With our increased awareness of the need to make campus life more welcoming for international students, I was delighted to learn that our Center for Excellence in Teaching had tackled this topic for its 2015-2016 student-faculty roundtable discussions.
These popular events, funded by the Student Faculty Corporation, have been taking place for the past seven years—always with a different theme. According to Elaine Maldonado, director of the CET, this year’s theme was suggested not only by our strategic plan—which this year is developing initiatives around this topic—but also by our students. It must be in the zeitgeist.
The basic ground rules and format are the same every year. Faculty participants are expected to invite at least three students; a list of questions are distributed at the table for discussion, and one student is selected to report out at the end of the event. Oh, and lunch is served.
So, late last month, about 35 students—most, but not all of them “international”—gathered around round tables in the Feldman Center Board Room along with 10 faculty members to discuss such questions as:
- What has been your biggest challenge in an American classroom if you are an international student?
- For native English speakers, have you ever been in a situation where everyone spoke a language other than English and if so, how did you feel?
- How do you think cultural differences affect the way we learn?
- How can teachers promote greater cultural understanding in their classes?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of having students from diverse backgrounds in the same class?
Plenty to talk about…plenty to think about. Professor Maldonado acted as facilitator and when she invited students to the podium to report on their “findings,” it was clear that this was a topic that resonated.
One of the most common “findings” among the students who spoke—and perhaps the most disturbing—was the complaint that because of their language difficulties, international students believe they are perceived by faculty and students as being less intelligent than their English-speaking peers and are simply not respected. This causes embarrassment, at the very least—and explains to some extent why they sometimes cling to each other in groups and fail to reach out for help.
Students also stressed cultural differences among learning styles and attitudes: in some countries, for instance, students are not expected to raise their hands in class. In another example, a student said that in China, directly quoting someone’s work is considered a compliment while it might be considered plagiarism here. In that context, a student from Italy maintained that faculty do not do enough to learn about the cultures of the students in their classes.
There were numerous suggestions about how to best remedy these problems. One of the most often mentioned was the adoption of a “buddy system,” which would pair an English-speaking student with an international student during class, keeping the two seated close together for easy consultation. As one faculty member commented after the lunch, “Usually I just think about how I can help them, but their peers are a great resource as well.”
It was a lively session—filled with useful and poignant insights. And most heartening, from my perspective, was that everyone agreed that exposure to other cultures was a very big advantage. Now, this was a self-selected group—those who attended possessed a sensitivity to and interest in intercultural exchange. Still, it was gratifying to hear about the Long Island student who spoke so enthusiastically about how much she learned from her international peers—the way they opened her to new information, new ideas, new perspectives. And her advice was succinct and on point: reach out to them, ask questions. “Be kind and patient,” she said. “That should be your first instinct.”