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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New Discovery to be a Student

Story by

Julia

From

Ukraine

Major/Field

Other

Level

Undergraduate

Have you ever thought how an education system of a different country might have to open new capabilities in your personality? Many people don’t expect that studying abroad could teach them not only new ideas and skills, such as a language and culture, but also open a new dimension of their individuality. I have never been a shy person and always had my own opinion. However, in Ukraine, I shared my thoughts with my friends or family but never with professors because of an invisible rule, in which a student isn’t allowed to do that. Being a foreign student in the USA has taught me to be a successful student by using critical thinking skills and an open mind in my academical life.

First, I was never taught to express my opinion and I was shocked how at first that influenced my grades, relationship with a professor, and my personality in the American university. As a student, who already had a bachelor degree in chemical engineering from Ukraine, I was surprised how the ability to be active in a class can changed my opinion about studying. When I came to the USA to do my second bachelor’s degree in August 2011, I couldn’t imagine how different American education system is from the Ukrainian system and how different I will be become. Education in the Ukraine is based on a kind of hierarchy between professors, who are always right, and students, who shouldn’t have their own opinions; in addition, a student is not allowed to express his/her opinion, thoughts, or ideas because a professor has only his/her correct and wise judgment. As a result, Ukrainian students are trained as listeners of only “one truthful belief,” not as an active interlocutor with new and fresh ideas as it happened with me in the USA.

Second, my ability to listen and never express my own opinion, which I learned during my study in a Ukrainian university, was regarded as shyness. Two years ago, I began to learn English as a second language at Stony Brook University. During my first semester, I was so excited about a new school, international students, and a language but something was wrong. Something made me nervous, stressful, and lowered my scores and that was participation! This word scared me out of my wits because I didn’t know how to do it. Although Ukrainian universities have 30-40 students per class, a professor doesn’t have a time to ask everyone’s opinion and thoughts. The main goal of a Ukrainian student is to listen to his/her professor, take notes, and express professor’s point of view in the exam. On the contrary, American universities begin to train students to contribute their thoughts in small classes. My learning of how to share my ideas began when I took ESL classes at Stony Brook University, which I started in August 2011.

The class consisted of fifteen international students, which is the smallest group of people I have ever been with. All the desks were arranged in a shape of a rectangle and professor’s table on one of the sides. So, everyone was sitting in front of each other. When my professor asked me for the first time what do I think about the campus, I was very nervous to answer. All I could say at that moment was, “It is ok.” I mentioned nothing about nice fountains, colorful flowers, and friendly staff. I had never been in a situation during my studying in the Ukraine, when someone asked me about my opinion, and almost 15 classmates looked at me with the desire to hear my thoughts. I didn’t know how to do it not because I am a shy person, but because I’ve never been asked to do it before by Ukrainian professors. In addition, because of a language barrier I couldn’t say what was in my mind. Most importantly, I couldn’t imagine that somebody needed my opinion and if I expressed it, I wish someone would judge me because it is different from the professor’s point of view.

As a result, I sat at a desk very quiet and never took part in discussions during the class because of my background experience. Moreover, I knew that participation in the class was 20% of my final grade, but I was still speechless. At the end of semester, all my classmates and professor thought that I was a shy person, who didn’t pass this class and should retake it. At the time, I hated to be an American student. I couldn’t figure out how the ability to express my opinion could influence my grade, and I decided to change my mind because I couldn’t allow myself not to pass the next class.

Third, both extreme fear of being judged by others and a desire to be successful fought inside me. I promised myself that next semester I will do everything possible to get a higher grade, and one point of my plan was participation in class. From the first day, I began to express my opinion, answered professor’s questions, and took part in discussions. I will never forget the feeling that I had at the time when I first began to say what I thought about an article from a school newspaper: my heart almost jumped out of my chest, my throat became dry, and my body felt that everybody’s eyes were turned at me. I was shaking inside because of uncontrolled fear but I had a very confident look on the outside and kept talking.

At the end of the class, my professor was so appreciative of my participation and my classmates made a small talk with me and about how they enjoyed listening to what I had to say. When I came out of the classroom, I smiled. It was my first victory against my “shyness.” For the entire semester, I kept doing the same thing in the class – I participated as actively as possible. Moreover, the more I participated the more I felt confident, relaxed, and less stressful. As a result, at the end of the semester, I got the Award in Recognition of Outstanding Performance and Commitment to Excellence. Also, I was chosen as a president of the class by my classmates, and I got one of the highest grades in the class.

