Higher studies in US: Opportunities unexplored - Part 1

By Prashanthan Surendran
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I am a second year undergraduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago IL pursuing a undergraduate degree (B.S.) in Electrical & Computer Engineering.

Many students of Sri Lanka are exposed to the British Education System but unaware of the learning opportunities available in the United States. The purpose of this article is to give you, the students, an insight into the pros of learning Engineering in the United States of America.

In the past centuries, when Asia was the seat of power and knowledge, scholars from Europe came to the Orient to study science, astrology, mathematics and various arts. After the Industrial Revolution, Europe made huge leaps in all fields of study. As students, we can very well see from our history of how our early political leaders were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. It is thus natural and necessary for our youth to learn the best that the West has to offer in education. Many of us take the effort of applying to universities in England besides Sri Lanka. The British university system has had long traditions throughout the centuries that make it a robust system and a prudent choice for undergraduate studies.

However, a gradual shift in the currents of world affairs has occurred that most of our students tend to overlook. Since World War II, the nucleus of economic and political power has shifted from Europe to the United States. Consequently, the American university system has evolved itself into one of the most efficient, effective and innovative education systems in the world; therefore, making it wise for students to consider the United States as an option when applying to universities abroad.

Besides the fact that the United States is the foremost in technology from fighter jets to iPods, it's also true that its university system is foremost in making innovations. Their education system is not linear (which means textbook and exam oriented), but rather practical and flexible. Students are encouraged to tailor their own curriculum and decide their own pace. The college experience is a wholesome four years of rigorous learning and hands on training.

Something to notice in today's world is that most of the technology is invented in the United States, and then developed in Europe and Asia. Hence to take knowledge from the source is a good idea because it is fresh and unaltered approach to education. In this way your mind has the freedom to expand this knowledge in a more creative manner.

Practical experience and exposure to numerous industries
In my experience as a student in the United States, I noticed that the education system is not just text book, but instead provides real-world experiences, which is an important aspect of it. During my first semester at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, Illinois, I was exposed to practical and hands-on experiences in my Engineering courses. One impactful experience was the interaction with a simple autonomous robot called the Handy-Bug, which uses LEGO for the frame and an electronic device called the Handy-Board for the brain. Students were made to experiment with these robots and write simple programmers that would cause it to move around without human intervention (example: follow a simple path). A video of my team's robot during one of our lab sessions can be viewed through the following link:

When working with robots it is quite interesting to create a strategy, convert that into code (C, JAVA, etc…) and programmer the robot to behave as though it is smart. Other universities such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and U-Penn (University of Pennsylvania) have an even superior introductory course for Freshmen Electrical Engineering students, with robots that are more complex. This real-world experience is invaluable to anyone in engineering because robots (autonomous machines) are used as solutions in so many companies. For example, robots are used to do everything from assisting in the process management of building products to eliminating contamination in areas unsafe for humans. As a student, being able to apply your knowledge to understand how these practical devises work in real-life keeps your education interesting and applicable to your future.

Be sure to note that this is just the introductory course to give you and idea of engineering and its applications. Taking higher level engineering courses to complete the degree can get tiring after a while but since you are constantly exposed to real world projects things stay interesting on the whole.
During my first and second years at IIT, I had the privilege of working with a fellow Sri Lankan graduate student at IIT who's research focuses on alternate power. I worked with him in regards to IIT's hybrid car for the formula hybrid competition held every year in the United States. This experience gave me a practical insight into many of the power engineering concepts that I am currently learning in my third year.

Paid internships is another wonderful aspect in the American education system. Thanks to the big industry that exists especially in cities such as Chicago, many companies are searching for student interns. At the end of my first year, I had the opportunity of working at a networking company that designed broadband Cable Modem Termination Systems (CMTS). I worked on a small research project that involved analyzing the effects of Internet Protocal (IP) traffic with increasing number of users. One of my tasks was to create a programmer that analyzed the IP traffic data. I was able to put my programming knowledge from my previous semester to good use. This experience was quite valuable to me, and the programming course that I took the following semester seemed quite easy and interesting due to the added practical experience.

What about Finances?
Sri Lanka has limited educational resources available for all students coming out of high school. On the other hand the America University System has an excess of resources and is willing to share its knowledge with other countries. Yes! Share its knowledge, not sell. This sharing is given in the form of scholarships and financial aid. You do not have to be brilliant for scholarships or financial aid, but rather have grades above average, enthusiasm and good recommendations from your teachers in Sri Lanka. If you are unable to get aid from the university, there are many financial institutions that are willing to offer student loans to international students, although they do require a permanent resident to be your co-signer for this. In regards to graduate studies, almost all universities pay for your PhD through research grants or teaching assistants. This is true mostly for Engineering and Physics majors. If you are not able to get this sort of sponsorship, but able to obtain a good job after you complete your Undergraduate degree, your company might offer to sponsor you for graduate studies. This is true for big companies such as Microsoft, Honda, N-VIDIA and many more.

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