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Louisiana State University

Films represent a poweril 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.

"... there is a blurring between 'real '

college and 'reel'college. "
(Tucciarone, 2004, p. Hi)
Modem 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
inuence 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 plentifiil challenges, but only
sometimes adequate support.
Scholarly publications have been populated with manuscripts about the use of films
in teaching in collge 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
sttident, you may not realize that [education in
the U. S.] differs significantlyfi-omthe 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
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 tbeorized that producers of images have

Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies... /463

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 refiected 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), Fihns 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.D. students in the U.S. (Thelin, 2004).
Although extracurricular and co-curricular
activities, along with increasing fimds directed toward research, have remained a part of
higher education in the U. S., the tone of films
about higher education began to change in the
1960s (Hinton, 1994). No longer did films extol the fiin and rewards that could be reaped
through college attendance. The release of The
Graduate (Nichols) in 1967 signaled a shift in
the ways in which higher education and its assumed benefits were projected on the screen. In
The Graduate, Ben Braddock, struggles in part
with aspects of discovering who he really was
and who he wanted to be after he had graduatedfi-omcollege. College-based films produced
in the 1970s condnued to refiect the turbulent
times in which they were made. The student
characters often found themselves struggling;
struggling with faculty, fellow students, hfe
decisions, and self doubt.
Missing fi-om fihns through the 1970s
were depictions of students, faculty and staff
who did not fit the mold of being White,

middle class and, mostly male. The iconic

film National Lampoon's Animal House
(Landis, 1978) cast Black men as being outside of the academy, and served the functions
of entertainment and potential aggressor for
the White students. Student racial diversity
became incorporated into more films in the
1980s. Student diversity remained tokenized
in many of the releases of the 1980s. Soul
Man (Miner, 1986) features a White student
donning black face in order to "earn" a scholarship intended for students of color at Harvard University. Soul Man, along with Spike
Lee's School Daze (1988), brought attention
to the underrepresentation of Blacks in films
depicting higher education in the U.S..
The films of the 1990s were a mix of
poignant social criticisms, depictions of intercollegiate athletics, and good time U. The
most notable film released in the 1990s that
dealt with social issues was Higher Learning
(Singleton, 1995). In Higher Learning, John
Singleton brought realism to a film about
college life, although hyper-dramatized, that
had been missing since Love Story (19) and
The Paper Chase (1973). Fihns depicting
intercollegiate athletics focused on stories of
individual players and their time on the field.
Rudy (Anspaugh, 1993) provided a glimpse of
a young man with a dream, and who would
not let starting his pursuit of higher education
at a commimity college dissuade him fi-om
ultimately playing football at the University
of Notre Dame. This feel good tale into films
that highlighted the good times associated
with the college years. /'Ci[/(Bochner, 1994),
billed as the Animal House (Landis, 1978) of
its day, focused on the fiin to be had in college,
and that college is more about the journey
than the destination, a concept that is touched
on in literature stressing the importance of out
of class experiences (i.e. Astin, 1984; Kuh,
Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2005;
Kuh, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 1991).
The last decade has also yielded a wide
variety of films about college life in the U. S.

464 / College Student Journal

Fm makers have provided audiences with
perspectives of college life in times past. In
dohig so, they also brought social issues of
those times to the attention of today's audiences. From Mona Lisa Smile (Newell, 2003)
to The Great Debaters (Washington, 2007)
Experiences of International Students in
American Higher Education
Increasing scholarly attention has been directed toward the experiences of international
students in colleges and universities in the U.
S., particularly in the area of social experiences and engagement (see Lacina, 2002; Zhao,
Kuh & Carini, 2005), and adjustment issues
(see Al-Sharideh & Goe, 1998; Civil Rights
Project, 2003). Despite these more recent
efforts, what we do know about international
students who choose to enroll in colleges and
universities in the U.S. is limited. Even less is
known about how international students make
choices about studying in the U. S.
Upon arriving on a college or university
campus in the U. S., international students
face a broad range of adjustment issues. International students face many of the same
issues as their domestic counterparts, with
the added difiBculties of adjusting to a new
culture, being thousands of milesfi-omhome,
possibly with oceans separating them fi-om
their loved ones and familiar surroimdings.
Language is a barrier for many international
students, not only in adjusting to English, but
also to colloquial linguistic differences that
varyfi-omregion to region within the U. S.
Adding a layer of complexity to the adjustment issues for international students are
the efforts that many students have to make
as they try to find their place in a new social
environment. As noted previously, language
represents an obstacle for many international
students in adjusting, but tbere are also standards for social interaction that vary among
cultures (Hayes & Lin, 1994).
International students who choose to
study in the U.S. also face the issues relating

