Coffee Chat: American universities in the movies – perception vs. reality

In addition to our traditional homemade Italian recipes, we also do a weekly “coffee chat” where we invite you to our table to discuss American & Italian food, language, culture, or lifestyle. Of course these chats will be way more fun if it’s a two-way conversation, so we invite you to share your opinions and experiences in the comments below! 

Today we are going to tackle some stereotypes about American universities as portrayed in movies.

Read on if you’re curious to hear my personal experiences as both a student and college instructor (at the same university)!

americanuniversities[1]Photo Credit: Michał Grosicki

Perception: There are wild frat parties every weekend à la Old School with keg stands and streaking.

Reality: I never saw any nudity at college parties (I’d bet a pizza napoletana it happens though!), but I did witness lots of whooping & yelling, chugging, stumbling, and slurred speech.

This movie clip from Old School, though a little exaggerated, is not too far off base. A dude chugging a beer really will receive more cheers than an Olympic gold medalist. It’s practically guaranteed that somebody at the party is going to get wasted and bare their balls (or something equally indecent). In fact, the most unlikely thing to happen is this scene is Snoop Dogg showing up at the party.

But really, it all depends on the university. Frat parties with red solo cups and beer pong played a big role in the social life of college students at my undergrad alma mater. For graduate school though, I went to a small private institution that didn’t have any Greek organizations (i.e., fraternities or sororities), and our social life was mostly spent sipping rum and Cokes in a British pub while madly typing out research papers (because it was the only place open that late at night). Cozy pubs are a lot more my style than frat parties. 😉

Perception: Professors are stuffy, pretentious people  who want to make their students’ lives miserable, like this law professor in Legally Blonde

Reality: Here’s a little secret: I am a big softy. It’s really hard for me to be strict. It’s in my nature to be empathetic, but sometimes you have to tell students, “no, you can’t turn that paper in late…I’m sorry your dog ate it, but NO.” I have always been given the advice to come off as strict right off with students so they don’t try to walk all over you (because they will). So, if you’ve ever had a strict teacher or encounter one, they are probably just trying to maintain a sense of control and respect in the classroom (or enforce school policies).

I had one professor in grad school who was very demanding and had extremely high expectations of us. But it was evident that she wanted us to succeed. It ended up being a win-win situation because she believed we were capable of high quality work, and so her expectations pushed me to strive more. Professors aren’t always trying to be mean, they are trying to help you grow.

Perception: American students live in dorms while attending university.

There’s even a creepy movie called “The Roommate” where Leighton Meester (who I can’t see as anyone but Blair from Gossip Girl) plays a psycho college roommate.

Most Americans attend university in another city, so it’s popular to live in dorms on campus. Living in the dorms isn’t a very glamorous arrangement: usually you have to share a shower and bathroom with your entire floor, and you often don’t get to pick your roommate with whom you have to share a tiny, I mean tiny room.

Going away to college is a huge right of passage for Americans. Independence is valued in our culture above all. Young Americans can’t wait to go away to college to have independence from parents telling them to clean their room and when to come home.

About the time I graduated from high school, my state started giving away scholarships to anyone who went to university in-state. I was conflicted about this fortune. On the one hand, it was an incredible blessing because it was free money for having good grades, but I also felt robbed of my American “going away to college” experience because I ended up living at home most of the time during college. So…to fill that void I ended up studying abroad in France and then Italy, and then going away to grad school in California.

In a lot of ways, I feel l like not much has changed since my college days. I still go to the same university, though this time as an instructor. And at the moment I temporarily live with my parents again. So statistically speaking, I’m an Italian male. It’s possibly the most uncool thing that you can do as an American at my age (because you know, the American obsession with independence). This has been a conflicting decision because based on American standards, I feel like a major failure (and absolutely crushed that my degree has essentially let me down). While I’m working on career changes and ensuring my abundant financial future, I feel this is the best choice for me, despite what my culture says. I’m incredibly thankful to have supportive parents who even put up with me (or do I put up with them? jk). Also, not being stuck in a lease let’s me go to Italy more often and stay there longer. So there you have it. The secret of how I can afford to travel to Italy and live there part of the year. Life is always a give and take, isn’t it? Like that saying, “you can have everything, just not all at once.” 

I wanted to write more about what it’s like to be an adjunct instructor at a university, but the post got too long and ranty, so I decided to bite my tongue because I’m not sure if anyone wants to read about that. If you want to know more of the truth and what I’m dealing with career-wise (and also why I am in the process of changing my career), this post about the academic job market by History in High Heels explains it all.

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments! Now I’d love to know, what is the university experience like in your country compared to the US? 

Oh and if you’re new to our blog, benvenuti! Click here to read about us, why we blog, and what we blog about! Be sure to connect with us on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter for the latest! Come back to our table again soon!

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