Situated Learning: Reflections on Academic Writing and Graduate International Students

Expert post by
Dr. Laura Colombo

From
Argentina

Field
Intercultural Communication

During my graduate studies in the U.S., writing in English was one of the major challenges that I faced. As a graduate student, I couldn’t easily go back to undergraduate level to take courses in writing skills, but on the other hand, I had the luxury of reading about and understanding the issues underlying my academic challenges. Let me use concepts mainly from one reading that I found most useful in order to share with you my experience of academic transition and success as an international graduate student in the U.S.

For one of my courses, I read Lave and Wenger´s (1991) book Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. This reading allowed me to better conceptualize and face the learning process I was going through when trying to produce academic texts in English. This book offers a theoretical description of learning as a process of participation situated in a community of practice (CoP). According to the authors, newcomers learn and become full members of a CoP through legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). That is: performing peripheral yet productive tasks that both contribute to the common goal of the community and help develop the learner’s identity. In this way, they have the opportunity to explore different viewpoints while getting involved in various social relations and their participation gradually transforms both their identity and the CoP itself. As a result, they become part of a new system which defines them and, at the same time, they define it.  Learning, then, implies “becoming a different person” (p. 53).

Reading about theoretical perspectives on academic work/challenges helped me feel comfortable in the process of gradually enacting the role of a new person, as a scholar, as more of an insider in the field, and as an expert voice for presenting the results of my research and study. As any graduate international student, I was expected to both produce academic texts in a second language (L2), and to write them as scholars (i.e.: old-timers) in my field of study did (Casanave, 2002). The more I learned about how “outsiders” enter new CoPs and begin to engage in LPP, the more I was able to get involved in new activities, perform new tasks and functions, and master new understandings.

The first academic texts that I produced in English were final papers for my graduate classes, which I learned to write by the very act of writing them as well as by negotiating my writing practices with peers, writing advisors, professors, and friends. Yet in this process, I also had to negotiate my identity as a L2 speaker. The consciousness that the theoretical literature provided me helped me negotiate and find my identity as a writer.

My writing acquisition process, then, transcended the classroom walls and the master/apprentice or professor/student dyad. As a matter of fact, there was “very little observable teaching” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 92) for native or non-native speakers about how to accomplish the writing tasks for the courses. Like my native-speaker colleagues, I found opportunities to learn from other masters/professors and from classmates/apprentices; but as an Argentine who had to use standard English, I was a newcomer in an additional CoP—I had to negotiate not only my identity as  a nonnative user of English but also as a student scholar through LPP in a different CoP.

Peers were a very useful support system for me. Peer interaction allowed me to immerse myself in practices that differed from those I was familiar with back home. Discussing the assignments with my classmates helped me understand the contextual expectations and negotiate my writing. Some of my classmates were simultaneously old-timers and newcomers—old-timers when negotiating their way in institutional practices related to writing in U.S. universities, and newcomers when trying to participate in the conversations of the disciplinary CoP. My relationships with classmates, native and non-native speakers alike, slowly but steadily helped me move towards full participation.

However, unlike some of my classmates, I faced situations where my opportunities to get engaged in a “situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world” (p. 51) were constrained by my inability to fully express myself in English. While occasionally approaching old-timer status in some disciplinary CoP’s back home, I was a newcomer in the U.S., and my inability to leverage my native vocabulary, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the preferred rhetorical structures, hindered my LPP. I felt that my identity as a writer was challenged, and it seemed that I had to re-learn how to properly negotiate meanings in texts when producing them in my L2.

The expertise I had built as a writer (informed by my identity as a student, a professional, and a practitioner), was almost nullified in these new CoP’s, and I had to re-negotiate my methods of participation. This led to a fair amount of frustration, resulting in a strategy I consider characteristic of international students: learn from people who do not participate in the disciplinary CoP, but with whom the negotiation of meanings is more accessible (i.e., speakers of the same language). For example, when producing my first written texts at the university I drew upon my Spanish-speaking friends. Some of them where specializing in other disciplinary fields. However, they were old-timers at forging their identities as academic English as a Second Language (ESL) writers—an identity that I would have to negotiate in order to fully participate in my own disciplinary CoP. By using my native language to discuss the ways in which I would negotiate meanings in written English, I was able to build my identity as an ESL writer faster than if I had been restricted to communicating solely in English.

I also learned from the relationships I established with writing advisors. As with my Spanish-speaking friends, they were not apprentices in the same disciplinary CoP that I was. Nevertheless, they were apprentices in their own CoP’s, since graduate writing advisors at my university are also graduate students. They were old-timers in regards to writing in formal English—enabling the writing advisor position—but they were also newcomers in their graduate programs. Meetings with writing advisors gave me the opportunity to explore, in a more personal way, how to negotiate meaning in my L2. In these situations, my LPP in my own disciplinary CoP was empowering, because I was forging a trajectory, and developing my identity and membership in that specific field. This empowerment helped me re-conceive my peripheral role, moving the disempowering aspect of my LPP to the background.

