Liberal-arts education impresses in its scope

August 6, 2004

Laura Spence advocates undergraduate study in the US as rising numbers of sixthform students consider turning their backs on universities in the UK

Wary of the media spotlight and guarded about her plans, Laura Spence shared her thoughts on her time at Harvard University in an interview with The Times Higher , writes Paul Hill.

It is the first time in three years she has spoken about her experience of study in the US and four years since the controversy that followed the state-school pupil's rejection by Magdalen College, Oxford.

Ms Spence was buoyed by the strong sense of campus community and help from staff to settle in - she even received home-cooked meals from a "host family". But she found herself juggling a more demanding workload than her American counterparts.

"Through my choice of A levels I wasn't optimally prepared for a Harvard science degree," she said. "I chose not to study maths or foreign languages at A level, then found that (Harvard) requires an A-level standard foreign language of all students and advanced maths and physics of all science students. I had to take more required courses than American students but in the long run achieved above-average exam results."

She predicted that the greater breadth of A levels under the Curriculum 2000 reforms and the introduction of AS and A2 exams would be "useful" to any future UK student interested in studying an Ivy League university.

"The style of education at Harvard was more of an adjustment for me than for American students," Ms Spence said.

"With many hours of scheduled classes, multiple homework sets and essays each week, I felt substantially more overworked than I had done at A level.

Many students from competitive American high schools thought the Harvard workload was quite relaxed."

But the range and commitment of students to extracurricular activity was "astounding", she said. "Much college learning takes place in social experiences and challenges outside the classroom, from pre-law societies and volunteer organisations to rowing teams and orchestras.

"The US-style 'liberal arts' education requires that each student learn a broader, more balanced curriculum while achieving depth in their specialist subject.

"Unlike the more focused, professionally oriented UK degrees, this style of education is particularly suitable for students who don't want to take specific career paths straight out of school."

Studying at Harvard also gave Ms Spence the opportunity to travel - from a five-day camping trip with fellow first-year students to training in Florida with the university rowing team.

"My four years at Harvard brought travel experiences I doubt I could have had elsewhere," she said. "With the university rowing team, I raced at events all over the country and took part in training trips to Florida."

She added: "Most importantly, I've made many lifelong friendships with people from all over North America."

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