to stereotypes. Most often associated with

Alrican American students, stereotype threat
(Steele & Aronson, 1995) is a concept that
is applicable to international students fi-om
many different countries and cultures. Stereotype threat is the result of individuals internalizing stereotypes that are held and vocalized
toward members of their group, whether racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural.
Role of film in shaping perceptions
As a medium, film represents an art form
with which viewers connect not only via
visual and aural sensation, but perhaps also
through their consciousness and subconscious
(McGinn, 2005). We view films and construct
their meanings filtered through our own experiences and perceptions. But in the absence of
personal experiences, fihn has the potential to
aid in constructing our perceptions (McGinn,
2005). Films are spatial, temporal, representing a time and space, that through the magic
of cinema, becomes real (McGinn, 2005). For
the diu-ation ofthe film, the viewer is coimected to the time and space in which the film is
located. It is this connection on a metaphysic
level (McGinn, 2005) that reveals the power
that movies have over audiences. Therein lays
the potential of movies to become a powerful
tool in shaping the perceptions that audiences
have of American higher education.
In addition to a metaphysic connection
between film and audience, there is also a relational element that is developed between film,
audience, and society. The nature of this relationship rests in a kind of language that evolves
out of the movie viewing experience (Metz,
1991). This language forms as viewers take in
the filtrij connecting the events of the film to
the events of their own Uves, binding viewer to
fihn. A bond is made possible through the medium of film because there is believabihty in
the film that connects to the viewers' reahties.
Even if a setting or plot is the construction of
pure fantasy, a connection or bond to viewers'
reahties can be forged (McGinn, 2005).

Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies... / 4 6 5

Table 1:

Box Office Revenues of Films Used in Analysis

Film Title

Release Date

International Gross

Domestie (U.S. ) Gross

Worldwide Gross






Road Trip





Wonder Boys





Van Wilder















Due to the nature of film, the apphcation
of a particular research method is hampered.
As the films analyzed are not part a set of
data that have been collected in the traditional sense by the researcher, they do not
represent a means of recording elements via
ethnography or other type of study. Because
of the audio-visual elements inherent to films,
a traditional conception of document analysis
is not applicable either. But, if the fihns are
considered as texts in a more post-structural
conception (see Best & Kellner, 1991), films
represent a viable data source for analysis.
The films document a series of interpretations.
The interpretation of this data begins with the
production of each film, and continues with
the audience, in this case the researcher. The
screenplays or a transcription of the dialogue
and action on the screen are not privileged
over the interpretation of the visual and aural
elements (see Best & Kellner).
Six films were used for analysis, have all
been released since 2000, and had international box office gross totals that constituted
at least 10% of worldwide gross totals. The
box office criteria was used for selecting
films as a means of selecting films that had
commercial appeal with international audiences. Each film was set in the present day, as
films set in other periods of history might be
viewed as telling a story of what was, rather
than potentially shaping perceptions of what

is. Also excludedfi-omthe analysis were films

focusing on intercollegiate athletics, with the
intended focus of the analysis resting with
what an international audience might perceive
of the undergraduate experience in American
higher education, as communicated through
the medium of fihn. A list of the fihns analyzed is provided in Table 1. Also provided
in Table 1 are the box office earnings for each
film, provided to highlight the relevance of including each film in the current analysis. The
interpretive analysis of this article is based in
large part on the researcher's own experiences, and the way in which those experiences
influence the viewing of these fihns. While
taken at face value this inherent bias produces
fiawed analytical results, the recognition of
such bias and associated positionality (see
Chiseri-Strater, 1996) can serve the overall
project by causing the researcher to reflect
on each film at a deeper level. As Strauss and
Corbin note, "experience and knowledge are
what sensitizes the researcher to significant
problems and issues in the data and allows
him or her to see alternative explanations and
to recognize properties and dimensions of
emergent concepts" (1998, p. 59).
Through the analysis of the films, themes
emerged that provide insights into the portrayal
of higher education in the U.S. in poptar films.
The themes presented in this paper represent