The empowering/disempowering dynamic implied in my LPP (Prior, 1997) factored into my relationships with my professors/old-timers. I knew that learning how to write academic texts was not strictly formulaic, and therefore, while new to the U.S., I tried to interact with Spanish-speaking professors. In these meetings I was using a means (academic Spanish) that was “transparent” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 102) to me in order to negotiate my way into practices that implied the use of a new tool (academic English) that I had not yet mastered. This presented opportunities to legitimize my participation as a L2 writer, and to better engage in existing practices, all the while shuttling between two languages (Canagarajah, 2006).

My learning trajectory shows how I learned to write English in spaces that transcended the classroom and university, though it was not smooth. As Lave and Wenger (1991) state, “[l]earning itself is an improvised practice” (p. 93) and every time I faced a different writing task I reinvented myself and my writing. I expended much time and effort simply trying to gain “access to arenas of mature practice” (p. 110) that I might attain LPP in multiple CoP’s. Crafting my identity as a L2 writer in a disciplinary CoP would have been eased by a clearer definition of these spaces of productive peripherality.

Nevertheless, I learned by doing—and this is where I think the richness of Lave and Wenger’s theory lies. By retrospectively analyzing my learning trajectory, I was able to map my LPP opportunities. So, what would I say to international students who have to learn academic writing?

First, keep in mind that writing as a situated activity. This implies that you do not learn to write once and for all. On the contrary, with every writing-task that you face in grad school, your relative position as an apprentice in the CoP changes, making access to old-timers and other apprentices vital. Therefore, you should implement strategies to facilitate this access. A simple one: ask, ask, and ask questions in order to have more tools to negotiate your participation. Another strategy is to use both, formal and informal resources such as writing centers, writing advisors, professors´ office hours, bilingual faculty, students, friends, proof-reading groups, etc. The mere interaction with others can open precious opportunities to exchange not only ideas to revise and improve your writing but also your writing practices.

Second, learning as participation also implies that all the writing you do should promote your LPP in the disciplinary CoP that you are an apprentice. However, this situation does not always happen. Usually, you have to write final papers for your courses where the instructor and (perhaps) classmates are the only audience. You can change this situation simultaneously trying to engage in publishing practices. Think of your final papers as drafts for future journal articles addressed to your disciplinary CoP. You can even share with your professors this intention and ask them to suggest appropriate publishing venues. Better still, you can propose to your graduate program to support a journal which emphasizes student involvement.

These are some ways in which you would be shifting the writing-to-display-knowledge function of your graduate-courses writing to a writing-to- participate-and-learn one. I hope that you have a successful journey toward becoming a confident member of the communities of practice in your academic discipline and professional field. My best wishes.

V.

References

Casanave, C. P. (2002). Writing games: Multicultural case studies of academic literacy practices in higher education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prior, P. A. (1997). Literate Activity and Disciplinarity: The Heterogeneous (Re) production of American Studies Around a Graduate Seminar. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 4(4), 275-295.

Take initiative! Get Connected!! Get involved!!!

Expert post by
Uttam Gaulee

From
Nepal

Field
Higher Ed Admininstration

This is something that I wish somebody told me in the very beginning of my academic career in the US—take initiatives. An international student’s academic journey begins with a seemingly disadvantaged situation as compared to that of the local students because you begin with adjustments and settling in process. Inherent in this process is a danger that you may just buy into not being “able” to do certain things. I am writing this post to guard you against that insidious element.

Just keep in mind that life’s adjustments never end. So, it is advisable to start taking steps toward academic and professional development early on. If you want to truly succeed in the university and build for success when you graduate, you must start thinking about more than just maintaining good grades. Of course, as I see in some students’ stories on this site, you may find yourself hardly catching up with coursework (and for graduate students, assistantship responsibilities as well) during the first semester, but how long should you wait? Until the second semester— the third— ? But then the time to graduate will knock on your door before you are ready! So, you should start looking at the bigger picture of professional development right when you join your program. Yes, you may want to gradually increase the time for getting involved, but there is no need to wait in order to start at least thinking about, learning some ideas, and taking small steps.

Also, everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning! You may even feel like an odd person wherever you go, whatever you say or do. But if you think about it, that is also where you are special! So, please do not seek safety in silence. Sure, there will be some risk of making mistakes. But it is by daring to make mistakes that you create opportunities for yourself, for learning and connections at first, and then for contribution! The day will never come when everything will be settled and you’ll start your “big” initiative with confidence. If something goes wrong, you’ll learn a lesson. You’re here to learn after all, aren’t you? By speaking out, you’ll be grateful that you added your unique perspective to the conversations. Be shocked, but do not get shaken: tenacity matters!

Research shows that most important elements of student success as self-efficacy and involvement, which reinforce each other. Even though it may seem like a non sequitur, involvement outside the classroom is extremely important for your success. Such engagement outside not only pays back ultimately but is almost essential to academic success and necessary for professional development in the long run. Student Integration Model developed by Tinto (1975) emphasized a student’s involvement in the community. In his subsequent search and publications, Tinto followed up on the idea of involvement as an important element in students’ academic persistence and success (Tinto, 1993, 2010). Two more researchers highly involved in student learning and development have also highlighted the importance social involvement apart from the classroom activities. They state:

What matters is the nature of experiences students have … the courses they take, the instructional methods their teachers use, the interactions they have with their peers and faculty members outside the classroom, the variety of people and ideas they encounter, and the extent to their active involvement in the academic and social systems of their institutions. (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 642)

While none of these models were specifically developed to account for the international students, evidence suggests that the importance of involvement is vital for various minority groups. There is relatively limited research on engagement in the community on and off campus among international students; however, general research does indicate that international students can greatly benefit by being involved both academically and socially. For instance, Trice (2004) found that interacting to Americans and other international students helped international students succeed in many ways. After an outstanding review of theories and existing literature, Trice established that international students who socialize with host national students are the “most satisfied with and the best adjusted to their experience abroad. Nevertheless, it appears that relatively few international students spend substantial time with Americans” (p. 673).

