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Panel helps faculty and staff better assist Chinese students
February 18, 2015Tweet
More than 50 faculty and staff members received advice on how to help the growing number of Chinese international students adapt to Binghamton University during a Feb. 11 seminar in the Union Undergrounds.
“Getting to Know Your Chinese Students” featured a four-person panel, as well as speakers from the event’s sponsors: the English as a Second Language Program (ESL) and the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC).
Mark Reisinger, associate professor and undergraduate director of the Geography Department; Xuan Chen, an undergraduate admissions counselor; Patricia Alikakos, an ESL lecturer; and Fang Wang, a visiting scholar and lecturer from Northeast Forestry University in China, offered insights into why the transition into American university life can be difficult for exchange students.
The number of Chinese students at Binghamton University has almost doubled in the last five years. Jennifer Brondell, ESL program director, said fall 2014 saw more than 900 enrolled, making them the largest population of exchange students on campus.
The focus of the seminar was to learn about the academic background of Chinese students and develop ways to help them succeed in a system that is the opposite of what they are used to.
“Hard work is not foreign to them,” Alikakos said. “This is not an issue when they come into our University. It’s not the workload and it’s not studying.”
“Maybe sometimes (professors) overestimate their students,” said Wang, who teaches English at a school with 33,000 undergraduate students, 63 undergraduate majors and 19 colleges, and where student-professor interaction is limited and the curriculum is strict. “Students want to improve, they want to improve listening and speaking. That’s part of why they are here. They really want to learn how to communicate with others because although they take a lot of years of English, they cannot speak fluently.”
Alikakos, who taught at an international high school in China during the spring 2014 semester, echoed this sentiment. She said there is limited freedom in the Chinese educational system for students.
“They have to take everything; there’s no choice,” Alikakos said. “If your major course doesn’t require biology, that doesn’t matter − you still have to take biology. These are all pressures put on the students. If you’re not one of those students who is good at math or science, it doesn’t matter. You still have to take them and you still have to pass.”
One of the recurring themes of the seminar was an emphasis on how the structure of American and Chinese school systems do not parallel one another so Chinese students often find themselves overwhelmed when classes begin.
Two of the major differences that Chinese students find hard to adapt to are participation in class and writing convention.
“Some of the things that come easy to us are second nature, like the way we write when we organize our papers,” Alikakos said. “We do the introduction, thesis at the beginning and then we support and conclude at the end − pretty basic stuff. But for other cultures, that’s not how it works. They all have different organizational styles and language.”
Alikakos said that faculty are surprised when international students’ papers do not meet the standards of what they expect from domestic students. She argued that it’s not because they don’t understand, it’s that the students are entering with expectations from their own writing culture.
“It seems like these students come here and they’re not ready to be here, and that may be the case in some situations, but I don’t think it’s the majority,” she said. “I think they are ready; they just don’t understand the expectations of the American university style.”
Another issue lies in participation. The panelists said students sit quietly and take notes in Chinese schools.
“When we have students in our classes (in the United States), we expect participation. When nobody is saying anything it doesn’t mean they don’t want to say anything – it’s just that they’re not used to being expected to say something,” said Alikakos, speaking of Chinese student experiences in their homeland. “It’s a very teacher-centered system.
“One of the challenges I had to face, especially with freshmen, was to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning,” she added.
“I might present something in class, but that’s not it. Don’t just take what I say and forget it. You have to go beyond what I say and do some of your own research and find out things for yourself, too. This concept is a bit foreign (to them).”
Reisinger has taught Chinese students abroad and spent time working with exchange students as the faculty master of Newing College.
Professors can help alleviate some of these cultural issues by making themselves approachable to students, Reisinger said. Chinese students are used to a culture of professors and administrators being authority figures and inaccessible. Giving incentives to students to come out of their shells helps performance and assimilation, he said.
Reisinger suggested offering bonus points for coming to office hours. He also advocated dividing a class for group work. Mixing domestic and international students will not only force the international students to communicate, he said, but will help them with their English and understanding of a new culture.
All the panelists suggested that faculty point Chinese students − and international students in general − toward Binghamton University programs such as ESL and the MRC. They emphasized that making students feel comfortable and giving them an environment to succeed in benefits everyone.
“What we do is a good old basic human support,” Brondell said. “We don’t really fix a student’s English. We work on academic English, but we also work on learning this academic setting and how to be successful in it.”