My name is Jamie, I’m 18 years old, was born and raised in Guatemala and I’m currently a first-year MMath student at the University of Surrey. I recently became a Latin America International Ambassador at the university, which means that together with Carla, every week throughout my degree I’ll get to tell you about what it’s like to live and study in the UK.
It’s hard to believe I’ve only been here for about two months so far, given how many things have happened since I first moved to the UK, and I’m really looking forward to talking to you about all of my experiences at university here so far, but given that this is my first post I’ll give you a bit of background about myself and why I decided to study at Surrey.
As I mentioned before, I grew up in Guatemala. From a young age I’ve been interested on science and mathematics as well as studying abroad. I attended a traditional catholic school since I was really young all the way to 6th grade. After that I attended a less traditional school called Acton Academy Guatemala, which was a mixture of a homeschool-like approach with a project oriented curriculum and regularly scheduled Socratic dialogues. Shortly after that I had the opportunity to travel to California and start volunteering at a molecular biology laboratory and I later on spent a semester at Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM) studying on their then new Computer Science program and then went on to spend a year at UC Berkeley’s college of letters and sciences studying mathematics. I was very lucky to have very supportive parents, plus a father that teaches at several universities in Latin America and abroad. Without their support, the educational flexibility I had and the insight into higher education my father’s job provided I’m not sure how my life would be like.
By now you might be curious about why I have studied at 3 different universities so far and how am I still a first year student. While UFM is a great university, they don’t currently have a pure mathematics program and since the start I knew I wanted to study pure mathematics, computer science was just the closest offering they had at the time.
UC Berkeley did have a pure mathematics program, and it is well known internationally for it. However, there were various parts of their program that meant it wasn’t a great fit for me. First, most US universities have general education requirements. UFM has them to some extent, I believe every student has to take an economics course regardless of their chosen program. The list was significantly more extensive at Berkeley. There is an American Cultures, History and Institutions as well as a reading and composition requirement university wide (which you have to take 5 courses to fulfill), then there is the 7 courses breath requirement if you’re a student in the college of letters and sciences (the majority of the university’s students are) which forces you to take one course in each of the following areas: arts and literature, biological sciences, historical studies, international studies, philosophy and values, physical science and social and behavioral sciences. Finally, all students students are required to take 36 upper division units in a subject different to their own (given that most upper division courses are 4 units, that means 9 advanced courses in a different subject). All of those requirements mean a significant part of a Berkeley’s student’s degree is spent on subjects that might not be of relevance to the student’s interests and aspirations.
General education requirements weren’t the only thing that wasn’t optimal about my experience at Berkeley though. The majority of my first year classes had at least 500 students (which is significantly less than the 1,000+ students taking first year computer science classes), which meant there was very little opportunity to get personal attention from the lecturers, crowded lecture rooms were the norm rather than the exception, and lectures would often just repeat the same information that the textbook did, just in a less efficient manner. The number of students per class also meant students often didn’t get a chance to have their individual concerns, questions and issues addressed.
Another problem that stems from big class sizes: getting into the classes you want to take can be extremely hard. People get assigned a specific day and time-slot to register to classes, in 3 different stages. How many units, which year of your program you’re on and whether or not you have a disability that means extra arrangements need to be made for you to be able to take the class are all factors for which slots you’ll get but aside from that it seems mostly random. Very popular and/or required classes often fill in very rapidly, and so do the wait-lists, which means you need to have a lot of luck on your side to be able to actually get the education you want.
Berkeley is really well known for their world-class research. But there are significantly more students seeking out research opportunities than positions, and I actually found it easier to find research positions as a non-student than once I was just one of the hundreds or thousands of students applying for them. Finally, there’s also the issue of tuition fees. During the 2015-2016 academic year my tuition, living expenses and mandatory health insurance came out to a bit under $50,000. Given that the UC system seems to think the best way to fix their financial deficit is by increasing tuition for out of state students even more, tuition will continue to increase by at least 8% each year. As an international student, getting financial aid from a public university in the US is almost unheard of, except in rare cases like refugees, some undocumented students and students who graduated from a high school in that state.
Surrey isn’t perfect. There are various things that I wish were different (especially the weather, now I understand why English people are stereotypically known to complain about the weather constantly) but most of the major issues I faced while at Berkeley are not an issue here. We don’t really have general education requirements, during the first year all the modules (that’s what they call classes/courses) for my course (that’s what they call majors) are compulsory, but every one of them is a math class (except for general dynamics which is physics, but significantly more relevant to my area of study than American history). There is a lot of support in place for students and students do have a say on major university matters, something I’d never seen previous to coming to the UK. Every student gets assigned a faculty member as their personal tutor and they’re encouraged to reach out to their personal tutor for help and advice as well as for regular check ins every semester (international students are required to see their personal tutor at least once per semester, I believe). Every student living in university accommodation gets assigned a student life mentor, a student who has been at the university for at least a year and who has training to deal with issues that students living in university accommodation may face. Every year student representatives are selected for every course, and they get to sit in several meetings with university decision makers and voice the concerns and opinions of their fellow students. We also have a student’s union which serves a similar purpose along with organizing social events and being the home to several societies ranging from sports to Harry Potter and any student can open a new society. Before I even started studying at the university I was able to talk to several lecturers and discuss studying algebra beyond what is taught at the university. I get to spend my fourth year writing a dissertation with support from a faculty member and graduate with an Msci in Mathematics (graduating from Berkeley would have taken 4 years without the dissertation and masters). Even though the university isn’t as internationally acclaimed as UC Berkeley is, I actually think my classes and coursework are more challenging and interesting than my classes and coursework at Berkeley was, but my courseload is also more manageable. I’m able to work for 20h a week and get paid, which I wasn’t able to on a US student visa, and my tuition fees are less than half what they were at Berkeley (£16,000 which is $19,874.88 with the current exchange rate).
Anyway, I feel like I’ve ranted for way too long so I’ll wrap up this post. While my educational path hasn’t been a standard one, I hope I can shed a light on how studying and living in the UK is different from studying and living in other places like Guatemala and the US plus the steps involved in between deciding to apply and actually starting your studies at Surrey. See you next week!