As Trice tells us, international students tend not to get socially involved. But we know that it is hard to be successful academically and professionally without developing a whole range of “soft-skills” that help you become a well-rounded scholar, professional. It is by such involvement that you begin to gain social and networking skills for leadership. However, if the idea of social engagement sounds a little daunting to you, then just start by working closely with your professors on top of taking the class and completing the assigned work.

Even if you are still trying to focus on maintaining a certain GPA, you can get “involved” by at least trying to get support from the professor rather than waiting until the deadline and trying to address the challenge without support. Trust me: it is okay to show your ignorance to your professor—he or she is there to guide you after all. You can impress him/her by showing how you learn rather than by pretending that you already know a lot. And trust me, your longer journey toward academic, professional, and community/social engagement could be starting in a great way as you build stronger relationship with your own professors. There is a high correlation between academic success and social involvement because, as I previously mentioned, these two reinforce each other.

Conventionally, there are two things that most people pay attention to when it comes to international students: language and culture. These are the “barriers” they know about and they may unknowingly convince you that you just need to overcome these two in order to be successful. But there is a lot more about becoming a successful scholar in a new environment and getting ready for the professional world within a few years. Get involved in the community within and beyond the campus.

Every university has a diverse range of student organizations, each trying to achieve a special goal by bringing together a certain group of students. Based on what support you need, search from the list of student organizations at your university/college. If you do not find one that caters to your needs or interest, find out how to establish a student organization yourself. Design some programs and seek funding, invite members, you’ll love the process, they’ll thank you and you’ll be noticed. Nothing will go in vain! What you do on campus today will go a long way into your future life and career.

Beyond the classrooms and your professors’ offices and within the campus, there are many opportunities for academic and professional development. Start visiting the Career Development Center early on; they will help you plan and execute a career development plan so that when you graduate you are ready to go on the job market with confidence. Use the library, Writing Center, and other academic services in order to boost your learning. Go to workshops, guest lectures, and other events on campus in order to boost your professional growth. All the above services and events may not seem “necessary” for getting a degree but they will help you learn very important skills and more fully understand the broader context of higher education. They will help you prepare far better for when you graduate than if you limit to being a straight A student.

Among other methods of engagement, volunteering is highly effective in social integration because this also develops a sense of belonging with the community, and thus increases a self-recognition and self-efficacy among students (Manguvo, Whiteney, and Chareka, 2013). These experiences can be extremely useful for international students to thrive in the academic as well as social life.

Talking of student involvement in US universities, there is an old culture of fraternity and sorority-life, which often creates an insider-outsider dichotomy.  Few international students go to these conventional places in order to learn American culture. As far as I know, these organizations may not be the best places for enhancing your academic and professional growth. However, you may want to learn whether these organizations can provide you with opportunities that you can benefit from. The point is to seek out places, events, and people in order to create opportunities for you to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.

Remember that you should not just assume that you are the outsider who needs to learn about the local cultures, institutions, and people. In today’s world, you should go multidirectional rather than unidirectional. For example, many local students are willing to learn about foreign cultures, so you can share your culture with them. Invite them to your cultural organization.

Let me add at this point that conventional views, even research/scholarship, about international students tend to be based on the idea that they are “outsiders” trying to gradually become insiders, or “legitimate” members of the academic, social, professional, and discourse communities here in the US (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This framework has some value, because we do try to learn how to perform like insiders. However, in today’s world, this view can be quite often inaccurate and unproductive. If you think about it, in a globalized world, you could be the “insider” in a variety of ways, as when you are helping local students understand social issues from your part of the world, add a more global perspective on an issue, play the devil’s advocate when local colleagues seem to consider something local as universal, etc. Even academically, you may be an expert in a subject area due to your past education or experience. In all these cases, the insider/outsider model becomes rather problematic. Indeed, one of the purposes that American universities admit international students is for the cultural enrichment of local students. I’m sure you have a considerable amount of knowledge about the world that can help you flip the outsider/insider positions, which will benefit both parties. Try it and you will like it!

But don’t limit your engagement within your department and the campus. Even if you can spare a small amount of time, find ways to engage with people outside campus whenever you can. Meeting people in places such as local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations will help you understand the local society and culture at large. Being connected to local people and understanding their lives and ideas can be extremely helpful in the long run, not only because the education system you are in is “situated” in that larger society but also because you are very likely to start doing your academic and professional work with the people outside the campus.

Whether it is within your department, in the campus community, or with scholars in your field at large, networking is extremely important. Never eat a lunch by yourself. This is what one of my mentors told me years ago and this mantra has proved to be a blessing. On campus, or in a conference, I approach to people, take interest in them, and find connections. You can save time, enjoy conversation, and build networks—while making your lunch taste better!

