Colleges Adapt to New Kinds of Students From Abroad

Younger, sometimes less-experienced students require more academic and social support

John Everett for The Chronicle

Sangyoon Lee (left), a Rice U. student from South Korea, talks with Matt Banks (center), from Dallas, and Yuanzhuo Peng, from China, who help new international students as part of Rice's liaison program.
May 29, 2011

The foreign students on American college campuses today are not those of generations past.

They are younger, as undergraduate numbers surge. They are from more countries than ever and yet likelier to be from a single country, China. Many have the means to pay for an American college degree—more than 60 percent say their family foots the tuition bill—but a growing share are studying on scholarships sponsored by foreign governments. They are the product of a burgeoning middle class in places like Shanghai and Seoul, Delhi and Taipei, as studying abroad becomes less the exclusive privilege of well-traveled, well-heeled elites.

This changing profile presents challenges both academic and cultural to colleges across the United States. International-student offices are dealing with issues as varied as plagiarism, poor language skills, country-specific cliques, and cultural taboos against counseling. They are being called on to provide sex education to sheltered undergrads, to respond to religious conservatives unsettled by opposite-gender instructors, and to contend with helicopter parents a dozen time zones away.

"It's a culture shock not just for the students," says Ivor Emmanuel, director of the international office at the University of California at Berkeley, "but for the campus."

As a consequence, many colleges are taking a closer look at their foreign-student services, reimagining and recasting them to be more responsive to this new breed of student's academic, social, and emotional needs. Colleges are rethinking orientation for international students, sometimes stretching it into a semester-long introductory course in American college culture. They are making use of social media, so students can begin their adjustment before they even leave their home countries, and enlisting upperclassmen from overseas and study-abroad veterans to serve as peer mentors. They are hiring counselors with specific cultural or linguistic expertise. And they are reaching out to faculty members, to better prepare them to work with pupils whose previous classroom experience is fundamentally foreign.

Getting it right matters, as colleges step up overseas admissions to diversify their student bodies, internationalize their campuses, and buttress their bottom lines. "If colleges aren't responding to international-student needs," says Joseph L. Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College, "then we're wasting our time and money recruiting them."

More Hand-Holding Required?

These global shifts are being felt in very real ways on college campuses. Drake University, in Iowa, quadrupled its Chinese-student population. At Westminster College, a Missouri institution best known as the setting for Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, international-student numbers doubled in a single year. Berkeley went from having just 605 international undergraduates in 2005-6 to 1,655 during the most recent academic year.

For some colleges, these swings have been unexpected. For others, they're the result of deliberate action. Berkeley, for example, is one of a number of colleges that sought to expand undergraduate enrollments from abroad, to be more in line with peer institutions and to plug budget holes. (Berkeley, like many research institutions, has always taken in lots of foreign graduate students.)

Even at colleges where the raw numbers aren't jaw-dropping, foreign students' increased presence is felt. International students, or those from particular countries, are no longer "showing up in onesies and twosies" in classrooms and residence halls, Mr. Brockington says.

As a result, what might have previously been ascribed to the personality or learning style of an individual student is beginning to coalesce into noticeable patterns, although international educators are quick to say that it's not always possible—or appropriate—to generalize across country or cultural groups.

Saudi Arabian students, whose enrollments soared 25 percent in the past year because of a government scholarship program, tend to need more support services as they struggle with English proficiency and with adapting to more-liberal American culture, international-student advisers say.

Nicole J. Sealey, director of the Center for International Student Access at George Mason University, outside Washington, says she had to go to the Saudi cultural mission to get pamphlets to make clear to the students that their government accepted that men and women would be educated together in the same classrooms, a big adjustment for students from a country where much of daily life is sex segregated.

Ms. Sealey also plans to expand a session on sexual education to provide more-explicit information; after some of her Saudi students began romantic relationships, she realized they knew little about dating or sex.

Students from India, where courses are often oriented around a single, end-of-the-year test, sometimes need to be reminded that papers and quizzes throughout the semester also count toward their grades.

East Asian students, educated in systems where questioning a teacher is verboten, are suddenly thrown into American classrooms, where speaking up is both expected and rewarded.

