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. 

The research is “participatory” in the sense that international students are invited as “participants” who take “action,” through storytelling, toward helping one another successfully navigate a new system of higher education (instead of being considered the “subject” of study as in much of conventional research). By facilitating the process of sharing stories and joining the conversation (through commenting on one another’s stories), this project aims to help international students “translate” past experiences, knowledge, and skills as they strive to transition to and succeed in US universities.

To quickly highlight the method, PAR originated in the 1940s, especially from the work of Kurt Lewin and the Tavistock Institute. PAR is based on the idea that research must be done “with” people and not “on” or “for” them. In the words of Mary Brydon-Miller and Patricia Maguire,

PAR expands the notion of researcher to include a range of stakeholders who collaboratively engage in all phases of the action-reflection cycle. The intentional focus on collaborative research, action for social change, and participant education shifts inquiry from an individual to a collective endeavor, intentionally aimed at transformative personal, organizational, and structural change. (79)

In the case of international students, this method of study and engagement makes a lot of sense because theirs is not only a very diverse group but most of them also have a rich set of academic, sociocultural, and linguistic knowledge on which they can build if they are given the opportunity to learn and share experiences with those who have gone through the academic transition and success.

Web 2.0 platforms and tools add a whole set of affordances that help to realize the objectives of PAR. For one thing, it is now possible and easy to build the “community” that PAR encourages. Blog-based platforms allow researchers to collect participant stories, allowing them and visitors to have conversations through comments. On TS, other social media functions are gradually being added. Especially when it is done on the open, interactive web, the conversation tremendously enhance the participants’ epistemological agency and ability to affect change.

The “research” dimension of the TS project will involve analyzing the stories as they grow in numbers and serve as material for scholarly discourse on and off line. The data set will also include “expert posts” that are being contributed to by established scholars who are involved in teaching international students and/or studying issue of academic transition and success that affect them. The objective of making available relatively theoretical and scholarly posts–some of which are based on personal experiences of former international students and others are based on experiences of teaching or doing research about international students by local scholars–alongside international students’ stories is to intentionally blur the line between experience and reflection, theory and practice in the conversations.

There are already four dozen stories in less than a year, and I hope to collect about a hundred stories a year. There is a small reward for contributors, though I’m not sure how big a role that has played.

Translating Success: Teaching with Stories

Besides running it as a community-based research project, I use the Translating Success project as a resource for teaching (indeed, the project came out of the classroom). I assign the stories on the project site for reading and writing in the classroom, especially in my first-year writing courses. My own students cannot submit their stories until after they’ve completed the course, but they can emulate, be inspired, read and discuss, and also respond to published stories.

When students read the stories for class, they spark very lively conversations about academic challenges that international students fact. Quite interestingly, local students join the conversation and share their own challenges; while international students bring up their personal experiences of cross-contextual academic transition focusing on a variety of issues and challenges, local students share similar issues of academic transition, struggle, and success when they transitioned from high school to college. Some local students are inspired to discuss challenges related to their backgrounds in terms of region, class, culture, race, and learning styles.

In a follow up assignment, I have students analyze the published stories. Writing about authentic stories written by someone like them seems to inspire highly engaged writing. I then assign students to write their own stories for class. And, finally, I let students use the stories as secondary source when they write research papers on related topics if they choose to.

Students write their own stories in the form of blogs (within the university’s learning management system, because I don’t want to require them to publish their experiences on the web yet). Students comment on each other’s stories and have follow-up conversations in class. Some students also choose to comment on the published stories on the site, which helps them engage in meaningful conversation with external audiences (indeed with “published authors”).

When students write to describe their own experiences, to understand new ideas that they’re struggling to understand, and to explore new systems through writing, they evidently show greater interest, take greater sense of ownership, and find writing more meaningful.

Instead of starting with what they don’t know about and focusing on what they lack, writing about (especially as a means for learning about) things that they’re dealing with on a daily basis also seems to make students express stronger opinions, include more thoughtful ideas and observations in their writing, and are be more critical and creative. Writing for and as a community much larger than the classroom sets for students a higher bar of quality of output and engagement.

On the website, I have provided very few and very flexible instructions; the same is true of paper assignments for students in class. Perhaps students read the stories and are influenced by what they read; but interestingly, none of the writers on the site—and few of the students in my classes—lack originality in their writing. They seem to follow narrative schemas but they have quite unique stories to tell and quite powerful reflections to share.

And, finally, even though most contributors on the web are not my own students, the fact that there are already 3000 visits on the site, a number of thank you emails from international students in other universities, and in two cases from university staff involved in international students’ orientation means that I can’t imagine a more meaningful way to integrate research, teaching, and service to a community of students where I belonged not too long ago.

Finally, let me highlight the power of community-based writing on one’s daily challenges which also leads to conversation by pointing out a few stories on the TS project site. In a story titled “Benefits of Discomfort,” a South Korean student named  Yeongmin shows how his academic experience in the Korean-American military program turns out to be a positive educational experience. He implicitly urges his fellow international students to look at the initial struggle optimistically. Indeed, as another student comments on the blog entry, it is a piece of advice that may help other, especially younger students when they are going through the same rough ride in the beginning. The commenter, named Raj, says:

This is such a wonderful story. As international students, we all face discomfort especially in the beginning. Being new to everything, we can be confused and lost. But if we realize that it is okay to be in discomfort in the process of learning, then we will not panic. I hope I could read your story when I was a new student. Thank you for sharing it.

Some writers offer direct advice. In another story, a computer science doctoral student from Iran, named Moussa, gives readers advice about learning to “think in English,” expanding vocabulary, and learning idiomatic language. Many writers are creative and funny, and each of them is thought provoking and educational in a unique way.

Given that the number of students coming to the US from around the world is continuing to rise, increasing the diversity of their language proficiency levels and their language identities, I think that approaches like these are becoming not only useful but also necessary.

When the diversity of “international” students backgrounds—their experiences, knowledge, and skills—begin to invalidate our attempts to asses “what they need,” simply because that “they” is just too complex to describe, the kind of approach I’ve described here can help teachers and administrators (as well as researchers) to not have to rely on “slippery” identity-based assessment of students’ needs and challenges.

It is possible and necessary to let “international” students identify and tackle the challenges themselves and to use their experiences, perspectives, and learning as the basis of our teaching, support, and scholarship.

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