The main idea I am trying to suggest here is this: develop professionally, and for that, start early, be strategic, take one step at a time, and actively seek opportunities. Start working on your writing skills, both academic and other types. Start working on your presentation skills. Start finding and attending conferences in your field. Start proposing papers to present. Start networking with experts in your field. Start sharing the experience and expertise that you bring from your previous educational/professional career. Never tell yourself that your professional skills—writing, using technologies, communicating, presenting, networking, and so on—are limited “because” you are an international student. Tell yourself that if they are limited it is because, like any other student, you haven’t seriously committed to improving them yet. Start doing what you can. Plan and reach your goals, however small. With the support, resource, and opportunity that you now have—which you can reinforce with your passion and perhaps anxiety—you can turn any deficit into strength very soon. If you only look at the deficits, you’ll dampen your own aspiration. Look at your positive sides—you are resourceful. Dare! You can!

References

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Manguvo, A; Whiteney, S; & Chareka, O. (2013). The Role of Volunteerism on Social Integration and Adaptation of African Students at a Mid-Western University in the United States. Journal of International Students 3 (2), pp. 117-128.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2010). From Theory to Action: Exploring the Institutional Conditions for Student Retention. Smart, J. C. (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, PP 51-89. Springer Netherlands.

Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 671-687.

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

Expert post by
Dr. Shyam Sharma

From
US/Nepal

Field
Writing and Rhetoric

“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 to 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.”
[If you’re on home page, click here to view the full essay]

Even more strikingly, the other student considered herself “international” because of her “family background,” her connection to the extended family abroad, and great interest in international policy studies as a focus for graduate school.

Then I gave up my original attempt to understand how many students were from academic backgrounds outside of US high school systems, or something like that, which even I hadn’t fully thought through at the time.

I had prefaced my question by saying that my intention in trying to find out how many students were “international” was to see who did not have the experience of US-style academic writing so far (this was a freshman class). I had studied about the complexity of language identity (Paul Kei Matsuda wrote about the “myth of homogeneity” of college students many years ago), and from teaching in Kentucky, I had learned not to simply ask students who is a “foreign” student–for that would be none of my relevant business.

However, even the attempt to find out who doesn’t have a US high school background turned out to be almost entirely useless. While I could go into more detail about my desire to understand which students needed academic transition support, I started realizing that in the much more diverse campus that I now teach, the very term “international” meant little for the purpose of assessing language proficiency, familiarity with general terms/concepts and assumptions that students need to know in order to effectively participate in US academe, and prior academic writing experiences.

I started realizing that the more closely we look at our use of the word “international” as a criterion for placement or pedagogy, the more bogus this term begins to look. It seemed to only work as a placeholder, a theoretical convenience, an administrative buzzword that was borrowed from the International Center (the visa section, not even the orientation office) and used without thinking too much about it. The term was almost useless for the sake of assessing language and academic proficiencies in the context fine-tuning my teaching.

The academe has been historically characterized by continuing attempts to define itself in terms of particular sociopolitical and rhetorical borders, and, more significantly, attempts to contain ideas, practices, and people within those “academic” borders. So, when new groups of individuals enter the academe, existing borders are affected in different ways. When a new group of people enters, the most common approach that the academe takes is to try to help the new group become a “legitimate” part of the establishment, often further reinforcing its existing borders. If it seems necessary to recognize the newcomers’ identity or discourse as distinct and “legitimate” as a new variety, the established borders may be expanded for accommodation. However, a peculiar problem arises when a new “group” is internally so diverse that the attempt at accommodation inevitably fails in practice and only serves as a convenience in theory or institutional policy.

International students are the third type: they are internally too diverse to be described in any meaningful way. And yet, they continue to be seen as a pedagogically relevant “group.” The strikingly awkward way in which that is done is to look at what they “lack,” even when it is evident that they come from extremely different educational, social, and cultural backgrounds–and many of them don’t lack what they’re supposed to (although some do) and many others only lack what the “locals” lack as well. With more than 819 thousand students coming from a larger number of places, with the rise of the middle class in Asia and other places, and with the levels of language proficiency and academic caliber diversifying among the “international” student body (if there is one), the very term is becoming less and less useful.

Of course, many international students need extra support with English language, academic skills, and social/cultural backdrops of the academic practices and disciplines here in the US. However, the attempt to define and describe (in research/scholarship, in pedagogy, and in administrative contexts) evidently needs serious rethinking.

In a follow up post, here, I focus on how I tackle this challenge in my classroom and in research.

 


This post is based on a research-focused version of a paper I presented at the CCC Conference in Indianapolis and a teaching-focused version at the RSA Conference in San Antonio.

Embracing challenges with an open mind and striving for work-life balance

Story by

Coralhead

From

Malaysia

Institution

Cornell University

Major/Field

Social Science

Level

Graduate

Graduate school for me was and still is a series of transitions and adaptations on several levels.

First transition was the academic environment: active participation (not just merely attending, although I was a listener for the most part out of shyness) in the department meetings, seminars, and peer review sessions. It took a good year became I felt confident about asking questions and providing feedback. I realized that people are often kind and as long as I applied myself to the problem, the results are usually satisfactory and the interaction was positive.

