Sunday, April 01, 2007

So foreign students are kicking the butts of our local students in contests and in academic grades. Why's everyone so broken up about that? Speaking as a previous "foreign student," I don't find it surprising at all.

It's not the education system. How we educate our kids doesn't differ much from place to place. Sure, the packaging may look more attractive here and there, but the simple formula remains: kids either make the effort to learn, or they muck about and waste their time -- and everyone else's.

It's the fact that they're consciously identified as "foreign" that makes the difference. Like it or not, it takes a lot more for them to be assimilated into their host country, so they tend to work harder at it. Since they're going to stand out anyway, it might as well be for the right reasons than for the wrong ones.

They also have more at stake. The costs are higher to be based overseas, and there's the constant reminder that there's a significantly higher investment their parents have put into them than their locally-schooled compatriots. So if they like where they're staying, they'd better give their parents the expected (or better) ROI, or risk getting yanked back home again.

Besides, the personal investment is also pretty steep. Having to move away from friends and loved ones for a few years to study means making the personal commitment to make the separation count for something to make the pain worthwhile.

Having the best of two or more worlds gives them a huge advantage in appreciating and understanding learning points better than mere locals.Foreign students have a much larger worldview than locally bred students, being that they have the experience of another world, another lifestyle that they either wish to improve or live up to. After all, they're already living in a situation in which they have to ask questions and learn things quickly or they won't survive long in their strange new world.

Of course there are colossal failures as well, but we don't notice them much. They arrive with a big superiority complex and when things don't match up to their expectations they get homesick and flunk out. Good riddance.

But the fact is, the foreign kids who are doing well here are thriving because they really do like it here. That's something we should be proud of as their hosts. We must be doing something right to attract so many of them, and having them beat the pants off us means we have a new standard to reach for. The alternative is to forever remain stagnant, boring as ditchwater. And let the world pass us by.

As a foreign student, I surprised myself topping classes that I seemed out of place in: the only Oriental kid in English Lit. back then. Except for the class in feminist theory that was mostly populated by angry single-mothers, that is -- that one I hid under the table most of the time. As far as I knew, no one begrudged me my success. Perhaps that's because Canada recognizes itself as predominantly immigrant populated anyway, and it's a fact that we Singaporeans need to wake ourselves up to. We'll gain so much more if we learn to include rather than perfunctorily exclude.

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