U.K. students navigate culture shock

| 11/10/03 6:00am

For some students, the transition to Dartmouth has entailed not only the usual adjustments to living in dormitories and doing laundry on their own, but also adjusting to the sight of cars driving down the right side of the road and hearing anew American accents and slang.

Freshmen Sarah Eichenberger, Jeremy Debate and Jason Danker, who all attended secondary schools in London, England, have been exposed to a less hierarchical class system and school system that places more value on the person as well as their academic achievement.

Moving from London to Hanover also meant that baseball is a sport more popular than soccer, and that they would live among relatively "new" campus buildings, nearly all of which have been constructed only during the past two centuries or so.

And also, each student found that others' perception of their true nationalities changed when they set foot on American soil. "In England I was viewed as being American, now I am viewed as being British," said Debate, who has lived in England for his entire life but has American parents.

In general, they spoke well of their educational experiences in England, noting that life in England allowed them to be exposed to greater diversity and travel opportunities than are available in the United States.

Eichenberger, originally from California, moved to London with her family when she was 11 years old, after her father transferred to a new job. The adjustment to the English culture was more difficult than she and her family had expected. According to Eichenberger, the greater class consciousness in England was one of the most apparent differences between Britain and the United States.

Eichenberger said that the best example of the class consciousness in Britain is the structure of its school system. The English school system is fashioned so that the children of wealthy families are able to attend the prestigious schools and are better prepared for the University entrance exams, she said.

In contrast, the children of lower economic households do not attend the best schools. "Therefore", says Eichenberger, "people from the higher classes will become the lawyers, doctors, bankers, politicians, whereas people from the lower classes will never have the opportunity to do that in most cases." She thus concluded that the "British system is one that effectively separates different social stratums and aims to keep them separated."

Danker, born in Massachusetts, was 13 years old when his family moved to London because of this father's job transfer.

While in London, both Eichenberger and Danker attended the American School of London, an international school that followed an American curriculum, which entailed taking the SATs and Advanced Placement classes.

Eichenberger described her school as being a "great high school" which was comprised of a diverse student population that was 40 percent American, with the rest of the students coming from over 40 different countries around the world.

When asked about the benefits of attending an international school, Eichenberger replied, "I got a good understanding of the diversity out there [in the world] that I couldn't have had else wise."

According to Eichenberger, she had also benefited from studying in Europe in that she became proficient in French as a result of taking weekend school trips to neighboring countries.

Danker also commented on the traveling opportunities that he had while in high school. His sporting activities, including rugby and cross-country running, allowed him to compete in Germany, Belgium, France and Austria.

In London, Debate attended Eton College, a prestigious British gentlemen's school, whose alumni include the sons of the Prince of Wales, Prince Harry and Prince Edward. According to Debate, he differed from the average student at this wealthy school, as he said that "most students were of distinguished and/or noble descent."

Debate described his school as also being solely academically oriented. As a British school, Eton placed great emphasis on a plethora of test scores, which were held as the most significant factor of the future of an individual's academic career, and ultimately one's life.

According to Debate, these tests include the General Certificate of Secondary Education Exams, GCSE, A-Level exams, and AS level exams.

At the end of the third year of high school, students in the British system take the GCSE, which are national tests.

After successfully completing the GCSE, students then specialize in four courses for the rest of their secondary career. The AS-level exams in these subjects are taken during one's second last year of high school, which is followed by the A level exams taken during the last year.

Debate notes that acceptance to British universities is contingent upon these test scores, particularly the A and AS Level Exams, as well as students' grades. Debate went on to say that this emphasis by British universities is due to the fact that they "consider how a student will ultimately affect their overall ranking," as these schools are ranked by the grades of their students. These rankings are usually dominated by Oxford and Cambridge.

Because of this competitive nature and less concern about their individual students, Debate chose to attend an American university, which he said valued him "as a person as well" as for his academic achievement.

When asked about what made them attractive when applying to selective American schools, such as Dartmouth, all had said that their grades and SAT scores were the number one factors and that their international educational background only enhanced already strong applications.

They also all said that studying at international schools did not make them more qualified for acceptance than other Dartmouth students.

When questioned about their transition to Dartmouth, all three students had commented that they have had an easy move to Dartmouth.

In the case of Debate, this easy adjustment was due to the fact that he had already experienced living away from home while at Eton, which he had attended since the age of 13.

"By large, living away from home in London made living here easier," said Debate.

Eichenberger's said she has appreciated the tolerance she has found prevalent at Dartmouth.

However, she said that many people have the misconception that she had been accepted to Dartmouth mainly because of the fact that she had attended an international high school, while dismissing her merit. "People don't understand how difficult it was to get in," she said.

For his part, Danker found some aspects of American culture less comprehensible. "I was shocked to come back," he said. "I didn't know much of American slang, which made it hard to understand what people were talking about."