Second transition was adjusting to the work load that was expected by professors at graduate-level courses and balancing that with the work that goes into writing a dissertation proposal. Whether it was statistics or social science theory or some methods course, there was so much to do and read within a week! My spouse who was a PhD student at the same university advised me that my approach to coursework should not be the same as an undergraduate, meaning that an ‘A’ might not be as important as understanding and applying the concepts needed for my own research. Eventually, after a year I was able to let go a little as I tend to be a perfectionist or wanting to respect the professors teaching the course by doing the work, attending all the classes, being an active participant. I am not suggesting slacking off but to prioritize accordingly because in the end, the coursework is meant to serve a bigger cause – the dissertation research.

Finally, as a graduate student who is also a wife and mother of three young children, my time is a very scarce resource. Precision time management and discipline are prerequisites for making grad and family work. Having a personal life motivates me to strike a balance. Sure, I would love to work all day on geostatistics or understanding the theory of collective action, or work weekends because there is that paper due, but my children are asking me to come play. So work-life balance is essential because graduate life is like a marathon where I try run it at a sustained speed. I hope to reach the finish line in good form and having enjoyed the journey as well.

Let Your Voice be Heard

Story by

VY Jiang

From

China

Major/Field

Level

Undergraduate

Imagine if you showed up on the first day of class and everyone thought they already knew you. With one look at you, your classmates seem to guess that you are an engineering student, that you are not good at sports, and that a hoard of people that just like you is about to burst in and start babbling in a language that your classmate do not understand. And the domestic students and international students do not interact a lot. This was what my first day was like as an Asian international student.

If you are thinking about one of these students, then you are not thinking about me. Unlike the stereotyped Asian who is quiet and shy, I am outgoing and enjoy sports; I like to challenge myself with humanities subjects in a non-native language; most importantly, I want to make my voice heard by others. I am certain that many of you are the same. We all have insightful ideas; it was just that our English-as-second-language hindered our ability temporarily. You should never let stereotype overshadow you.

This is a story of mine from my freshmen year. As one of the only two international students in a sociology class of 50, I struggled a lot to get my voice heard. Thinking I am an “Asian doll” who knows only smiling and nodding, my classmates constantly saw through me during group discussion as if I am transparent. What was really happening was that I was sort of slow on engaging in small talks such as latest celebrity news ahead of group discussion since I was new to U.S.

However, as time passed, despite the domestic students ignoring me, I utilized the knowledge I learned to examine my situation and overcame it by actively seeking chances to make my voice heard by others. Although English is not my first language, I actively sought chances to talk in class and present my own ideas. During group discussions, although my peer group thought I would not express any opinion like the usual Asian international students, I stepped forward instead of following and letting them put words into my mouth. 

For example, once the class was discussing how has race and ethnicity changed in our family over the three generations and has class status changed – has there been upward or downward mobility, or has class status been essentially reproduced across the generations. This is an assignment tailored to the American society and was supposed to reflect on how the class structure of the entire society has evolved. My class was not expecting me to contribute anything to this discussion, but I believe that theories are applicable universally. I analyzed my family mobility factoring the special history background of China during these three generations. I shared my findings with the class and interestingly enough that the trend echoes with their findings as well. This incidence once proved that there is no boundary or barrier in front of academia.

Eventually, I integrated into the class and expanded others’ as well as my own educational experience.

Paying Attention to Detail

Story by

Shailendra Gyawali

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Undergraduate

One thing that I’ve always found intriguing as an international student is how absolutely important even the smallest of things can be for us, especially when we are new to the American university. Local students will certainly face many of the same challenges that I faced as someone coming from the other side of the world, but I thought there were too many things, including the too small things, that were at first very challenging to me. Let me describe a few.

Finding the right building and the right classroom was a big deal at first. The day I joined a college in the US, September 4, 2007, was a very exciting and important day in my life. When I entered main gate, I felt minuscule compared to massive buildings around me. Each department had its own building and I was looking for the Mathematics department. I did have a detailed pocket map of the college that was given out at the orientation program, but even after I located the correct building, I was still lost. A student nearby looked at my desperate face and asked if I needed any help. I said yes, but when trying to describe the help I needed, I had to repeat myself several times because she couldn’t understand my accent. Finally, she understood me and took me to the right classroom, even though she was running late for class herself.

The next challenge was understanding the details about a course. The first week of class, I found it very interesting—and this time, it was also very useful rather than confusing—that each of my professors handed out a “syllabus” that contained a lot of detail about the course. Most of the professors talked the entire 45 minutes about the syllabus and course outline. For the local students, much of the details of the syllabus may have been obvious or just a formality that the professor includes in the document, but for me syllabuses were an absolute blessing. They worked even better than the campus map I had the first day of class because they provided a concrete timeline, distribution of credit points, and description of the work to be done. For me, the syllabus was like a reference book. Without the detailed syllabuses and schedules, I would be lost, and I might not have become the successful student as quickly as I did. I was astonished and grateful to realize how helpful the syllabuses and schedules were. I had never seen something like this in my life before. The well-organized course outline and dedication shown by professors helped to overcome my apprehension of studying in a different academic system.

