You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013

Mentorship

During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on Meetup.com, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

The Incredible Power of Social Networks Illustrated By Studying, Living and Travelling Abroad

Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen


Housing in Copenhagen

When I signed the agreement and notified the University of Copenhagen that I was headed to Denmark I assumed I’d face a lot of challenges upon arrival.  Things like visa issues, language barriers, and a drastic change in weather.  What I didn’t expect was the housing nightmare that greeted me.  I arrived in Copenhagen on July 20th.  Four months later, after aggressively scouring available housing outlets, my search was finally rewarded. On November 29th, I moved into an apartment that should last me for the next 12+ months (and hopefully the remainder of my stay here in Denmark).

It was my well-developed, trans-continental social network that saved me.  Utilizing contacts, new and old, I was able to keep an affordable roof over my head while I undertook an arduous search. Without this  ace in my pocket ,  I would have been camped in hostels and hotels for months, spending an exorbitant amount of money with no room for my luggage. My story illustrates the importance of a social network and what a powerful tool it can be.

United States Based Trip Prep

Between 2004 and 2007 I worked for a commercial real estate company in Phoenix, Arizona.   I worked closely with many brokers and their teams.  In 2007 I left the company to travel Europe for 3 months. When I returned to Arizona, I took a job as an analyst with a business sales, mergers and acquisitions company. I stayed in touch with past colleagues and my social network continued to grow. Fast forward three years.  I informed my boss that I planned to return to school to pursue my Masters and would be moving to Denmark.  While sorry to see me go, he eagerly accessed his mental rolodex for ways to help me with the move.  This is where it starts to get complicated and the obscure beauty and power of a network starts to really come to light.  He recalled that one of the real estate team members who had helped with the purchase of our new building had dated a Danish guy. The head of that team and her boss was an old contact that I happened to also know, independently, through our mutual time spent at my previous job in the commercial real estate company.  In an odd twist of overlapping networks, when the time came to purchase a new building my boss reached out to his friend and contact: the real estate broker from my old company.  Over the course of the purchase and move into our new building, I ended up not only re-connecting with my old real estate contact, but also meeting his team, which included the woman who had dated the Danish guy and I mentioned previously. Whew, confusing right?

Back to my meeting with my boss – on the spot he picked up the phone, called, and made the connection for me.  While no longer dating the Danish guy, she spoke highly of him and because she knew me offered to put me in touch with him.  A few minutes later, I fired off an e-mail with general questions about Denmark, housing, phones, and language barriers.  I continued my trip prep while my new Danish contact responded with great suggestions, and things moved forward.

Copenhagen’s Unexpected Rental Market

After arriving in Copenhagen I realized that not only was it going to take much longer than expected to get my visa, but housing was both more expensive and significantly harder to find than I had assumed.  To be fair, the University had warned that finding housing in Copenhagen was expensive and difficult.  On the flip side, they did just short of nothing to help with the process.

As someone coming from Phoenix, I was met by a whole different world.  In Phoenix we have such a glut of available apartments and housing that you can sign up with an agent for free who will then show you around various apartments.  The agent is compensated by the apartment complex(s) who regularly offer signup bonuses. If that fails there’s more than enough housing from private landlords available.  The search for an apartment seldom lasts more than a week.

In Copenhagen the situation is the exact opposite.  It’s not uncommon for people to search for an apartment for 3-6 months.  Renters sign up on a mixture of free and pay sites to gain access to apartment rental listings.  A listing inside the city proper in the 3,000-4,000 DKK per month ($600-800 USD) rental range typically garners between 80 and 250 e-mails in the first day!  There is also a heavy preference among renters for female and Danish tenants which added an extra layer of difficulty as a male international student.

After my fifth day in the hostel I followed up with the Danish contact I had been introduced to.  Luckily, he had a spare room available for a month before his tenants moved in and he graciously offered to let me use it.  With a huge sigh of relief, I figured I’d be all set. After all, a month is a long time…Right?

As August drew to a close, it became apparent that my visa would not be arriving any time soon and that the one offer which had been made by a “local” dorm, was too far out of town (45 minutes) to justify accepting.

