier on (bar the invention of a full-scale language translation device) and build a strong language base as soon as one has set its sights on pursuing an English-speaking based education in the United States (A chapter of my book What’s Next extensively covers this segment on how international students can significantly improve their English skills).


Being able to communicate well in English is the fundamental basis for achieving success in the United States, and it all starts from speaking up in class! So, solider on!

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