Great question. I’m half way through my undergraduate study at Duke and I spent a semester at the University of Canterbury. I’ve had incredible times at both but it’s worth noting that they are very different environments. I find it hard to describe the experience I’m having at Duke to someone that hasn’t experienced it first-hand, and likewise with explaining NZ university to my mates at Duke.
For me, study in the states was an easy decision. I wanted to be at a top university, travel, have a very interesting and exciting undergraduate experience, be challenged and be surrounded by people from around the world.
In all honesty, I couldn’t find all of those things in New Zealand. Our universities aren’t recognizable abroad, it’s a reasonably predictable experience, doesn’t offer as much of a wholistic (cultural and academic) challenge, and has mostly NZ students.
I’ve just given quite a critical outline of NZ universities but I did so to emphasize that in many ways I believe a [top] U.S. university is better than those at home. I only spent one semester in NZ and I am fully aware there are outstanding experiences at university here (and it’s a hell of a lot of fun), but I am simply astounded by the depth and breadth of experiences and fun I have had in the last two years at Duke.
Specific examples of the benefits:
- Top world university. For example, I have Duke friends at SpaceX, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Blackstone, Google, Microsoft, Tiger Management, Uber, Tesla, Amazon etc. All of these firms want smart interns and graduates, so they recruit from top U.S. schools. It’s fun to know people that work at these companies and around the world, and it’s helpful when you’re looking for a job and when you have a job that requires some information gathering across industries.
- World exposure. When I was in New Zealand I’d barely heard of half the firms I listed above, let alone considered working for them. Being in a challenging and “global” environment, surrounded by ambitious, smart and interesting people has helped me to understand how the world works. It’s made me realize how small New Zealand is (and how great it is too but more on that later).
- Travel (and friends around the world). There are strong international communities at US universities. At Duke, we made an awesome freshman friend group of about 20 students from South America, Europe, India and New Zealand and I’ve visited many of them back in their countries. This is a pretty cool and unexpected outcome and it’s possible because during our college years we have time to travel. Soon we will have jobs and don’t get four-month summers to burn. These friends often come from interesting, influential backgrounds which means they are interesting to talk to. It’s extremely interesting to compare worldviews and build an understanding of how geographic/cultural background shapes the way you see the world. This is useful if you plan on having a global career. Another benefit is that you are going through a challenging and transformative 4 years with them, so you influence each other a lot.
- Challenge. Duke has been challenging for me in many ways. It’s a supportive, exciting environment where challenges are relished and we are always learning. For example, in the engineering school I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever done before and in the Robertson community in particular I’ve met people that stand up for equality, justice and their beliefs more than anyone else. I’ve forced myself to really question what I do and why I do things and I’ve learned more than I could have imagined. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have been challenged this much had I stayed in New Zealand.
- Understanding and connections to postgrad programs. 4 years at university here will give you plenty of time to learn about where you might want to study and specialize and particular professors to work under and research you want to focus on. You’ll be a part of a more academic culture and there will be more students to learn from and discuss your postgrad ambitions with.
I’m pretty exhausted from all this typing so I’ll move on to cons of US/pro’s of NZ.
- New Zealand is amazing. I have a rough plan to work and travel abroad for 5-10 years before I move back home to have a family. Why? NZ seems relatively underpopulated, quality of life is incredible, there are so many beaches, mountains and lakes, etc. Everyone in the U.S. thinks New Zealand is paradise, and once you leave you can see why.
- The people. The friends you make at uni are hard to beat - we have a lot of fun, like the outdoors and have a pretty no nonsense attitude. I think we also have a better sense of humour than Americans.
- More relaxed. Although you can get through a top US university doing less work than I originally thought, the expectation is much higher than in NZ (and rightly so). It depends on your goals and the balance you want to strike. Duke in particular is a school that has a strong balance of academic, social, school spirit, cultural and sporting elements.
- Better fit learning style/competition. Sometimes it’s better to be the top student of a less competitive university (NZ) than a more regular student at a “world” university. Being a top student in NZ gives you a lot of confidence, access to the very best mentors and professors and post-grad scholarships. It’s probably easier to get caught up in the mix and lose direction if you’re at a top international university, away from home and exposed to such a range of experiences. I suppose this depends on your personality. I like to think these top universities have a place for everyone, but it is helpful to be bold, curious and confident (US university is more competitive, and they promote an active learning style).
- Minimal adjustment period. In NZ, you know what to expect, you will fit in very easily and can quickly figure how to optimize university (in all capacities).
- Close to home (and you feel close to home). It’s nice to know you can go home for any holiday or weekend period. Again it depends on your personality. That said, being abroad will strengthen your independence.
- Waiting till postgrad could be difficult because you might be over university after 3/4 years in New Zealand. You might just want to find a job and get stuck into it, and I it’s more difficult to find a job abroad if you study in NZ.
That’s all from the top of my head. I hope it is helpful.