Luckily, here again my network made a huge leap forward. My host reached out to a friend of his who also doubled as his house cleaner.  She was willing to host me for a month or two, but was hesitant as the apartment didn’t have doors for about half the rooms.  A long time hosteler, I mentioned it wasn’t an issue for me. It turned out that she and I got along well.  She was a gracious host and between our busy schedules the shortage of doors in the apartment wasn’t an issue.  I can’t stress how wonderful she was to allow me to invade her apartment like that.  Especially when one considers just how obscure my connection to her was.

Eventually, my visa came through as my hunt for an apartment continued.  I was hampered by my class schedule and the need to use public sources of internet to endlessly scan, and then pounce on room postings.  While I looked at several, nothing came through until I finally had an offer for a room on Amager near campus.  It looked great.  It was a guy and his two dogs.  He smoked but that didn’t seem like it would be an issue.  He was extremely friendly, nice, and happy to help with things.

After a week I was able to move in and started to get settled.  Everything seemed to be going well until it became obvious that we had two extremely different lifestyles that were not compatible. I moved out the next day.  Luckily, the female Danish friend I had been staying with came to me rescue and welcomed me back without so much as a grumble.  We had a good laugh about the mis-adventure and my search began once again with renewed vigor.  Contacts and my emerging network in Copenhagen shared several opportunities with me, but none panned out.  Desperate to be able to unpack/get settled and with the semester coming to a close, I took a new approach. I started offering more than asking rent. It turns out that money trumped being male, and an international. Within a week and a half I had a lead on a place.  It took another two weeks to finalize things before I was able to move in.

Now, I finally have what I hope will be a semi-permanent home for the remainder of my time here in Copenhagen.

It has been an adventure, and to be fair, I could have found a place much quicker had I been willing to live 45+ minutes outside of the city.  As an international student, and someone who has experienced the incredible power of networks, I felt it was extremely important for my immersion, social activity, and overall experience here in Copenhagen to be in or near the University. The cost of commuting was also a key factor. Ultimately the need to be somewhat centrally located has made things more difficult and somewhat more expensive.  In the long run though, it has also been well worth it.

It’s important to note that I only had the opportunity to make that choice, however, because of the incredible help offered to me through my network of friends and contacts.  I owe a lot of these individuals a huge debt of gratitude and their open, helpful, and friendly nature has really inspired me to pay-it-forward and to be mindful of how I can help my friends, contacts, and their extended network.

At the end of the day, I hope this helps you all remember to never, ever, ever, underestimate the power, capability and influence your network can bring to bear.

To all those that helped along the way.  Thank you.

Educating Millennials – Part II

Listen to this post:

Blog Audio: Educating Millennials P2

This post is a follow up to my original post: Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing It Wrong

Since it was posted Part I has received nearly 22,000 views and 80+ responses. At this point in time I think it’s safe to say I hit on a major issue…one we have only just begun to dive into. I’m thrilled by the reception the post received and the opportunity I’ve had to begin dialogue on the subject. The purpose of this post is to serve as an update and to work to clarify several points. Please take it as such.

On the subject of data – I’ve reached out to several government officials and other contacts within academic circles in an effort to locate source educational data to check my hypothesis. However, before I share an update on the progress/issues I’ve had with the data I want to address some background questions.

Background Information

My original post was made as a hypothesis based on observation. I am not an academic researcher, nor is it appropriate that I include all of my research & thoughts in these blog posts.  This is not a research site or news outlet. It is a blog and as such my posts must be limited in length and cannot be as in-depth as many of us might otherwise like. Nor am I a full time academic researcher affiliated with a research institution.  Rather, I’m a curious, passionate millennial observing the world around me, the way my fellows and I interact, and looking at alternative explanations.  It is a place for sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting information. It is my sincere hope that these thoughts and ideas will be picked up by my readership and pursued further.   As mentioned in my previous post, I am more than happy to discuss any concept expressed on this site further/privately.

The Sexes

I received a number of comments accusing me of sexism or being grossly mistaken about the distribution of the sexes in online environments, particularly the realm of video games. While, in most instances, it was obvious from the reader’s comments that several of my main points were missed, or they failed to read the post to its conclusion. I want to take a moment to address this concern. First, I am very well aware of the female presence in online gaming and on the web. I founded and lead one of the oldest/longest running online gaming guilds for 8 years. I am familiar with most of the statistics cited in the comments about web demographics. In fact, I used some of the very same data in my Honors Thesis which I completed a year and a half ago. That said, the male/female demographics of the online gaming community have changed exponentially in the last 3-5 years. That’s not to say that there have not been female gamers for as long as there have been games.  Rather, that the audience who grew up utilizing these games (from an early age) has – until recently – been mostly male and that as a result these individuals will be the most heavily effected.

