František Bútora: Students Always Have Something Interesting To Say Here
Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, which has larger endowment than any school in the world—a private Ivy League University. In 2010 it was ranked the best university in the world by the University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP). It has graduated eight U.S. presidents, and 75 Nobel Laureates have been student, faculty, or staff affiliates. Its library is the largest academic library in the United States and one of the largest ones in the world. Harvard. For some of us, it’s just a dream, something we hear about from time to time, but none of us would even dare to think it is possible to make that dream come true. Yet there are people like us who dared and succeeded. PERSPECTIVES talked to one of them, František Bútora.
Perspectives (PP): Why did you decide to attend a university in the USA? Why Harvard? What other universities did you apply for?
František Bútora (FB): There were several reasons. Firstly, the majority of the world's best schools are in the United States. Also, in general, students at US colleges receive a liberal arts education, or in other words, a solid general background in a variety of areas while majoring in a specific field, but don't choose their major until later in their studies. I was not sure what I wanted to study when I was applying, which made the US a good choice. Finally, the top US schools have exceptionally generous financial aid even for international students. Need-based scholarships and need-blind admission—an admissions policy toward all students at only a few top schools—mean that in deciding whether or not to accept someone, the university does not consider their family's financial background, and that after they accept them, they give them a very generous financial aid package based on the family's determined need. This means that I will graduate virtually debt-free, and my parents have to contribute only a tiny amount toward my education. This would not have been the case anywhere else in the world. Regarding other schools, I first applied to Yale but then got admitted to Harvard.
PP: What is the process of applying to universities in the USA? Why do you think you got accepted? What are the criteria for choosing the best students of all?
FB: Unlike most universities around the world, American colleges like to see applicants that are well-rounded and excel in every respect rather than those that are already quite accomplished in a certain field. Of course, if you are a self-made millionaire, an inventor, an entrepreneur or Olympic athlete, then you have a higher chance of being accepted. But the admissions office will also consider your score on the SAT standardized test, your high-school grades, your volunteering, extracurricular and work experience and several recommendations from your teachers. Essentially, the application process starts whenever you start doing a variety of activities in addition to going to school, continues through taking the SAT at the end of the year before you graduate, and ends when you apply in the fall/winter of your last year of high school.
PP: What is your major? How are your classes organized and how does your studying process look like?
FB: I am currently majoring in psychology with a minor in economics. In the four years here, I am expected to take 32 courses. In line with the liberal arts education I mentioned earlier, I have to take a class in each of 8 different fields ranging from history through natural science through literature through culture and belief. Depending on the major, there are about 12-20 classes you must take. Some of them are given and some you can choose from hundreds of possible options. What remains are electives.
PP: What is the student-professor relationship like?
FB: Many larger classes are taught in lecture format by the professor, with smaller discussion sections led by teaching fellows, who are older graduate or doctorate students. Some majors like economics or several science majors have most classes that are quite large, while many others have mostly small classes. Intro classes are larger while the courses you take in your third and fourth year are small and tend to involve close personal interaction with faculty. But every single professor is very accessible when it comes to meeting personally with students.
PP: What do you consider to be the best thing at your university?
FB: Besides the amazing classes, professors, campus and facilities, and especially classmates, one of the best things I can think of is the way in which everyone strives to help us students. I have had more than five different advisors who I could talk to about anything, from academic to personal issues. Every professor and teaching fellow has office hours and is flexible to meet outside of that time. The Office of Career Services provides advising on career paths, the Bureau of Study Counsel provides tutoring sessions, and many student organizations help out in situations including depression, alcohol abuse or rape.
PP: Why is Harvard special and why does it belong to the best universities in the world?
FB: In terms of academics and the quality of education, Harvard College is definitely one of the top few schools in the world, but quite similar to Yale or Princeton. What I think really distinguishes it from every other school is that the student population is the best and most well-rounded in the world. The yield, the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll, is consistently the highest in the US, which indicates that since only the best students apply and get accepted, the majority of the best students who get accepted to many good schools end up at Harvard. This is also something that I experience every day in and outside classrooms.
PP: Could you name one really striking moment of your studies so far that you think you will remember for a long time?
FB: In line with what I just mentioned, a great realization is noticing that whenever a student speaks up in lecture or discussion class, they (almost) always have something interesting and meaningful to say.
PP: If you should compare your life and studies in America to those you experienced in Slovakia, what are the major differences?
FB: I can't really compare the school system, but probably besides the quality of education, a big difference is the fact that I live on campus and walk to class every day. I can wake up at 9:50 and still make it to class at 10. The residential life is quite different even from other colleges in the US, since we are all randomly sorted into one of 12 houses where we end up living. This fosters friendship with my classmates and friends who live in my house and elsewhere, since we spend all of our time together.
PP: Do you miss Slovakia? Can you imagine coming back home again one day? How and where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
FB: I miss certain things, especially my family and friends. I do plan on returning in the future, though probably not in the next few years. In 10 years, I see myself having a family and living and working either in the US or somewhere in Europe.
František Bútora , originally from Bratislava, Slovakia, spent a good portion of his childhood in Prague, the Czech Republic, learning to speak English at the International School of Prague. He graduated from the C.S.Lewis Bilingual High School in Bratislava in 2009 and just turned 21, finally reaching the legal drinking age in the US. Currently a Junior at Harvard College.
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