In this opinion piece, Júlia Vila (she/they) provides insights from AVP’s Bay Experience, which they joined last January. During the program, she participated in the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship (BMoE) bootcamp at UC Berkeley and visited various companies in the Bay Area. Júlia is a third-year student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Design at Aalto ARTS and is passionate about meaningful visual communication design and sustainable and inclusive entrepreneurship.
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UC Berkeley proudly positions itself as the left-leaning university in California, with Stanford considered the more conservative counterpart. Although there is some truth to this self-proclaimed distinction, in my opinion, UC Berkeley’s “progressive” mindset falls short compared to the strong emphasis on social-oriented values found in most European universities. However, it’s worth considering that American universities, including UC Berkeley, are widely regarded as some of the best in the world. They must be doing something very well, right? Notable figures such as Steve Jobs and Michelle Obama are among the many successful alumni of these institutions. This raises numerous questions. Can a university be both progressive and among the top-ranked? Should European institutions aim to emulate American universities? Are we doing something wrong to begin with?
In this article, I consciously skip all the obvious downsides deriving from a highly capitalistic society and focus on the American university mindset as an alternative to the European one. I acknowledge the multiple societal, systemic and environmental issues that the United States is facing, but I also consider them more profound than I can cover in this article.
Let’s first examine the elements that have contributed to the perceived success of the higher education system in America.
- Philanthropy: American universities have benefited from a long history of philanthropy, with wealthy individuals and organizations making substantial investments in higher education.
- Land-grant colleges: The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant colleges designed to provide practical education to the working class and promote economic growth.
- Research-focused universities: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American universities shifted their focus to research, creating a culture of discovery and innovation that still defines many American universities today.
- Government investment: The federal government has played a significant role in supporting research and innovation in American universities, providing funding through agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
- Private-public partnerships: American universities have also formed partnerships with the private sector, allowing them to tap into the resources and expertise of companies and organizations to drive innovation and growth.
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These historical factors, combined with a continued commitment to excellence and a thriving innovation ecosystem, have contributed to the strong tradition of excellence in American universities. However, these resources alone would not be sufficient without the “appropriate“ mindset behind them.
“The American Dream is the internalized idea that we are all exactly where we deserve to be. In this story, success is the result not of luck or privilege, but our own personal qualities, talents and hard work. Similarly, failure can never stem from systemic obstacles or difficult circumstances—the fact that good jobs are increasingly scarce, wages are hitting poverty levels and rents are sky-high—but is simply a mark of personal inadequacy. The American Dream has become the mass production of unrealistic expectations. The constant thrum of the “you can be anything you want to be” mantra has created a low level sense of inadequacy and anxiety in American life, where anything short of greatness can start to feel like failure.”
The American Dream mindset has guided some (primarily white cis heterosexual men from upper-middle-class families) through the path of global success, but for many, it has been a burden. “I cannot trust my classmates. Everyone just wants to be successful at any cost and get the best job,” a Berkeley student told me during my stay there. The intense focus on success and continuous improvement can create a highly competitive and stressful environment, causing students to feel overwhelmed and burnt out.
The pressure to succeed and meet high expectations can also lead to feelings of self-doubt and impostor syndrome, making it difficult for students to fully engage with their education and realize their full potential. The emphasis on individual achievement and competition can also detract from the sense of community and collaboration critical to fostering creativity and innovation. In the pursuit of success, students may become overly focused on their own goals and overlook the importance of working with and learning from others.
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It is commonly discussed in the Aalto community that Finland lacks this strong drive to do big things. However, when I asked the AI tool ChatGPT about this, it did not agree. This becomes even more significant when considering that ChatGPT is owned by an American company, which may result in biased answers that favor their interests.
Aalto University is built on the foundation of sustainability and equality, which is reflected in the various social movements within the university. From LGBTQ+ activism to feminism, sustainable practices, and supporting smaller artists, the university is dedicated to creating an inclusive and diverse environment. I recently attended an event by “Wednesday,” a new Aaltoes project that aims to empower women and non-binary individuals within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The startup curriculum, AVP, also aligns with these values and principles. The blog posts produced by AVP feature topics such as LGBTQ+, sustainability through entrepreneurship, and more. Overall, Aalto University is committed to promoting diversity, equality, and sustainability in all its initiatives and programs.
Does this make our university weaker? Absolutely not. In fact, it makes us more open-minded and inclusive. Although some may argue that investing in social initiatives is a waste of time and resources, it has significantly impacted the Finnish higher education system. Investing in sustainability and social movements can bring multiple benefits to universities, such as helping them to enhance their reputation, attract students, foster research and innovation, engage with the community, and create economic benefits.
Sending our students to UC Berkeley to learn about their entrepreneurial mindset is a valuable learning experience, but this connection is only worthwhile if their students are sent outside of their comfort zone too. It is not about the rest of the world copying America, but about mutual learning between communities. I believe that there is a lot that American universities could learn from the Global South, Europe, etc. In my view, AVP understands this task very well, as diverse groups of students are sent to completely different locations.
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Experiences like Bay Experience can broaden one’s perspectives, introduce new ways of working and provide exposure to different cultures. There is little in common between the USA and Zambia. However, this combination of knowledge and experiences from our students brings so much value and consciousness to our university and, consequently, to our whole ecosystem. If there is something I learned during my stay in San Francisco, it is how much I value our society.
However, this does not mean that Aalto University is perfect and has nothing to improve. There are multiple ways in which our university could become a better place, but there is one specific aspect I would like to highlight: Expanding our network through the inclusion of more international students is a necessary step. To become the best in the world, we should seek out and hire the best people globally, not just the best people from Finland. Talent is widely dispersed, and I am confident that countless exceptional students would welcome the opportunity to join our institutions. The fear of attracting immigrants is pointless since, if done correctly, it can bring so much value. Let’s make our beloved Moominland a place for all, a place for a better future.
Whippman, R. (2016, August 11). Why the American Dream Is Making You Unhappy. Time. https://time.com/4446915/american-dream-making-you-unhappy/
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