466 / College Student Journal

the most dominant that emerged through analysis, and that are most illustrative of the ways in
which films might shape perceptions of higher
education in the U. S.. The themes are discussed below are (1)fiancomes first, where the
student experience is fiamed and dominated by
fiivolify and bad choices, while academic rigor
are secondary and ancillary, (2) rules can be
ignored, leaving the rules and regulations of an
institution to be easily sidestepped or ignored
all together, and (3) authorify figures get in the
way of having fun.
Fun Comes First
The most prevalent of the themes that
emerged through the analysis of the films, fun
and irresponsibilify come together as the key
to the student experience. The student protagonists are seldom seen studying or having discussions that even border on being academic
in their scope. Fun becomes the central focus
and pursuit in students' lives.
It is only when confi"onted with the stark
realify of facing a failing grade or expulsion
thatfimtakes a back seat to academic pursuits.
The m of Road Trip (2000) quickly changes
to panic when the impending doom of Josh's
philosophy exam sets in. Van's fun in Van
Wilder (2002) takes on a different meaning
when his father tells him that he will no longer pay for Van to have fun in college. The fiin
comes crashing down for the main characters
in both Slackers (2000) and Accepted (2006)
when the consequences of their choices are
questioned and brought to light.
In establishing their faux college. South
Harmon Institute of Technology, the main
characters of Accepted (2006) are portrayed
as placing fun before all else. After all, why
create classes if your college does not really
exist? Even upon "enrolling" a horde of new
students, scenes at South Harmon Institute
of Technology show its residents engaged in
what can largely be described as fim, and very
little of which that can be described as formal

learning experiences. But as depicted in the

climax of the film before the state's higher
education commission, students at South Harmon Institute of Technology are engaged in
learning, even though it reflects more fun that
formally recognized teachhig and learning
In Road Trip (2000), the only character
that appears remotely concemed with the
potential for dire consequences that could accompany the fun of the road trip is Josh. The
others who join in the adventures of the road
trip leave any concems of classes, studying,
or academic progress behind them in Ithaca,
New York, as they make their way to Austin,
Rules Can Be Ignored
A theme that appears through each of the
fihns centers on the idea that rules can be sidestepped, or ignored all together. This group
of films comes close to sharing a common
plot of actively working to circumvent rules.
Protagonists approach rules and standards as
suggestions. Because they are suggestions,
they do not necessarily need to be obeyed.
Slackers (2002), Van Wilder (2002), and
Accepted (2006) are films that convey the
perspective that rules are merely suggestions. The main characters of Slackers are
three undergraduates who tum cheating into
an art form, and use it without worry. The
effort that they put toward cheating shows
that the three students are motivated and talented, but choose to use those talents toward
skirting rules. In Accepted, Bartleby and his
compatriots ignore mies, and perhaps a moral
axiom, by creating an elaborate deception
in the creation of South Harmon Institute of
This perspective toward rules is not limited to students in this group of films. Wonder
Bays (2000), which has less of an emphasis on
the student experience and focuses instead on
other institutional players, suggests students

Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies... /467

might find faculty who shrug off rules and regtilations. Professor Grady Tripp only communicates concern for rules and regulations when
informing his student James Leer, or his editor
Terry Crabtree precisely which rules are being
compromised at various points in Wonder Boys.
In Loser (2000), Professor Alcot finds himself
entangled in two scenarios that cross the Unes
of estabhshed rules. First, he is engaged in a
romantic affair with one of his students, Dora
Diamond. Second, he readily agrees to give
three students As in exchange for their silence
regarding his relationship with Dora, and attempts to make the same arrangement with the
film's protagonist, Paul, who does not ask for
the favor, and dutifully refuses it.
Authority figures get in the way of fun
Common to many fihns about youtb and
coming of age tales is the role of authority.
In the fihns an authority figure actively seeks
out the films' young protagonists to stop any
fun that they may have. This theme is present
in each of the films analyzed for this article.
For some, authority is represented through a
single individual, while for others authority
reveals itself through a moral awakening.
Faculty and teaching assistants regularly
stand in the way of students' fun, sometimes
out of a sense of moral duty, but sometimes
out of retribution. Jacob, the teaching assistant in Road Trip (2000), actively works to
trip up Josh, posing as the professor on the
phone and providing Josh with misleading
information about the scheduling of the final
exam in Josh's philosophy course. Professor
McDoogle pushes Van fF/Wer (2002) throughout his seven years at Coolidge College. It is
not until the end of the film that Van (and the
viewer) come to learn that Professor McDoogle pushed Van so hard because Professor
McDoogle believed in Van and his potential.
Bartelby Barnes spends the duration of
Accepted (2006) working against authority.
In creating his own fictional college, Bartelby

