Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies on Perceptions of International Students

By Bourke, Brian | College Student Journal, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies on Perceptions of International Students


Bourke, Brian, College Student Journal


Films represent a powerful medium for shaping and informing perceptions of a wide range of social structures and institutions, including higher education. Colleges and universities in the United States have been the subject or setting of dozens of films. The purpose of this article is to provide an analysis of a small group of films released in recent years that portray the undergraduate college experience in the United States. Through this analysis themes were identified that can shed light on the ways in which international audiences might come to understand higher education in the United States.

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"... there is a blurring between 'real' college and 'feel' college." (Tucciarone, 2004, p. iii)

Modern life is surrounded by and embedded in media. "Contemporary college students are immersed in a popular culture that is largely defined by ... movies ..." (Seyforth & Golde, 2001, p. 3). It is through media that we first learn about the world beyond our neighborhoods and outside of our borders. Media can tell us a great deal about things we have yet to experience, and "media can also influence one's reality" (Tucciarone, 2004, p. 92). A form of media in which higher education has had a steady presence through the years is the motion picture. Approximately 75 motion pictures have been produced that feature United States (U. S.) higher education. These films have used institutions of higher learning both as a physical setting, and as element to aid in moving stories forward. Just as with "real" colleges, "reel" colleges provide students with plentiful challenges, but only sometimes adequate support.

Scholarly publications have been populated with manuscripts about the use of films in teaching in college classrooms (Bluestone, 2000; Marcus, 2006; Seyforth & Golde, 2001). There have been scholarly efforts in which the portrayals of different groups have been explored, including professors (Bauer, 1998) and community college students (Bourke, Major, & Harris, 2009). Despite the attention provided in these works, to date, scholarly attention has not been given to the ways in which popular media might shape perceptions of international students preparing to study in the U. S. "As an international student, you may not realize that [education in the U. S.] differs significantly from the education you are accustomed to in your country" (Abel, 2002, p. 13). The purpose of this article is to highlight some assumptions that a group of films might aid international students in developing.

While the works reviewed in this paper may not necessarily represent higher education in what many would view as its most realistic and authentic form (see Hinton, 1994; Umphlett, 1984), they do provide their audiences with a glimpse into American higher education, possibly for the first time. These films might serve to inspire audiences to pursue higher education in the U. S., or offer a perspective, no matter how skewed it may appear, on an experience yet to come. It has been theorized that producers of images have a power over audiences that results in molding perceptions through the ways elements of a culture are portrayed (Grady, 2007).

Portrayal of higher education in film

Higher education's depiction on the silver screen has evolved over the last nine decades since the advent of films that included dialogue (Hinton, 1994; Umphlett, 1984). In many ways, the films have reflected the social climate and attitudes toward higher learning within the U.S. at the time they were produced. For example, Horsefeathers (McLeod, 1932) reflects a time in which extracurricular efforts, including intercollegiate sports, were becoming a more recognizable and celebrated part of college life (Thelin, 2004), Films of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as The Nutty Professor (Lewis, 1963), a heightened sense of urgency toward scientific exploration and discovery that accompanied the space race, and what was deemed to be a shortage of Ph. …

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