WHY TOP U.S. STUDENTS ARE CHOOSING A CUSTOM PATH TO HIGHER EDUCATION

As an education startup based in Cape Town, South Africa, some 7,800 miles from the nearest Ivy League university, iXperience engages hundreds of students from top U.S. universities making the long journey here every summer in search of something more.

It seems a bit counterintuitive. We have no official affiliation with these universities, among them Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and more than 70 others. The cost for the students in terms of time, effort, and money is high. These universities are highly revered for the quality of education, selectiveness (low acceptance rates), and longstanding history. What’s happening here?

We can’t simply claim it’s down to the quality of our program or the lure of studying abroad. We sense there’s something much bigger at play — a fundamental shift in education as the needs of students evolve to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

This article is a summary of what we’ve learned from the students we’ve engaged with through our summer programs.

“After a year and a half, the college routine of going to class and completing assignments has become familiar and comfortable. I’m now good at choosing appropriate classes, managing my time to make sure I complete all my well-structured assignments, and squeezing as many minutes of sleep as possible out of each day. Unfortunately, real life does not have a syllabus detailing everything that’s expected of me that I can refer to on a weekly basis. Real life is hard.”
- Rafael Musa, Stanford University

FILLING THE GAPS

There is much debate around the concern that a university education too often operates in the realm of the conceptual and theoretical rather than the practical. To many, this concern speaks to an elitism often associated with higher education and a mission to produce thinkers rather than doers, and when observed, it results in a gap between what successful graduates can do and what industry needs them to do. Where the gap is most pronounced is in technical fields, where a conceptual skill base, for example in Computer Science, rarely translates to competency in writing functional code or designing usable products.

“I was a little disappointed with my freshman year at Boston University. Yes, I took engaging courses ranging from American History of Reform to Business Ethics and joined an amazing professional business fraternity; but I struggled to see how these classes would give me hard skills that were worthy of putting on my resume and prepare me for an internship.”
- Pietro Pecora, Boston University

Many universities are actively seeking new ways to keep up with the pace at which the world is changing, meaning that the gap between what is taught and what is needed in the job marketing is ever growing. Disruptive new technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Virtually Reality are drastically underrepresented at a tertiary education level, even though these are most likely to be huge industries in the not so distant future.

THE LEARNING PATH LESS TRAVELLED

Our students tend to be socially conscious, and eager to change the world for the better. Instead of going the comfortable route of study abroad in Paris, London, or Singapore, they seek out the developing world — and the developing world has many interesting problems to solve. Immersing oneself within this environment puts them close to very meaningful work, as well as highly energized people they can learn from and work alongside.

“My peers and I would reflect ‘Do I really want to go into consulting? What’s my passion, what’s my path?’, — big questions that you don’t consider back home where it’s more comfortable.”
- Ashley Castillo, UPenn

For example, last summer, product management students worked on a gamified app that helped reduce meat consumption and an app designed to keep college students safe from sexual assault. They started with seeds of ideas, validated them against the market, conducted research, and then eventually managed a team of designers and engineers to deliver the product.

Travel and cultural exploration in general are viewed by students as key components to learning as they seek to take their place as informed global citizens and develop global perspectives. Cape Town in particular provides a wealth of cultural diversity and opportunity to safely engage in thought-provoking experiences.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

The real world is full of sticky problems and opportunities that can only be met head-on with a practical approach. Students want to get their hands dirty, and engage with industry professionals in addition to their seasoned professors.

“So much of school is jumping through hoops. So much of school is: ‘write this paper, get your GPA up, graduate-with-honors-so-that-you-can-get-a-good-job…’ You kinda lose education sometimes. You lose actual learning.”
- Britt Colcolough, Princeton.

Unfortunately, many feel that the traditional university classroom experience focuses on the abstract and conceptual, with little time to get stuck in. We’ve seen our students flourish when faced with difficult projects that require innovation in addition to expertise, and how their perspective on learning has changed when engaged in solving authentic problems. A solid theoretical foundation paired with the opportunity to work in a global setting on real-life business challenges creates a unique and custom path to education.

A truly gratifying twist is when students come to realize that real learning is not just about grades — it’s about personal growth and unlocking potential.

GLOBAL NETWORKS

As the world gets smaller, our networks are growing. Networking is now more important than ever before. Traveling and then working together in a classroom situation offers superb networking opportunities, and a sense of real community during the learning experience. Students are experiencing the benefit of networking globally, beyond the sometimes-insular fraternity and sorority networks back home.

CONCLUSION: LEARNING COMES ALIVE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

As we weave all these thoughts together, we always come back to the same conclusion. Learning that is impactful and transformative happens way outside of students’ comfort zones, in a place where the real world collides with skills that are relevant to the challenges of the 21st century.

Are you a student? Have you had similar thoughts?