Moving on to the many and mostly new academic activities, I was at first overwhelmed by large assignments. Because in my previous academic training back in South Asia, I had never learned how to read, write, or research in the way that was being demanded here in the US. So, even a five or seven page paper was overwhelming for me. In most of the courses, I could handle the content itself, but when it came to the skills for researching, reading and writing, it felt like I lacked basic skills. I could not find the right references because I didn’t have research skills. I couldn’t read enough materials because my reading was slow and incompetent. And I couldn’t write well because I didn’t know where to start or how to develop my own ideas, because I had not learned how to write. Back in my home country, I never wrote or learned to write as a part of education. Writing was only required for taking final exams, and that did not help me develop writing skills. I answered questions and didn’t remember anything that I wrote. I never did any research or wrote anything extensively.

But, again, as a new student in the US, I gradually started being able to tackle the big challenges by paying attention to tiny details. I read the assignments very carefully and underlined the words I didn’t understand. I made appointments with tutors at the Writing Center to get their help with writing. Soon, I realized that everything was more systematic here. There was more support and people were willing to help. I could take small steps for making bigger achievements. I actually liked the academic system and environment here.

As I paid attention to and learned one small detail after another, I soon began to feel that I was headed in right direction of learning and I was a step closer in the process immersing myself in another world of knowledge and deepening my personal and academic understanding of science. If you are a new international student, I would reassure you that if you pay attention to small details, you will soon begin to gain confidence. You should take in the experience of studying in a different country and academic environment with interest to the little daily things. If you are serious and interested, your understanding will begin to make you no different than anyone and perhaps better than the average student.

So, my best lesson learned as an international student in the US was perhaps this: pay attention to detail.

Is that Mayonnaise?

Story by

Adoit Pradhan

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Business

Level

Graduate

My second week as a freshman in a rural mid-western liberal arts college! Coming from Nepal, Indiana was a different ball game. The trees seemed strangely greener, the lawns were well-manicured, the roads were paved smoother, and the buildings were a lot cleaner. I remember the sounds that felt very foreign, the colors that were unfamiliar; and the smells, the smells that kept reminding me that this wasn’t home. This was different, and new, and exciting, and unnerving. And so on that evening, as the setting sun streamed through the huge windows of the campus dining hall, I asked the guy in front of me if the white paste in one of the food containers was Mayo. It didn’t seem like mayo, as it was whiter and looked smoother and creamier. But I couldn’t think of anything else that looked similar, and was not sure if it would go well with the food on my plate. Hence, the question, “Is that Mayonnaise?”

The response I got was a gentle shaking of the head, and a little grin. But it was a jolt to me. I felt like a fool for not knowing what it was. And alas, that feeling surfaced regularly over the next couple of years. Ordering food in a restaurant was the scariest proposition. What were the sides that they listed in rapid fire succession? Should I ask them to explain each one of them? What was this thing that people referring to as greens? Is Chipotle sauce good, should I even try it? And the cereals, so many that I still don’t know most of them.

It was a great leap to come from an all-familiar culture to one so completely alien. I thought I knew a lot; after all I grew up watching TV shows and movies from the US. But they had forgotten the details. The details that I had maybe seen and heard about vaguely, but did not understand. I was an outsider, trying to fit in a world I barely understood. I was in a rush to become one of them, in a rush to become a part of it all. I wanted things to be familiar again, and I wanted to be comfortable with it all. But it took time, and a lot more than I realized back then.

The same uncertainty was also present in my academic life. Writing was the first adjustment, simply because of a stricter focus on structure. Even though my grammar was fairly good, and had taken writing classes in high-school, I realized that I did not have a strong grasp on many grammatical rules, leading to many little errors. I learnt that academic writing was different than fictional/creative writing, which I was more familiar with. Also, learning all the rules of citations took a while, as I made numerous mistakes even while following the guidelines. Then there were the spelling differences between British English  and American English. For half a semester, I thought my Economics professor could not spell the word check, as I was used to cheque. I have seen that most international students take some time to adjust to the writing requirements.

Mathematics was different too because the terms used were different. The trigonometric functions had slightly different names, and were pronounced differently. Calculus in particular used different terms, even though the process was the same. Economics used familiar terminology, but the examples often times required a little more research on my part. In one of my first classes, the professor used marshmallows as an example and I had no clue what it was. Reference to many movies and figures were made that I was not familiar with. Ebenezer Scrooge was brought up in Economics quite a few times, but I had not seen A Christmas Carol so wasn’t sure what the reference exactly meant.

Being an international student is not always easy. Language can be a challenge to many, as can food. And academics will sound unfamiliar too. Some students seemingly get in the groove right away while others struggle, but everyone has to make adjustments. However, one always has to remember that it gets easier! My early semesters in college mirror my first experience with what turns out is a common American condiment. I did not know what it was, and it felt bad. But once I got used to it, I enjoyed it. It just takes a little time.

And of course, the answer was not Mayonnaise… it was sour cream.

Change Your Perspective

Story by

Shrutee Shrestha

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Graduate

I graduated last month with a master’s degree from a prestigious university and a full-time job on hand at a prestigious accounting firm in Washington D.C.

But I am not sitting down to write about how successful I have been as a student. I want to write about the obstacles that I had faced as an international student.

The problem, however, is that I don’t seem to remember the insurmountable challenges that I had faced during those five years. I don’t know if it has happened to you, but when I see the outcome of a project, I tend to forget how challenging it was, because I get too fascinated by the results. I am in the same phase right now.