sought to work aroimd authority. Because no

college would accept him for admission, he
fashioned what he hoped would be a clever
ploy to fool his parents, whe . When his
efforts were called fi-ont and center by Dean
Van Homfi-omneighboring Harmon College,
Bartelby and bis fiiends ultimately find themselves defending their institutional efforts before the state's higher education commission.
A moral awakening is had by the main
characters in Slackers (2000), and to a lesser extent in Wonder Boys (2000). In Wonder
Boys, Professor Grady Tripp does find himself
working against the authority, both professionally and personally, of Walter Gaskell, the
chair of the English department. But, he has
a moral awakening via his time with troubled
student James Leer, and in attempting to make
right his relationship with Dean Sara Gaskell,
chancellor and wife of Walter Gaskell.
The implications of these portrayals of
American higher education and the images
they conjtire are largely tinknown. The interaction between the self and one's perceptions
of the images portrayed might be metaphysical (McGinn, 2005). But, so much of what
we do know about the psyche and the ways in
which individuals learn and grow in the college years are based on constructed knowing.
While the themes presented in this article
have pertained to characters within the films,
there are themes that emerged through the
analysis that pertain more broadly to bigher
education in the U. S. These themes have to
do with perspectives on the role of attending
college, outcomes of college attendance, and
the interaction between college attendance
and life in general.
A fihn like Van Wilder (2002) sends a particular message about American higher education to international audiences: come study
in America and you can learn how to have fUn
in college the American way, just like Taj.

468 / College Student Journal

Such a portrayal of American higher education presents assumptions about not only the
nature of collegiate life, but also about academic rigor. Likewise, Slackers (2000) communicates that collegiate life has little to do
with academics, and that classes are hurdles
to be overcome by any means necessary, but
not through hard work.
Regardless of how outlandish a film
comes across, or how close to home it hits,
its portrayal of higher education is worthy of
examination. Whether the fihn is a slapstick
comedy, melodrama, or slasher psycho-thriller, an aspect of its portrayal of higher education is likely to ring true for some audience
members, whether it matches their own
expectations, lived experiences, or reafiBrms
a belief about higher education. As scholars
who study higher education, examination of
the portrayal of the ivory tower in popular
fihn provides us with the opportunity to turn
the lens of scrutiny upon ourselves, and to
consider how we are perceived.

higher education in the U.S. is depicted. Each

theme reveals a great deal about the ways in
which international students may come to see
higher education in the U. S. For their celebrated attributes, and in spite of their flaws,
colleges and universities continue to represent
a pinnacle of educational opportunity across
the globe. Movies that depict higher education
in the U.S. offer a glimpse into what might be
awaiting those who choose to enter the iron
gates and enter the hallowed halls.
Even though, as bell hooks (1996) notes,
movies are not real, she also notes that audiences do perceive realities fi-om the images
projected on the screen. The space between
reality and perceptions of reality is where
the power of films lays. By considering how
incoming international students might perceive higher education in the U.S. through
film portrayals, educators can work to help
hitemational students adjust to the reality on
campus rather than the reality on screen.
A U.S. film production company executive
noted that fihns made in the U.S. are not made
Concluding Thoughts
solely for enjoyment of audiences in the U.S.
box-ofiBce receipts," 1993). The inLooking to fihns as a source of data offers
appeal of U.S. -produced
significant implications to higher education.
to the thesis presented in
Films provide so much more than mere enterthis
as interest in studytainment. They offer audiences an opportuniing
ty to gain perspectives on the college experistudents,
ence, fi-om the glory of Accepted {2006) and
Van Wilder (2002), to the challenges of Road
Trip (2000) and Wonder Boys (2000). Analyzing the portrayal of higher education in the
Author notes
U.S. in popular films can provide the higher
education community with mirror of sorts.
Brian Bourke, Ph.D., is an assistant proLooking into this mirror, although sometimes fessor of Higher Education & Student Affairs
distorted, might provide an additional avenue in the School of Education at Louisiana State
of accountability that is always needed as University. All inquiries or comments about
we seek out ways to better meet the needs of this manuscript should be forwarded to Brian
students, faculty, and all who have a stake or Bourke at
claim to the higher education enterprise.
The analysis, while based in part on my
own perspectives, is not based in or reflective
of any condemnation of the ways in which

Coming to America: The Influence of College-Themed Movies... / 469

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