University News

Group combats international students’ culture shock

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010

In one solitary corner of an otherwise still Pembroke campus last Thursday, freshly carved jack o’ lanterns illuminated the beaming faces of first-years hailing from Africa to Asia, from Brazil to Beijing. The pumpkin-carving event, a program sponsored annually by the International Mentorship Program, provided a release from midterm stress and a chance to renew friendships with other first-years originally formed during the international orientation program.

In addition to planning orientation, the program holds several events for international students throughout the year to facilitate the transition to life at an American college, said Angad Kochar ’12, one of four program coordinators.

Like all domestic students, international students must first face the transition to higher education that can be difficult for even a native New Englander.

“The University culture was literally the biggest shock ever to me,” said Asad Hassan ’13, a program mentor who attended the pumpkin-carving event. Hassan, who was born and raised in Pakistan before attending high school in Hong Kong, is no stranger to a wide array of international experiences. But for Hassan, adjusting to the rigors of college academics was not the end of his transition.

“I’d never been to America before. It was overwhelming,” he said, pointing to his shock when some stereotypes he had about America actually came to life.

Like that “frat boys existed outside of movies,” suggested Cindy Oh ’13, a mentor of Korean descent who lives in Singapore. Most international students face some level of culture shock, ranging from amusing realizations to experiences that challenge their world views.


Culture shock

“The international student population is very heterogeneous,” said Kisa Takesue ’88, who was the program’s coordinator until she became director of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center this year. She said the term “international student” applies to dual-citizenship students, those who attended international schools and “some who have never left their hometown or city” before coming to Brown.

This diverse population brings a diverse set of experiences, said Kochar, an American who gained international student status after studying abroad in Wales for two years in high school.

Depending on one’s background, culture shock can affect some international students more than others.

Julia Elstrodt ’14 comes from Brazil, where she attended an international school that had an International Baccalaureate program and typically sent students to American or British universities. With a German father, she said she experienced little difficulty adjusting to Brown because she “already had contact with many cultures.”

But for other students, many of whom make up Brown’s growing Asian population, the cultural differences are glaring.

Tianlin Yang ’14 went to a public high school in Beijing, China, an experience he called “dramatically different” from that of students who go to an international high school.

“When I first got out of the plane, the first feeling was excitement and looking forward to life here,” Yang said. But after the first week, the novelty wore off and he said he struggled to adapt to the Western style of thinking about problems and emphasis on class participation. During this unfamiliar time, “You have to keep trying and keep going anyways.”

Michael Lin ’14, from Changsha City, China, helped form an advising program there for other students to help them apply to American schools. Coming from China, where Lin said he needed special software to remove the government’s block on Gmail, Facebook and other programs, he had little exposure to America prior to coming to Brown.

Brown’s mentoring program “was conceived to help students transition to the American life,” Kochar said. Originally a student group, the program then worked under the Office of Student Life until it relocated to the Third World Center this year, according to coordinator Charles Limido ’12, who is from France.

Many students see the orientation program as vital for a successful transition to the Brown environment. Oh said “it was critical to establish connections” before the majority of first-years come to campus.

The program also provides peer mentoring from 22 upperclassmen throughout students’ first year at Brown.

International students receive a summer contact from their home region who can answer questions before they arrive. Their on-campus mentor hails from another part of the world in order “to mix groups and origins so they get exposed to different countries,” Limido said.

Julian Ezenwa ’14, from Nigeria, a Herald contributing writer, said having a mentor in addition to first-year advisers provides a good support system. “I just have so many people to talk to,” he said.

To help maintain the mentor-student relationship, the program also plans events throughout the year for the international community, Limido added.

In addition to everything the program offers, further resources are spread across departments. The Office of International Student and Scholar Services, for example, deals with visas and documentation.


Times, they are a-changing

The face and size of the international student body has greatly changed over the last 10 years, according to a 2009 Office of Institutional Research report. In the last decade, total international student population rose from 8.4 percent of the student body to 11.2 percent. The largest increase in the international population comes from Asia, according to the report.

In light of these changes, the resources available to students are being reassessed across the administration, said Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn.

Vice President for International Affairs Matthew Gutmann is working to make Brown a global research university, Klawunn said, adding that the Office of Campus Life is looking to review the international student situation. “We have orientation and (the program) and we’ve been thinking about ways we may want to expand,” Klawunn said.

 Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron added that international advising was brought up in the report of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, and her office wanted to assess the progress of meeting those needs.

The Undergraduate Council of Students is also working to bring student input into the conversation. The Administrative and Student Services Committee has been working on recommendations to bring to the administration that address student experiences, according to Chris Collins ’11, chair of the committee.


Language barriers

“Imagine taking all your classes in a language that is not your mother tongue,” Bergeron said, describing one of the most basic challenges new students from non-English-speaking countries face.

Katia Zorich ’14, who transferred from Moscow State University this year, said she found it incredibly tiring to speak English all day.

With the rising numbers of students from Asian countries, the prevalence of difficulty in this area has caught administrators’ attention.

“I have spoken Chinese for 18 years and suddenly I have to get used to English,” said Xiao Liang ’14. She said she has made use of the Writing Center to help hone her skills.

It also makes a big difference if students attended an international or local school. As Brown has begun targeting more students from local schools over the last half-decade, said program coordinator Marco Junco ’11, the number of students who struggle is on the rise. Some students have written few essays in English before coming to Brown, he added.

Bergeron said her office has been working with other departments to break down language barriers. For example, they are looking into adding an English as a Second Language employee to the Writing Center.

UCS members have been worki
ng on assessing language improvements. Yang, a member of the committee working on these proposals, said one idea would be to have culture workshops throughout the year.


Educational experiences

The classroom learning environment also poses a challenge for international students.

“Some of the adjustment issues have to do with pedagogical differences,” Takesue said. The emphasis on discussion and expected participation, as opposed to lecture-style teaching, challenges many students used to a more formal relationships with professors.

Zorich said the relationship with professors at Brown is very different from the university she attended in Moscow. There, “you have to have a way serious problem to e-mail your professor.”

Yang said the fundamental way people think in the West and East is different, and training oneself in critical analysis can be difficult.

To aid the adjustment to a new way of thinking inside and outside the classroom and address all the academic challenges they face, Klawunn said having a faculty adviser specifically for international students might help.

UCS is also considering recommending a program for international students similar to Excellence at Brown, a pre-orientation program that stresses academics, but less intense, Lin said. A pre-orientation program more tailored to the needs of the international community could be a beneficial way to address the academic concerns, he said.

These provisions may be key to allowing students to embrace the openness that drew them to Brown in the first place.

Natalie Riay ’13, who transferred to Brown from a college in Munich, Germany, said the American educational experience provides a uniquely different opportunity for more exploration without penalty. In Germany, students stick with what they planned to study or forfeit earned course credit.

Program mentor Oh said she applied early to Brown precisely for its openness and responsiveness to the needs of international students.

“Brown is a global research university,” Klawunn said, “If we’re going to bring students from all over the world, we need to be doing a good job making sure they have the educational experience they expected to have.”