In addition to the issue of demographics, research has shown that males and females relate differently in social situations.  That same research shows that conventional one-way, top-down, information exchanges like that in most classroom environments is more compatible with the learning styles of women.

The combination of these two factors – as previously explained – is part of why the topic focuses on males. The other part stems from the nature of the post as a response and alternative hypothesis to the commonly accepted arguments for why young males are under represented in higher education. The conventional arguments have revolved around a difference in capability between the sexes and are largely based on notable gender bias. The proposition in Part I of this post, if anything, is far from sexist.  Further, as I’ll discuss later in this topic, one of the greatest issues I’ve had with exploring the data is the lack of unbiased, relevant source data. Many of the official tables provide female percentages and numbers while neglecting their male counterparts.

The Author

Attacking the author is a fundamental part of Internet culture, a fact I completely understand.  While I did not want to spend much time on myself in the original post as I feel it distracts from the actual subject, my credibility and background seems to be a major, relevant, component for a number of readers. Some were concerned I was someone who hadn’t made the cut and wanted to justify my failure. Others assumed it was a complaint written by a frustrated millennial unable to find a job.  Several readers even suggested that my passion and focus for virtual technologies and their impact implied a lack of reading or cultural enrichment on my part. Others suggested that I must inherently suffer from a lack of social skills and connections.  While I’ve responded to each of these concerns independently in the comment section of the previous post I will briefly respond to each of the more frequent comments.

I actually preformed quite well in University. I graduated with a 3.38 GPA from Arizona State University with degrees from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and the Barrett Honors College.  My honors thesis is available for review on the blog roll to the right. It focused on MMOGs and their social impact. In High School I was engaged in the We The People constitutional debate program as well as a Key Club Officer. In addition to my academics, I come from, and grew up in a family heavily involved in academics.

Professionally, I have enjoyed significant success. In the spring of 2005 (summer of my sophomore year of college) I began an internship with the #3 commercial real estate company in the world. By the end of the summer the position grew into a part time position during the school year/full time job in the summer. I was with the company in various capacities (Research, Mapping, GIS, IT) until I graduated in 2007 when I was offered a full time position which I declined.  After a 3 month trip through Europe I returned to the states and immediately accepted a position as an Analyst with one of Arizona’s premiere mid-market mergers and acquisitions groups. In addition to my current position in the M&A industry, I founded the company FusionVirtual.

Socially I have regularly been referred to as a social node.  I’m lucky to enjoy an extensive social network all developed outside of the Greek system.  To use Facebook as a social benchmark, my friends list currently has over 600 contacts virtually all of whom I’m in semi-regular contact with. In fact, I periodically prune the list to keep it up to date and relevant.  To those with doubts, I can assure you I am both socially competent and active.

Culturally I have always enjoyed reading and have tested as post college since 6th grade. I enjoy regular reading, though my recent schedule has made me cut back significantly.  In addition to classic texts I enjoy poetry and the arts. I’ve seen theater on Broadway and in London, opera in Vienna and ballet in Prague. In addition to these experiences I’ve been an avid ballroom dancer for the last 4 years and salsa dance on a weekly basis. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve been to Europe three times (once for a year, once for 3 months, and once for 6.5 weeks). I’ve also spent a year traveling across the U.S. and been to Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii.

It is important to point out that despite my background and life experiences, the observations raised about the educational system in Part I of this post are every bit as relevant for me as they are for other male millennials. I drilled down and forced myself to complete the higher ed process, but make no mistake, I found myself consciously making the decision to work within the system for the social validation and professional benefit that the degree “check mark” on job applications offered. The system did not serve my needs. It could have done more to challenge on multiple levels. In fact, it also did very little to prepare me for the real world.

So, to those of you who asked, I say;  No, this is not an apology. It’s not a justification.  It’s not an excuse. This is an observation of a failure by the education system. This failure has affected me personally and has affected a large number of my acquaintances and friends.  Read through the comments, look at what the young males of the millennial generation are telling us.