When I first joined the university, I faced so many challenges that I even almost broke down. Interestingly, at this moment, the only thing I can think of is that those five years were the most amazing time of my life. I am amazed at where I am today because of those five years.

But as I think harder, I realize how I am forgetting the time when I almost dropped out of school and went off the academic track during my first year in the US. After the first few months of freshman year, I kept convincing myself that I was overwhelmed with everything. I didn’t drop out but I withdrew from the university and denied all of their grants and scholarships because I was overwhelmed and homesick. Then I transferred to a community college a few miles from where my close relatives lived. The quality of education there cannot be compared with the quality of education at the university I had attended. But it completely made sense during my first year. I was lost in the crowd of twenty five thousand students in the university.

Back in Nepal, I was an academic star among thirty students. In the university here, I felt like I was nothing. I felt like I was the dumbest student in the entire class full of amazing students. So, I went to the community college, back to a classroom of thirty students and back to being noticed by teachers. But in spite of all the bad consequences of transferring to a community college from a prestigious university, one good thing happened to me. It made me feel better and boosted my confidence. I am glad that I did not drop out of school completely. I cannot imagine what I could have been if I had done so. I am glad that I continued my academic journey in the community college where I gained my confidence again. After a year, I felt ready to go back to the university and transferred back to the university that I had left a year before.

After transferring to the university, I made a list of things I would not do again like leaving university again, staying quiet in a corner of the classroom, ignoring the events that were happening around me and much more. This time, I took a different approach. I focused on what I needed to do and what I could do. Soon I realized that many people were there to help me out. My advisors helped me enroll in the classes that were being offered to first year students to help them transition to a university. I took some amazing classes that first year like International Cinema, Public Speaking, International Development etc that helped me have fun with other new students, learn as well as participate actively in the classroom activities. In Nepal, I grew up with the concept that participating in other activities not related to my field will distract me from my studies. But in the US, I figured out it was just the opposite. Such classes helped me broaden my perspective, understand the material from the students with different academic background and have fun at the same time. Tutors were available to help me with my papers. I was surprised that my professors were ready to listen to my challenges, even the ones that were not related to the class they taught and were ready to help me get over the challenges. The career services help me get appropriate jobs related to my major and my employers did their best to adjust my job responsibilities as I completed more classes related to accounting. I was amazed at all the facilities available at the university and even more amazed at the fact that the university invests thousands of dollars every year in creating and updating the facilities. I always felt I was bothering them and kept avoiding them as much as possible only to realize later that these people were genuinely interested in helping me out.

As I recall my academic journey, it seems like everyone wanted me to achieve what I have achieved today. My professors cried when my class of 175 students graduated with their masters’ degree. They knew each one of us by our names, they knew our personal stories, obstacles, strengths and weaknesses. They took care of us as their own children. My family, friends, relatives, roommates, employers and tutors have done their part in teaching me life skills.

Over the course of the following five years, I learned one basic lesson that everybody knows and has heard of: everyone faces obstacles. What looks like an obstacle for one person might be viewed as an opportunity by someone else. So, all we need to learn is to change our perspective and be in that someone else’s position by seeing obstacles as opportunities as soon as possible. That is the biggest lesson to learn in life. Without the positive perspective, everything, small and big, would seem like it is dragging one down when in reality, it might have an important lesson to teach us.

When I first came to the US five years ago, I would complain about everything. I felt like I was the only person who was homesick, overwhelmed, scared, lost and ignored.

But once I learned to adjust my perspective, I saw opportunities. I saw how the entire university had planned for my success and I used those resources to the fullest.

If you are struggling at a university right now, just look around. Use the counseling center if you feel like you cannot handle the situation by yourself. Look for other resources that can help you build yourself. Never ignore a class thinking it is unrelated to your field. If you can fit in extra classes that will teach you useful life skills in your schedule without overwhelming it, take that opportunity.

Looking back, I wish I had started looking at things differently much sooner than I did. I wish I had time to take more fun classes during those years. I wish I had taken interior designing, gardening, skiing classes when I could.

One more thing, I wish I had enough words to describe how it feels to get done with school. If only I knew how I would be spending my time after I graduated (this wonderful summer with family and friends and the days ahead of me), those five years would not have been as stressful as I had felt during those years.

If you are struggling, or almost giving up, change your perspective. You may be actually fine.

Being an Inter-National Student

Story by

Esaba Hoque 

From:

USA
(Bangladeshi American)

Major/Field

Political Science

Level

Undergraduate

Oftentimes when the term “international student” is used, people think of an outsider. While outsiders may be hard to define with words, everyone has a pretty similar image in their minds. We picture someone who is from a different country or a completely different culture.

If we go by the above definition, I’m not an international student at all. Both of my parents were born and raised in Bangladesh, but I was born and raised in New York. I’m American, not only by the status of my passport, but also by my lifestyle. America’s education system is all I know. I’ve never attended foreign academic institutes, just public schools and then a university in the US.

