“Most international graduate students accepted into U.S. universities,” says author Virginia Gonzalez, “are the cream of the crop from their home countries. Nevertheless, their adaptation to the new academic culture in the U.S. can be an arduous task.”
Indeed, the very fact that international students get selected by US universities is most often a proof that they are among the best students in their home countries. But consider the following situation that exemplifies how even these best and brightest can get lost with an example. A few years ago, a friend of mine went to see his professor when he thought the class he was taking was taking a toll on his time and energy. He later learned that he had understood the phrase “reading journals”—which, as most of us know, are normally very brief personal responses to what we read for class—as “journal articles,” being unable to write actual articles ended up writing summaries of all the journal articles he read for class! Not understanding one simple term about academic practices in a different system can make a huge difference.
Therefore, getting the opportunity to learn the terms and concepts and becoming familiar with the explicit and also implicit rules of the new academic system can make a huge difference for new international students. It can help them avoid falling into the U-curve before they get back on their feet and be the brilliant scholars that they proved to be before they left their homes.
In the fall of 2009, my former teacher and new dean of the graduate school in my university invited me to serve as her research assistant to find out what can be done to provide support to new and current international students (she had heard complaints from international students about the lack of support mechanisms). So, when I took that position, the first thing that I did is to develop a special workshop for incoming international graduate students that was designed to help them understand some of the fundamental principles that shape higher education in the U.S; the workshop also covered specific academic practices including variations across the disciplines, common classroom practices and necessary skills, ideas about research, the use of emerging technologies, and essentials about teaching for those who teach.
This interactive event also helped students to reflect on the academic culture in their home country as a starting point to drive home my basic tenet that international students should NOT consider themselves empty buckets even when they are overwhelmed by how much they don’t know. Within three hours, the participants of the workshop (which we organized about one month after classes started) were able to identify and talk about often unfamiliar ideas and perspectives underlying American higher education—what originality means, why critical thinking is valued, how research is defined, whether to call a professor by her first name, and many more—and, even more importantly, they left the half day workshop with a confidence that they also have a lot of skills, experiences, and useful perspectives that they bring from their academic and sociocultural backgrounds, all of which can be useful if they know how to draw or build on them.
Here are some of the features of this workshop that I intend to build on as part of my long term project. First, international students need to learn the basics—terms and concepts, skills for reading and writing, the more or less distinctive epistemological worldviews underlying academic practices—of American higher education. This, I call “transition” or filling the empty half of the bucket. For many international graduate students, language barrier can be a big challenge. But a bigger challenge for them is to learn about the discourse/language of their discipline, depending on how much previous exposure/experience they have had. One of the solutions to that challenge is to inform and encourage new students to use available educational resources—the library, the internet, books and articles, and the services in the university. Another solution is to encourage them to seek help with their professors when they sense a gap between the teacher’s expectation and their own understanding of the subject or skills required to perform well at school. Learning the language of the discourse can make a great difference in the pace and effectiveness of learning. In a study of library use conducted by Randall Parker, 38% of people who didn’t use English as their primary language reported satisfaction with searching for materials in a digital database, whereas 68% of native English language speakers were satisfied with the tool. Many students do not know about the support system that the university has in place and many others don’t become comfortable with seeking help for a variety of reasons. Programs for academic transition must both educate and encourage students to make use of university resources.
Besides learning new skills and the discourse of the discipline, international students also need to know about general concepts that characterize university education in the US. Every society and culture defines knowledge, learning, and education in different and unique ways. In order to make a quick and successful transition into the American academy, international students must understand some of the characteristic concepts that underlie the idea of education, research, new knowledge, the role of student, relationship with the teacher, and so on. In some cultures, education means “getting the facts right,” whereas in others it means participating in the process of creating new knowledge. Randall Parker conducted a study of this issue among his students and found that many of his international students “were so concerned with getting the ‘right’ answer that it was sometimes difficult to expand the depth of understanding of concepts or skills” (6). In many non-western cultures, individualism and competition do not shape the educational process as they do in the west. Students from many cultures are unable to adjust to the level of informality which affects their participation in class and communication with teachers. Students from some cultures are reluctant to ask questions or to receive feedback from colleagues or even teachers. Depending on how learning is defined in the society where they previously studied, students find it hard to go beyond summarizing and synthesizing what they read into analyzing and critiquing it.
