Helping International Students Transition and Succeed – I

by Shyam Sharma

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. 
I started writing this post when a colleague suggested that I share some experience and advice for teaching international and nonnative English speaking students; but while drafting a list of practical suggestions, I really wanted to first try to articulate some thoughts and perspectives about the broader set of academic challenges faced by international students. The challenges of these students due to their foreign academic backgrounds are far more numerous and complex than the challenges that they face as nonnative English speaking (NNES) writers. There is a tremendous need to focus on the first set of challenges because published literature, as well as local and national conversations/conferences, remains rather limited in the first area: in particular, the broader challenges are too often conflated with, or overshadowed by, issues of language proficiency. With that in mind, I would like to dedicate this entry to the general context, challenges, and perspectives about international students’ academic transition and how these students go on to realize their potentials. By using a memorable experience from my own first semester as an international student in the US, I try to demonstrate how especially the assumptions and expectations that are not discussed or taught explicitly can impact international students’ overall academic performance–saving the concrete suggestions for part two, which I will post next week alongside another colleague’s entry.
“So, what do you think about [this text]?” the professor said, as soon as she settled down for the class. Then the students started raising their hands and responding to her question, in the order their hands were raised. Other than once in a while, the teacher let the students continue, with responses like, “That’s interesting.”
At first, I thought she was trying to test the students on their understanding of the texts assigned. But when I realized that she wouldn’t intervene even when students simply expressed their personal opinions and reactions without any sound basis on what we had read, I started getting impatient. Whenever she did respond to the students, she provided extremely significant insights—which I started impatiently waiting for throughout the class, week after week. And that impatience was exacerbated by the fact that most of the texts in that survey of sociolinguistics were familiar to me (I had studied them during my previous degree). In short, I wanted my American professor to “start teaching”—which I thought she never did.
Unfortunately, not enjoying the class turned out to be the least of my challenges that first semester in the US. When assignments started being due, my knowledge of the subject matter did not translate into success at all. My colleagues started talking about their “paper ideas,” but I had no clue where to start. My research skills were deficient, and even worse, I couldn’t understand what the assignment was all about. I found it somewhat absurd that the professor had basically asked us, mere students, to develop original arguments/positions in relation to what field-defining scholars like Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and Derrida had said in their writings.
When the deadline drew closer, I sought help from a fellow tutor at the Writing Center with a rough draft that I somehow wrote; to my dismay, the colleague tried to help me improve the “writing” by showing me how to fix what must have seemed most problematic to him–odd syntaxes, wording, and grammar! The “accent” with which I wrote was the least of my problems. Even more significantly, I found the visit frustrating and rather useless because instead of telling me how I could develop my ideas, he asked me a lot of questions, which was an approach that I could not appreciate at the time. As I realized much later, my Writing Center colleague’s approach was also ineffective because he did not know how to help me as an “international” student—specifically a student who was struggling with what a “seminar paper” meant, how to develop his own “position” in response to the readings, and how to say something “original.” He was only prepared to help “nonnative English speakers” (called ESLs back then) tackle language issues in their writing, and I needed much more.
It was not until the middle of the semester when something different started happening. Annoyed by the two talkative students who had been dominating class discussions in the sociolinguistics course, I decided to prepare for class with thoughtfully written notes and annotations; and I started responding to their non-stop delivery of opinions/reactions by drawing the class’s attention to particular passages in the text, requesting my peers to do the same.
I now started realizing that actively participating in class and adopting a new set of expectations would help me develop my own ideas, ideas that I would never generate in any prior contexts where students’ thoughts and opinions didn’t matter. Instead of expecting the teacher to take the class into the depth of ideas from the text and breadth of her own knowledge beyond the readings, and instead of expecting to learn from her as the “real expert,” I was now participating in conversations where my own thoughts and perspectives were valued. I had never done this before.
I had learned about the value of student-centered teaching/learning in my prior academic and professional lives, but I had not seen or done anything beyond students being instructed to carry out activities designed by the teacher, under a certain time limit and lesson plan, and with specific goals to be achieved. The two other courses that I took that semester were more teacher-directed (and for that reason comfortable for me!), but this one first confused and then fascinated me due to its difference from what I had known so far. 
Within a week of taking the new approach, I came up with far better ideas for the first assignment. Also, as a non-traditional student with experiences of teaching linguistics, navigating different languages and cultures, and adapting to different academic disciplines and systems, I probably added some value to the discussions–or at least I felt this way because I got the opportunity to share my own thoughts and reactions to what we read. 
By the end of the semester, this course turned out to be one of the best courses that I have ever taken! Most importantly, I wrote a phenomenally better final seminar paper than I might have if I hadn’t appreciated and adapted to the different culture of teaching/learning that the course embodied. 
When I remember challenges like the above which I faced when I was a new international student, I wish that I knew the right places, people, and resources to tackle them myself. But I also wish that my teachers were more aware of the bigger picture of challenges that new international students face while they learn the ropes of the new academic system.
As teachers, we easily notice the challenges international students have with their language and expression. But language is usually just the external symptom of myriad other challenges underneath–as well as a challenge of its own. The students’ inability to understand and express ideas, in both speech or writing and both within and outside the classroom, could be a manifestation of the struggle that they are having with understanding the new, largely local academic system. Their “language problems” may be an indication that they are struggling to understand the sociocultural and epistemological assumptions, values, and expectations underlying the new academic system. They may be struggling with learning and using the implicit rules of the new academic game of teaching/learning, reading, writing, and acquiring/creating new knowledge. 
It is worth noting that the problem underlying the incident that I described above is limited to international students’ failure to understand and embrace new approaches of teaching and learning when they enter a different academic culture in a new country. We have not even opened whole new cans of worms such as the difficulty international students may face with building upon the foundation of the content and context of their prior education. Instead of going into any new areas, let me just mention that in my own case I had mastered fairly well most of the content in the sociolinguistics course. Just failing to understand how classroom learning was conducted, how I was supposed to approach the assignments  as a student, and how teachers and tutors would and would not help me complete my work was overwhelming in spite of my knowledge of the subject matter.
Of course, especially in today’s globalized world, the academic game has become more universalized than soccer or basketball; consequently, many international students from many places around the world are familiar with (if not trained in) the academic practices of US/Western universities. But local societies and cultures reshape any practice in such significant ways that even the best students from one country can at first flounder in another. I believe that that is what happened to me in the sociolinguistics class. Even with matters of teaching/learning practices, I knew very well “about” the Socratic question, and I used to believe that I adopted the “student-centered” teaching method as a teacher; and yet, it took a lot of time, confusion, and effort for me to understand the manner and extent to which the same ideas/practices were used in a particular course when I came to the US.
It is not easy to help international students tackle all kinds of academic challenges that they face. The scope of our training as writing teachers, the time that we can afford, and the resources that we have are all limited. However, we can make a considerable difference in their academic transition and success by being aware of the bigger picture of international students’ academic transition, by making small adjustments to our courses and teaching, and by pointing to relevant people and places in the university where international students can get additional support.
Thank you for bearing with me as I shared the more nebulous ideas in this post. In a follow up entry that I will post next week, I will enumerate some specific ways in which we can help international students more quickly and efficiently acquire new skills, knowledge, perspectives, and habits of mind and work.
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