However, in the sense that an outsider is someone who is new or who doesn’t otherwise completely fit in, I sometimes feel like an outsider, an outsider in a country I was born in, a country I have lived in all my life. I am a woman, who is Muslim and Bengali. I have brown skin, so already I’m not a “typical” American in the minds of many people. Yes, the United States of America is a country of immigrants, and it’s a country that I love dearly. But that does not erase the fact that we, along with every other country in the world, have a hegemonic system built into our social structures and many people’s view of the society.  Consequently, it is easy for many Americans like me to feel out of place when the term “typical American” is used to describe citizens who are white, Christian, and so on. It is easy to feel out of place when you don’t look or feel like the “average” American.

I feel like I too am “inter-national” in the sense that I have my two feet in two completely different settings. On one hand, I am a citizen of one of the most powerful countries in the world. On the other hand, by ethnicity, family, and the language I speak and the customs I follow, I “belong” to a poor and overpopulated country far away from here. I know how it feels to be out of place, to not fully understand something.

International” students often have to deal with experiencing two completely different cultures, which has its pros and its cons. Like many immigrants or first generation Americans, they start living and experiencing two cultures and identities.

While it is wonderful to experience two different cultures, to live those cultures every day, sometimes I wish I could fully just be one thing. It would eliminate the confusion and anxiety in my mind. Sometimes I feel I am just too American to be fully Bangladeshi, but too Bangladeshi to be fully American. Oh how wonderful it must feel to be somewhere and feel like you totally belong there. Belonging and feeling whole is often a big complication that arises with immigrants, or children of immigrants—as well as international students as academic sojourners. That complexity involves living in a state of confusion because we don’t know what to do, or who we truly are. It sucks when you realize that you know English better than your mother tongue. I know how it feels when you try so hard to respect and honor your traditional traditions and customs, yet get called westernized by your family. We as humans naturally want to find wholeness, and it is difficult when you are identify with two polarizing cultures.

So as I straddle and balance being a part of different cultures, I identify or at least empathize with international students around me who are on foreign visas and trying to adapt and succeed in the university.

In a sense, international visa students show local students, especially those who straddle cultures like me, how to navigate and succeed while being an outsider, while being divided. When I think about the positives of my own dual identity, I often see it as a positive thing. I speak English and Bengali. I’m comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, and also in a traditional salwar kameez. Which is why, despite the confusion this sharing of cultures causes, I am so grateful and blessed to be a part of two cultures that have given me so much. Often when I am confused, I take parts from both and mix them together. It could be said that us children of immigrants have made our own hybrid culture. From all the differences, we could learn more and adapt more efficiently. We have a broader and more open view of the world. If international students learned to not just see themselves as outsiders but as individuals with diverse experience and knowledge, they too could be proud of themselves. Self-confidence is important for success, especially when one is not fully accepted by defined by challenges.

I wasn’t always fully aware of all the differences that I now feel on a daily basis. But I soon started realizing after an even that truly changed the world- 9/11. September 11, 2001 was the first day of second grade for me. I remember dreading getting up that morning because it would mean the end of summer and going back to school. But I had no idea the horrors that day would bring, and the even more terrible aftermath it would cause. When I was sitting in class, and they were announcing the attack on the towers, I had no idea what it meant. For me the Twin Towers were just two tall buildings in Manhattan that I visited once when I was younger. However, when my dad picked me up from school early and we were sitting down on my worn blue couch watching the TV repeatedly show the towers falling, I felt a dread in my stomach that things were going to get bad. I was young, only 6 days from turning 7 years old. I had no idea the terrors it would cause in people’s hearts and minds, and the backlash that would happen against Muslims here in the US and around the world.

Being a Bengali Muslim isn’t just some random fact about me, it’s my identity. It’s what I am, who I am. And I’ve always been protective of that identity. That need to protect comes from the fact that ever since 9/11 I’ve always felt like I had to prove something. That all Muslims aren’t bad, that we have nothing to do with the attack on the Towers, that Al Qaeda is not in any form or shape reflective of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. I always felt like I had to defend my religion.  There were times when my classmates would make bomb jokes and I would smirk, giggle a bit, but on the inside I was cursing them. All of this made me look deeper into Islam, so I could prove that I’m part of a beautiful religion. The need of mine to defend Islam and Muslims sparked an interest in me to learn, to be aware.

All of this has aided my academia because it has sparked my interest in a variety of things. I became a lot more interested in my own religion. I googled different aspects of Islam, read the Qur’an, learned as much as I could. Not to say I’m done learning, because learning is a never ending experience. Everything that happened fueled my interest in being a better Muslim, and more importantly, a better human being. I became aware of the fact, that we do not live in a post racial world at all. I became aware of the atrocities that happen all over the world in the name of war, religion, revenge. I am most grateful for my need for education, for digging deeper into stories, for my passion for reading and religion and politics. I love how everything connects together. There are many times when I’m sitting in a classroom, I feel like I don’t fit in, but that feeling has pushed me to learn so much more, and for that I am grateful.

So, when I study or socialize with international students from around the world in my very diverse university campus, I related to their confusions and their experience of being outsiders—but at the same time, I also relate to their ability and desire to learn about and embrace complexity about their experience, identity, and knowledge about the world.

And that is why I consider myself an inter-national student.

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International Students Undefined: Teaching and Research

Expert post by
Dr. Shyam Sharma

From
US/Nepal

Field
Writing and Rhetoric

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 www.translatingsuccess.org, 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.
[If you’re on home page, click here to view the full essay]
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