The tragedy is that we are squandering the potential of hundreds of thousands of America’s best and brightest, all because of bureaucracy and outdated tradition. All in a time when we need them the most.

Data

It’s taken over a week for me to make this post in large part because I’ve been having difficulty tracking down relevant data. At this point in time, I’d love to be able to post a few graphs and several tables of data showing clear snapshots of what’s going on in our education system.  The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t seem possible with the data available.  This would be a great graduate research project. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve contacted the US Census Department, the US Department of Education, and IPEDS (The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). I’ve also worked with several other contacts in trying to find/analyze the data in a way that gives real, relevant data.

It appears that the data collected by the U.S. Education System is in such a confused state and so poorly documented that it’s nearly impossible to find standard enrollment and completion numbers broken up by sex and institution type and relative to U.S. population statistics by year.  The data has been gathered and stored in such a way that anything beyond micro analysis is nearly impossible for the casual researcher. If you have information relevant to the discussion please post it in a comment or forward it to me and I’ll add it to the post. Additionally, if you do any statistical analysis please share your results and methodology with us.

Noteworthy Data:

  1. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17
  2. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005
  3. Historical Educational Attainment Reports from 1940 through 1998
  4. US 1990 Census: Population Figures
  5. US 2000 Census: Population Figures
  6. US 2007 Census: Population Figures

Things to note:

  • There is a major data shift in 1995.
  • Enrollment figures provide a % female, but no mention of a % male.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between the gender breakdown in full/part time categories.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between higher education programs.
  • Degrees conferred can not be accurate compared to enrollment data.
  • Degrees conferred are not broken down by type of institution, only level of education*.
  • Population figures: I was unable to locate credible year-by-year projections. Only US Census data by year was publicly available. The 2007 figures were generated through a private information vendor and forwarded to me.
  • Population figures: Should be adjusted based on generational differences in population.

*This is relevant because of the widespread success of web-based Universities like University of Phoenix. If included in the above material (which I believe they are) these web-based Universities have been extremely popular over the last 8+ years. The type of education these programs offer (web-based) is drastically different from the class method and environment utilized in major colleges and universities. As a result, I’m concerned that these may offset significant shifts in the brick and mortar institutions this article focuses on.

*EDIT* – Just saw this and feel it’s very relevant given my mention of University of Phoenix above. UofP was ranked as the #1 recipient of federal assistance/aid for FY 2008. According to the list, Arizona based University of Phoenix has received $2,810,085,079 in aid so far in this fiscal year.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately the data is important, but may be more of a distraction. The theory discussed herein is nothing new. We’ve known since the days of Aristotle and Socrates that instructor-student interactions are the best way to learn. As humans we learn best when we can interact, exchange thoughts, and question. After all, what is a question but the search for information and clarity? When the written word was invented we transformed the way knowledge was shared from the telling of stories to a system of written words. Modern technology allows us to increase the level of interaction between student and professor.  It offers the potential to make the material more engaging, informative, and to increase students’ investment in their education. Sadly, that scares a lot of people. Luckily, the demand for multi-level delivery systems will continue to grow until educators respond.  While we can disagree on some of the details and the execution, ultimately ask yourself if a more interactive, ‘immersive’, and vibrant educational experience will be good for the students.  If your answer is yes, I urge you to stop making excuses for a system that no longer works as-is. I ask that you help work toward a modern, 21st century educational system.

Each day we wait another brilliant mind falls through the cracks.

As always, I value your feedback and will respond to all user comments. Please share your thoughts, reflections, and any additional information you might have in a comment on this post.

*If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to share, please vote for the post on reddit/digg/delicious using the links below and help me spread the word.

*EDIT* I was just linked this amazing video by Mike Wesch which really does an amazing job hitting on/discussing some of the same issues.

Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing it Wrong

Listen to this post:

Audio: Educating Millennials, We are Doing it Wrong

An educated populace is the cornerstone of a successful, affluent culture and a necessity if the United States wants to remain competitive. Our education system is the framework that enables and prepares America’s youths to support, lead, and drive America’s future.  Education, more than any other factor, is responsible for America’s success. It is for that reason that the current shift in enrollment and completion rates among males in higher education may be seen as a crisis. It is immensely disturbing and potentially disastrous.