Needed: An Extended Tour for International Students

22Jun08

Students from other countries come to the U.S. to study and earn undergraduate or graduate degrees.  Those who come from relatively familiar (e.g., European) cultures may benefit from this experience.  Those who come from relatively unfamiliar (e.g., Asian) cultures are at greater risk of having an experience that is counterproductive in some regards for them and for the U.S.

These students often study hard, excel, and in many cases go on to fill important positions in the U.S  They may stay here many years, or they may return to their homelands after a few years in the U.S.

Those who return home after school, immediately or after a few years, can easily go back with negative attitudes toward American people, values, and policies.  This has been especially likely during the Bush years, when there have indeed been many American college students and professors who would share their distaste for seemingly foolish, wasteful, and destructive American behaviors.  But even during those years, a different approach to international students from relatively unfamiliar cultures could have achieved better results in some cases.

The Bush Administration is not, in itself, solely responsible for some international students’ failure to become engaged with American life.  It is entirely possible for an Asian (or, perhaps, a Middle Eastern or African) student to come to the U.S., live on campus, hang out almost exclusively with other students from his/her homeland, maintain virtually no friendships with Americans, speak his/her native language in most of his/her daily contacts, watch TV from back home rather than American TV, improve his/her English only marginally over a span of two or more years, and go back where s/he came from with an enhanced knowledge of bad rather than good examples of American people and life.

A student of that sort can easily be a net loss for America, for American students, and for American universities.  They may return home with hostility toward and/or disappointment in America, in place of the admiration that brought them here.  In classrooms, they may sit silently, unable to follow the rapid give-and-take between students and professors, or they may pipe up with observations that demonstrate that they largely do not understand the discussion.  They may supply tuition dollars that help pay universities’ expenses, but in exchange they can easily be a drain on the level of energy, camaraderie, and interaction in the classroom.  Certainly they are not providing the international interaction that educators may hope American students would experience.  Such international students may also be unlikely to support the university in extracurriculars (e.g., sports, campus events).  And they, themselves, may not be having such a great time.  They are human beings too, obviously, and they can get lonely and feel excluded when they are so far out of the loop.

Of course, such observations vary from one situation to another.  Many international students do become intensively involved in school and classroom, interact extensively with their classmates and with other American people, media, and businesses, and generally participate as well as anyone could hope.  Many classrooms do facilitate active involvement by international students of any level of language ability and cultural orientation.  It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that any of the foregoing concerns apply to international students across the board.

Such caveats notwithstanding, it remains true that many American universities now make it possible for international students to keep themselves fairly isolated from Americans, and that that is in no one’s interest.

An alternative arrangement would admit students to the university only after demonstrating that they are capable of participating in meaningful discussion at the university level.  This demonstration might include some revised form of standardized test; the tests presently used are plainly not insuring sufficient language ability in international students.  It might also include interaction with, say, American tourists who visit their homelands.  One example of the latter could feature ten-minute conversations involving two would-be students and one tourist, where the tourist would be asked to state which of the two students spoke better.  A student who came out worst in each of three such pairings (with different American visitors) would hardly seem a likely candidate, while one who came out best in all three might merit some presumption of language and cultural competence, sufficient to understand and, hopefully, to become engaged in university life.

A different approach would be to allow or require would-be college students to begin with an American high school experience.  Much of what international students fail to understand, in typical banter, is of a cultural rather than merely linguistic nature.  There is so much slang in our speech, and there are so many obscure references in many classroom discussions (though of course these observations, too, vary greatly from one academic discipline to another), that it can take years before an Asian student begins to understand what we are talking about.  A response in that case would be to send them to high school before letting them into college, if necessary, so that they can have a fair shot at having a good and well-rounded college experience.

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