Helping International Students Transition and Succeed – I

This is a reblog of a post that I wrote for RhetComp@StonyBrook, a blog that I started and facilitated for a year (2013-14) for the Program in Writing in Rhetoric at my university.

Part I: The Big Picture

Moving from one academic context into another, including in the case of academic disciplines and even levels, can be challenging for any student. But transitioning from the educational culture of one country to that of another altogether can add a whole new set of difficulties. In this post, I would like to highlight how significantly difference in educational practices affect international students’ academic transition and success. Continue reading

Some Notes on IGS Book

For any colleagues who can spare a few minutes about my first major field research-based book project, which is about how American universities support international graduate students with their academic transition and success, here are a few notes.

First, here is the brief blurb that I sent to the publisher:

Using qualitative data collected from more than twenty universities across the US, Writing Support for International Graduate Students describes and theorizes agency- and advocacy-driven practices, programs, and policies that are most effective in helping international students learn graduate-level writing and communication skills. It uses compelling narratives and cases to illustrate a variety of program models and support practices that fostered the students’ process of academic transition and success. Employing an ecological framework, the book seeks to advance academic conversation about how writing scholars/instructors and program administrators, as well as other academic service professionals working with this student body, can formulate policies, develop programs, and implement practices that best help these students grow as writers and scholars in their disciplines.

Here is a brief excerpt from proof copy.

To share a little bit about my experience writing the book, I took a lot longer to complete the research and writing than I had planned. The project evolved. I started the research planning to focus on STEM students, but I quickly realized that international graduate students across the disciplines face similar challenges (with some variations that I could explore later). I had also planned to spend a semester or two for collecting data, but I ended up spending more than three years gathering interviews and field notes at universities across the country (plus at a few conferences), including a variety of institutions with a variety of support programs. Here is a little more about the background to this work.

I learned a lot in this process. Here are just a few thoughts:

  • Writing a book on the tenure timeline (if it’s a major part of the application) is risky. I know this is not any original wisdom, but I felt it firsthand and strongly. However, I also think that as long as the book is not the sole foundation for a tenure case or one’s sense of progress, then it is a good idea to put a book on a timeline: you get it done. I had a backup plan (and progress) for publishing a total of one to two dozen articles and chapters in edited collections, and I met this goal, but my mentors advised that it was smart to also complete the book. The advice was stress-inducing but very useful. And the fact that I wasn’t banking too much on the book saved my sanity, especially when the research and then reviews and publication took nearly four years, instead of two.
  • One cannot do justice to everything. If a researcher tries to cover some scope, then it is not easy to go for depth as well. Perhaps I could have added a few in-depth case studies to the thematic framework of the book, but the cases might not represent the broader themes. This is a challenge for next time (would like to read in the comment if anyone has a thought). Going for a larger scope and also striving for nuance made the project neither here nor there, but it is also difficult to learn about a subject by opting for one route or another. In the end, some aspect of the research gets covered in the book and some done. I’m sure there will be criticisms due to the lack of depth or scope in one way or another, but I hope to address gaps in this work by doing more work in the future.
  • Research methodology must be supplemented with people methodology. The first few university visits were a favor done by friends who were willing to connect me to people. Visiting to a few places helped to establish trust for going to other places where I didn’t have intimate colleagues. I am so deeply grateful to the colleagues who supported me, especially early on.
  • It’s important to start with a broader view of things, at least for the purpose of research approval. IRB offices tend to be very unfriendly to scholars who research teaching/learning, and I understand where they come from, but the fact that projects like mine almost always evolve means that one must write the IRB proposal with this understanding. Doing so will allow a researcher to let people, places, findings, and opportunities shape and improve the project along the way.
  • Publishers and editors confused me, but I also learned to understand them. I felt that university presses and grant makers remain “conservative” in that they seemed to lack confidence in publishing research done by a guy with a strange name, and I say this because I couldn’t imagine other feasible explanations. Editors in professional organizations seem open minded (and might even favor diversity of authorship, research, and perspectives) but they are too limited by thematic focus (understandable), page length (understandable), or their own idea of process or review (they should stop inadvertently undermining confidence of younger scholars).
  • Hindsight is 20-20. Everything makes sense when looking back. So, it is extremely important for scholars embarking on large projects to stick to it, to change course when it becomes unproductive, to be proactive, to be willing to spend unlimited amounts of time on the project if it’s moving in the right direction. . . .  What matters is the commitment to the project, the knowledge that it will create, the change it might make in the field and in society.

I could go on and on, but let me stop, with a few reviews for the book (for which I am truly grateful):

Dr. Michelle Cox Director, English Language Support Office, Cornell University Past Chair, Consortium on Graduate Communication:

Writing Support for International Graduate Students: Enhancing Transition and Success is a must read for everyone involved in writing instruction and research, graduate program administration, and international education. Through his extensive on-the-ground research at over twenty universities, Sharma has brought to light the very best approaches to sup- porting international graduate writers while also developing a theoretical framework that highlights student agency. If taken seriously, this book will be transformative to the ways in which universities across the Unites States and beyond welcome and support international graduate students. 

Dr. Juan C. Guerra, University of Washington at Seattle:

Writing Support for International Graduate Students vividly captures the numerous challenges international graduate students are likely to encounter in the course of writing their way into the university, and provides an array of critical interventions faculty can call on to ease the transition.