Second, international students should start with and retain confidence in what they are already capable of. I call the process of utilizing or building upon past knowledge and skills “transfer.” One of the participants of the “Academic Transition Workshop for International Graduate Students” from 2009 writes the following in his reflection that he shared for the PLAN website:
When I had completed my first year excellently, I realized the reality of the theme of the workshop that “International Students are not empty vessels.” I remember the facilitators tell us about the basics of the US education system such as the practice of making appointments and meeting with with faculty members when support is necessary, participating in classroom conversation, the importance of writing, the availability of research support in the library and so on, which were really helpful for me. Thanks to my fellow graduate students who presented this useful workshop, I was able to start utilizing my past knowledge and skills very early while also identifying and learning what is new about the academic culture/practice in this country, my discipline, and this university.
Many universities have academic transition programs but they pay little or no attention to encouraging transfer at the same time; they attempt to teach new students new skills without paying much attention to how that imbalance can undermine the students’ confidence. As Abu’s writing clearly tells us, it is absolutely necessary to recognize and encourage the many useful skills that students bring into the new game. Many international students, even graduate students, have inadequate language proficiency but that doesn’t mean they are stupid; those students may be brilliant in the area of research skills, use of new technology, professional skills from the workplace, and knowledge of subject content.
Generally, universities also have a support system for international students in the form of the International Center which oversees all the official/legal and administrative issues for international students. But unfortunately, international students typically make the most important transition—academic transition—on their own! There seem to be few programs in U.S. universities that help new students with developing new academic skills, understanding cultural/epistemological concepts underlying academic practices, familiarizing themselves with discipline-specific discourses, learning new technology, and so on.
Similarly, universities also have programs in ESL but these service units are designed to assess international students’ language proficiency and sometimes to help them learn English better. They cannot help students with academic transition either. Some universities do offer orientations for incoming international students to help them better understand the academic practices in the American university.
However, academic orientations are too often based on counterproductive “deficit” models about international students as individuals who need to replace their old set of ideas, skills, and perspectives about higher education with new ones. Students are not only lectured about the American education system as if they don’t know anything about it but are also never helped in translating their past intellectual resources into a richer repertoire of intellectual assets for themselves. So it is unfortunate that even when programs for academic orientation do exist, they are based on the ideas of cultural differences that are absolute and taken for granted. “International” students are considered one big category of “others” who are defined by a lack of what is needed to succeed here in this country; varying degrees of their previous exposure to the globalized university as well as their familiarity with the American educational culture/system is seldom taken into account. What is necessary in this context is a new approach that both recognizes the intellectual resource that international graduate students bring into the academy while it also recognizes the need to educate these students about American educational culture. The workshop that I developed and presented collaboratively with other international and local students in the last three years has addressed and balanced both those needs in helping international students do their best after their arrival.
Third, it is necessary to emphasize that there are variations in the academic and professional practices and even value systems of different academic disciplines within the U.S. Often, those differences are as wider than cultural and national differences. I call this aspect of making the transition the only generally applicable feature about the American university: Never generalize anything in America! (adding that we shouldn’t do so anywhere). In order to represent the diversity of academic conventions and practices, I invite 3-4 fellow graduate students from across the discipline to join the panel of presenters. And, more interestingly, in order to emphasize the notion that graduate students in U.S. universities must be self-directed—one of the key themes discussed during the workshop—I also request faculty members from different disciplines to be present at the workshop and answer any questions that the participants have (as well as chime in whenever they want). This workshop has been a great success in the last three years.