In my opinion, both American and Ukrainian education systems have positive and negative sides. I recognized how to use the skills of learning from different countries and overcome difficulties. On the bright side of Ukrainian education system, I have learned how to follow strict instructions and nowadays, I feel comfortable about due dates, requirements, and an academic schedule. One of the positive aspects of American education, it is a new way of communication between me and people, such as professors and classmates. For example, I understand how to express my opinion and how to be respectful to other people’s point of view.

Thus, once I overcame the challenges, I realized that because I have been a student in two different countries, I have some privileges to those students who receive their education only in one country. Studying in two countries allowed me to learn not only a new language, culture, and traditions but also taught me how to deal in new situations, how to be successful, and how to effectively use my skills in different environments. Education systems in these two countries are different, and it helped me to fully develop my abilities.

Peer Review for Academic Writing

Story by

Bal Krishna Sharma

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Applied Linguistics

Level

Graduate

I was the only first year master’s student in a graduate level “teaching second language writing” class in 2008 at a research university in the US. All other classmates were either second year MA students or doctoral students. That means my peers were more experienced than me in doing academic work in a US university. Our professor wanted us to write a “journal” for each weekly class. I thought I knew what “journal” exactly meant. Then, I questioned my previous understanding “how could a teacher ask us to write a journal for each class because a journal consists of several articles?” The professor also told us that the journal would be of a few pages. This again contradicted with what I previously understood by the word “journal” in the academic writing context. Instead of asking the professor or classmates, I quickly Googled for some guidelines and samples of “journals.” This led me to a vague and misunderstood idea of how to write the assignment, so I ended up writing summaries of all the journal articles that we read for class. I should have asked the professor what she wanted us to do. I also could have asked my classmates about how they were doing the assignment. I thought that was a too trivial thing to ask. As a result, by the time I found out what I was doing wrong, this was an exhausting experience.

At my previous university in Nepal, I never wrote journals or reflections. I used to take notes from lectures or course books, write essays and basically reproduce them in my exams. I rarely tried to connect the class readings with my experience. There were perhaps no or very few occasions when I expressed my perspective on the issues that I studied. This difference in academic cultures between my previous university in Nepal and my new university in the US resulted in challenges in academic writing for me in the initial days.

My writing professor would spend the first 20 minutes of the class for a peer review of our journals, which I later understood meant “reading responses.” I exchanged my journal with one or sometimes two of my classmates. This activity proved useful to me in two important ways. First, I got feedback on my writing on several aspects such as organization, coherence, cohesion and arguments. Second, I could read and notice how my classmates, who were more experienced than me, would write their journals. I also learned to relate the class reading with my experience of learning to write. Another pair of eyes was very useful in finding and fixing small but important language and stylistic errors which I did not notice.

The writing skills that I learned as a graduate student also translated into teaching skills when I started teaching an academic writing course for international graduate students after some time. The class was very interdisciplinary consisting students from humanities, social sciences, engineering, mathematics and science. Before the students submitted a final version of any major writing assignment, I asked them to work in pairs, exchanging and reviewing each other’s writing. I prepared detailed peer review guidelines and a review sheet that consisted of such small details as ‘finding a thesis statement and underling it’, ‘commenting on if each paragraph is well-connected with the preceding and the following ones’, ‘writing what was done well in the essay’, ‘commenting on what needs to be improved’ and ‘ending with positive remarks’. My students not only enjoyed the activity but reported in the end-of-semester evaluation that it significantly helped them improve their writing.

When international students come to the academic contexts where teaching and learning are perceived and conducted differently than in their previous universities, it is important to socialize into the new academic context. In addition, I encourage international students not to consider previous academic knowledge always as a problem but as a resource. Students can see ways regarding how their previous learning positively helps them to enhance their academic transition in the new context. I now write not only “journals” but also “journal articles”, and I get my drafts peer reviewed first either by my professors or my classmates or by a friend from a different university or by a professor from another institution. Eventually, refereed journal articles do not get published without a blind-fold peer review.