Dr. Chris R. Glass, Associate Professor, Old Dominion University:

The book provides a nuanced and in-depth exploration of how international students learn to write and communicate, with program models, support strategies, and resources that make a real difference. The interviews and practical examples will make you rethink how your program or institution approaches international student writing development and what it means for international students to ‘find their voice’ in written assignments and verbal presentations.

I truly appreciate the great colleagues who took the time to read the book and share their thoughts.

And I will appreciate any comments you may want to share. Thank you!

Helping International Students Transition and Succeed – II

Part II: Specific Suggestions

In the first part of this post, I highlighted some general difficulties that international students face during their academic transition, focusing on the challenge of understanding/implementing new ideas, assumptions, and approaches about learning and teaching in a new academic system/culture. In this follow up entry, I list some specific suggestions for helping int’l students with writing in particular and their academic transition and success in general.

Here’s a 2-page .pdf version — feel free to share.

Encouraging International Students to Learn about the Big Picture  Continue reading

“Who? Me?”–International Students, Pedagogically Undefined

“How many of you are ‘international’ students?” I asked one of my college writing classes the first day of semester some time ago.

About a third of the twenty or so students raised their hands, including some that were half-raised, so I paused to ask what that meant.

One student responded: “I was born here in the US but studied in Korea, and my English is not good.” Her father had been a scientist working in the US but the family decided to live back home after some time, eventually sending their daughter back for higher education. A second student had migrated to the US from the Caribbean while he was in middle school but he said he still had concerns about language fluency in general. Yet another student had come to the US more recently but was fluent in speech; instead he was worried about his writing skills. None of these students were on student visa status in the US.

At this point, two additional students decided to join the conversation, and one of them said, “I am NOT an international student but a lot of people think I am, because I ‘look like’ one.” Continue reading

International Students Undefined: Teaching and Research

In part I of this post, I discussed the difficulty of “defining” international students. A brief recap: because the word “international” is basically borrowed from the visa section of the International Center, it often means little or nothing when we want to use it for fine-tuning teaching (or for placement purposes). In this post, I describe one main strategy that I use for addressing the challenge.

When I gave up on the term “international” as a convenient way to figure out who needs catching up, I started designing a series of assignments that could help students identify their own challenges. The assignments allow students to study and make explicit the implicit assumptions and expectations of the course and academic work at large, to become aware of their weaknesses and their strengths, and finally, to write about the experiences and knowledge from their past. Such assignments also help students develop a metacognitive knowledge alongside the academic skills that they learn in order to succeed in the new system.

Before I discuss that pedagogical approach and activities and their benefits, however, let me quickly describe a research project that serves as a feedback loop to the pedagogy and helps me address the necessary but flawed logic of deficit, the persistent need to provide additional academic support to the stunningly diverse group of students called “international students.” Please skip to the “teaching section” below if you’re more interested in it.

Translating Success: The Research Project 

This is a participatory action research that I started in spring 2013. Hosted at, it is based on the idea that because “international” students are a very complex and diverse group of learners, they as individuals can best describe their needs, abilities, and progress.  Continue reading

Soft Skills for International Graduate Students

International graduate students accepted in US universities are arguably the best products of the academic systems in their home countries. However, when it comes to translating their prior academic success, these students still face an uphill battle.

Especially for students in the STEM fields, academic transition can be challenging because their academic disciplines and programs cannot afford the time and priority toward helping the students develop a broad enough range of academic and professional “soft” skills.

In this blog entry, I highlight some of the causes and consequences of academic and professional skills gap among international graduate students especially in STEM. Let me try to do so by using my personal experience of academic transition and my professional experience of working to support other international students navigate and succeed in the US academy. Continue reading

Part I: Translingual, Transcultural, Transnational — From Buzzwords to Teaching Strategies

Reposted from Transnational Writing blog

When reading the increasingly rich scholarship on translingual, transnational, and transcultural issues in the teaching of writing, I can’t help thinking that these terms, too, will soon be replaced by newer ones—criticized as insufficient, rejected as counterproductive, avoided as too political or impractical. As scholars have started emphasizing (at conferences, calls for proposals, and publications), if our discourse aboutteaching translingual skills, promoting transcultural/cross-cultural communicative competence, and incorporating transnational/global issues into the curriculum remains too abstract for too long, I think that it will backfire. We must complement the necessary theory-building with concrete pedagogies, practical applications, and accessible language if we want to engage fellow writing teachers, members of other disciplines, and administrators in conversations about curriculum and higher education at large.

Fortunately, in the last few years, it also seems that when we return from conferences to classrooms, we have started testing, adapting, and developing more concrete strategies for teaching the above skills and knowledge. In this post, I would like to share a few activities, assignments, and teaching ideas that were inspired by professional conversations in our field. Taken from two specific courses I teach, one in the Writing Program and one in a different department, these are works in progress and I would appreciate your comments and feedback on them. Continue reading

Part II: Translingual, Transcultural, Transnational — From Buzzwords to Teaching Strategies

Reposted from Transnatioanl Writing blog

In part 1 of this post, I shared assignments and activities that I use for teaching and promoting translingual skills, incorporating transnational issues, and fostering cross-cultural communicative competence in an undergraduate special-topic seminar titled “Global Citizenship.” In part 2, I would like to share how I try to do the same in a more more conventional first-year writing course, titled “Intermediate Writing Workshop,” one that is required of all students across the university. The lack of curricular space makes it relatively harder to achieve the same goals in mainstream writing courses, but I have been inspired by how well students have responded so far. Continue reading