Finally, to emphasize and extend the point about “transfer” that I discussed above, it is extremely important to NOT focus on what new international students don’t have, don’t know, can’t do…. The research that I did while developing this workshop, I must add, was a little frustrating for the reason I indicated above: too much focus on what international students don’t have! I call this the “attention to deficit” approach, and I think that this can be quite counterproductive. If you can a few extra moments, let me link a story that shows what happens when you focus on what students can do instead of what they can’t—unexpectedly helping them achieve the same positive goals of learning! To give you an example of the current literature that I call “frustrating,” here is what William Badke does in his article “International students: information literacy or academic literacy?” First, the author rightly highlights the need to help international students learn about the educational philosophy underlying the academic practices and culture in the west; but then he uses the contrasting educational styles and values in the west versus the rest of the world to discuss what the students need to learn! This kind of generalization is out of sync with the reality in a globalized world where universities across cultures share a significant range of practices, methods, and principles of higher education. A brief passage on this issue from his article is worth quoting here:
Western education may be contrasted with that of much of the rest of the world by observing that for Westerners information is not a goal but a tool. Unlike the centuries- old cultures around us, Westerners have largely abandoned reliance on their informational heritage in favor of a new ethos based on discovery. Most cultures derive their intellectual nourishment from their large and ancient knowledge base, valuing information for its own sake, passing it on to other generations through education, and adding to it only after considerable thought. Westerners, for the most part, value their knowledge base only to the extent that it is useful. In the classroom this means that there are usually many options in which vigorous debate is considered a higher function than merely “knowing.” For the international student, the ability to memorize is no longer the highest measure of intelligence. No longer is the teacher revered and never contradicted. Instead, a profoundly barbaric methodology is perpetrated in the classroom–knowledge is not a treasure to be valued but a tool for analysis and critique, bound up in the concept of “critical thinking.” Students challenge the views of their teachers and teachers of their students. Virtually anything that has been published is open to vigorous scrutiny. (7)
Badke goes on to cite Kris Torkelson who suggested that “the only solution to learning how to function in a Western classroom is for these students to change their educational philosophy” (ibid.). The idea of information as a goal in the “rest of the world” which Badke seems to suggest are “centuries old” in their outlook about knowledge sound rather odd to many students who have the experience of studying in universities abroad which share a lot of the academic culture of American universities. The approach that our workshop will take is not to “change” students’ educational philosophy but to make them aware of potential differences between what they previously believed and what they come across.
It is necessary to help new international students become aware that whenever they are confused about new academic practices in the new academy, they may be failing to understand the rationales underneath those practices. However, it is equally necessary to help them reflect on, utilize, and build upon the intellectual resources that they bring into the new game.
Badke, William. “International students: information literacy or academic literacy?.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 6 (2002): 60-66.
Parker, D. Randall. Teaching, Learning, and Working with International Students: A Case Study. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association (1999): 5-7.
Torkelson, Kris., “Using Imagination to Encourage ITAs to Take Risks.” Paper presented at the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages TESOL. 26th Annual Convention and Exposition, Vancouver, British Columbia (2001).
Thanks, Shyam, for your congent commentary. In considering my commentary on the needs of international students in western universities, I agree with you that my statements may seem black and white, while ignoring nuances. I taught in Africa for a couple of years and have worked extensively for decades with undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world, especially Asia. While it is true that some overseas universities have Americanized or base their educational philosophies on values other than the ones I cite in my article, my almost universal experience is that the most common problems of international students are not language but educational culture.
In particular, the West’s lack of valuing of traditional knowledge (as seen, for example, in our diminishing of memorization as a strong academic skill) is problematic for the majority of my international students who have worked with knowledge as content rather than as tool. They are critical thinkers, but have not been encouraged to challenge assumptions of teachers or other scholars, or problem-solve with academic knowledge. We in the West lack a capacity to assimilate large amounts of knowledge, to our detriment. Those not from the West can do this well, but a vast number of them have not been encouraged in our strange and chaotic patterns of questioning, challenging and questing after answers in the midst of multiple options.
That is not a matter of putting international students down but of getting at the heart of their struggles with our educational culture so that they can understand it well enough to function skilfully within it. Most Western professors will not accomodate to other educational cultures, so our international students, indeed, find themselves required to adapt to different patterns, unless, of course, they have been educated in schools that are congruent with Western educational philosophy (and those schools remain rare).
Presumably, more nuance would take far more space than I was allowed in this article, but I do stand by its assumptions.