And the Chinese students arriving on American quads, who account for nearly one in five international undergraduates in the United States, aren't the children of the Cultural Revolution but the doted-upon, solidly middle-class offspring of the country's one-child policy. "They've never even had to share a set of grandparents," says Scott E. King, assistant dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, "let alone a dorm room."

But the biggest shift for campuses is the growth in overseas undergraduates. They bring with them different expectations and experiences than graduate students, who have been the majority of international students in this country for a decade. The older students are generally clear about what they want to study and why they are studying in the United States, while undergraduates may be complying with parents' direction about what college to attend and what subject to pursue.

For younger students, this is probably their first time living away from home. Geraldine N. de Berly, associate dean of credit programs and director of the English Language Institute at Syracuse University, says she sees one consequence of that newfound freedom in her classrooms: exhausted students who have stayed up all night, chatting on Skype or instant messaging with friends half a world away.

When it comes down to it, educators say, graduate students are simply more mature, while undergraduates are, well, teenagers. "Grad students are pretty much OK on their own," says Wesley Young, director of services for international students and scholars at the University of California at Davis. "Undergraduates need a lot more hand-holding."

Relating, Student to Student

At the same time, graduate students have a built-in support system, in the department that recruited them and the faculty mentor with whom they work.

Without the same institutional ties, undergraduates may turn to other students from their home countries. Educators have mixed feelings about this propensity to cluster together. On one hand, these same-country groups can offer a safe and sympathetic environment with others who understand the challenges.

But on the other, educators worry about closed sets forming, isolating those students and robbing them of a truly international experience. Marylin V. Jacobsen, director of international students and programs at Riverside Community College, in California, says she was "deeply troubled" to learn how few of her students had set foot in an American home. "There is just this ghetto effect," she says.

At Macalester College, a group of Chinese freshmen arrived this year having bonded before they even got to the Minnesota campus, says Aaron C. Colhapp, director of international-student programs. Although the liberal-arts college didn't identify them, the students found one another on Renren, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, and even arranged to take the same flights.

On some campuses, many students come from the same set of internationally focused high schools in Beijing and Shanghai and import their cliques and social networks.

To intervene, a growing number of colleges have instituted peer-mentor programs. At American University, current international students act as small-group leaders during orientation, sharing their own experiences of acclimating to campus life. Colorado State University's peer advisers, about half of whom are American, reach out to incoming international students, introducing themselves by e-mail and offering to answer questions before the semester even begins.

Other institutions have variations on the peer-adviser theme. Rice University stations "international liaisons" in each of its residence halls to serve as informal resources to foreign students, who can drop by their rooms with questions or concerns. George Mason pairs participants in its Access program, which serves provisionally admitted students who work to improve their English while taking college courses, with honors students who live on adjacent floors.

Marcy P. Cohen, director of international faculty and student services at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus, says students are often more comfortable asking questions of peers than of staff members.

"They want to know what happens if their roommate wants to have her boyfriend over, whether Americans do drugs, what they should do if they're not totally comfortable with English yet," says Ms. Cohen, whose office trains about 40 volunteers each year to help welcome new students. "They want to know what it's really like to be a student at Rutgers."

Reorienting Orientation

For many colleges, the changing international-student demographics have prompted another look at how these students are welcomed to campus, at orientation itself. Foreign-student orientations can be a grab bag of activities: required briefings on immigration rules, course registration, introductions to student services, and trips to nearby stores to purchase dorm-room furnishings and winter clothes. It can be overwhelming for jet-lagged students, says Donna Van Handle, dean of international students at Mount Holyoke College.

"Students don't retain things at orientation," Ms. Van Handle says. "It's all too much to process."

Mount Holyoke is one of several colleges that have moved away from front-loading new-student information in those first few days on campus. Instead the Massachusetts college offers a year-round "reorientation program," workshops on subjects such as dealing with culture shock, filing income taxes, and making use of the counseling center. This way, Ms. Van Handle says, administrators can give students the information when they need it, such as at an early-spring workshop on summer jobs.

Florida State University, too, has streamlined its orientation to need-to-know details, such as how to catch the bus and sign up for courses, and holds topical workshops every Friday. Portland State University takes students on a two-day retreat in the fall after they have settled in.

Macalester's new Ametrica Project pairs equal numbers of American and international students to focus on cultural differences and social practices. One week, students in the semester-long program were dropped off in different parts of the Twin Cities, with a bus token and instructions to meet people and record their observations. Another session was dubbed "Sarcasm 101," an idea that came to Mr. Colhapp, the director, after a Chinese student asked him to explain the humor in The Daily Show.

At least one such program is longstanding. For more than a decade, Riverside Community College has required all international students to take two for-credit courses, on the American classroom and on college success. (Few other institutions require such courses or offer credit for them.)

The sessions have helped improve Riverside's retention rate for international students, says Doug Bowen, who developed and teaches the courses.

But if some colleges are moving away from an expansive orientation for students, others are adding more introductory programming—for parents.

Leila Crawford, director of international-student and -scholar programs at Emory University, says she has noticed more and more overseas parents accompanying their children to campus for the start of their freshman year. So the university started an international-parent orientation featuring a brunch with administrators and panels on different challenges international students face. It has three purposes, Ms. Crawford says: to make parents aware of the different student-services available, to educate them about limits on the information the institution can share with them, and to give students the opportunity to get out on their own without Mom and Dad around.

About 80 family members attended Duke University's orientation last fall, including two sets of grandparents, says Li-Chen Chin, director of the campus International House. Parents, especially those from countries that emphasize respect for one's elders, can be key in encouraging students to make use of campus resources, such as mental-health counseling, she says. "We very much see parents as our partners."

Classroom Culture Clashes

One of the places cultural differences come to a head is in the classroom. American educational culture emphasizes critical thinking, drawing conclusions, and classroom participation. Those may be foreign concepts to students schooled in systems that stress rote memorization and esteem for one's teachers.

Tonya Veltrop, director of international and off-campus programs at Westminster, says many of her East Asian students turn in papers copied word-for-word from books and other primary sources. "They see that as respectful," she says. "We'd call it cheating."

Other international advisers say their students are shocked at the informality of U.S. classes, where students may call their professors by their first names and openly disagree with them. "They come in with the attitude of, 'What do I know, I'm just a student,'" says Adria L. Baker, executive director of the office of international students and scholars at Rice.

Many of these problems are not new, of course, but with a critical mass of overseas students in American college classrooms, they are more pronounced.

Colleges try to tackle such differences head-on during orientation, in workshops, and during one-on-one academic counseling. The University of North Texas' Intensive English Language Institute, for one, brings in native speakers to review the most critical information with incoming students in their own language.

A number of colleges have beefed up their English-language support or added extra tutors in their writing centers, since lack of language fluency often exacerbates students' reticence. Mount Holyoke recently hired its first English-language instructor. While students must earn high scores on standardized language-proficiency tests to be admitted, they often struggle to adjust to speaking and writing academic papers in English, Ms. Van Handle says.

Faculty members and academic advisers also need to be more cognizant of foreign students' learning styles and needs, international-education experts say. Mr. Young, of UC-Davis, recently had to assist a student whose adviser told him he could make up missing credits during the summer. That's fine guidance for an American, Mr. Young says, but international students have to be full time to keep their visas.

International-office administrators on many campuses say they are meeting informally with individual faculty members or departments. Mr. Brockington, the associate provost at Kalamazoo, has been asked to hold a faculty colloquium on teaching international students, while at Mount Holyoke, special training is being developed to help professors better work with non-English speakers.

The University of Iowa's Center for Teaching is compiling resources on effective cross-cultural instruction, and a committee appointed by the provost is going through college and departmental handbooks to determine if they need to make policies more clear for international students.

"It's well and good to say that plagiarism isn't allowed," says Mr. King, the international dean, who serves on the panel, "but are we making assumptions that students get what plagiarism is?"

Mr. King says Iowa officials are also trying to identify faculty members in each discipline who already do a good job of working with international students to serve as models for their peers. And the university is revising two required first-year courses, in rhetoric and English, to test the efficacy of certain strategies, such as training teaching assistants to be more aware of the transition that foreign students go through.

Syracuse's Ms. de Berly says that, with little sign of the stream of international students drying up, colleges will need to keep working to develop new and better approaches. "Colleges have to gear up," she says. "We really are obliged to provide better support services, to help students succeed."

Correction (6/3, 1:55 p.m.): This article originally misstated the Chinese share of the undergraduate population on American campuses. Chinese students account for nearly one in five international undergraduates in the United States, not nearly one in five undergraduates over all. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.