University News

Int’l grad students struggle to acculturate

Contributing Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2011

More than one-third of international graduate students are from China. And this year’s 228 Chinese students dramatically outnumber the next-most represented country, Korea.

Six-hundred forty-four international doctoral and master’s students, representing 72 countries, make up about 30 percent of Brown’s 1,984 graduate students, according to Jabbar Bennett, assistant dean for recruiting and professional development for the Graduate School. But with cultural differences, restrictive work schedules and language difficulties, Chinese graduate students sometimes have a hard time acculturating to life at Brown.

Enticed by opportunity

Michael Cao ’11 GS, a postdoctoral research associate in molecular pharmacology, physiology and biotechnology, said funding opportunities, treatment of lab employees, availability of lab materials and assistance offered by professors, advisers and students all drew him to the United States.

In China, employees often must work late into the night, but the long hours do not necessarily translate into greater productivity or more income, Cao said. A student in China would perhaps make only $30 a month, he said. The dormitories in China are also less comfortable, with four or five people to a room, he added.

Despite what Cao sees as a better system in the United States, he said it is sometimes difficult for graduate students to adjust to Brown and American culture.

“You have to get used to the culture and not the culture used to you,” Cao said.

Cao is involved with Brown’s Chinese Scholarship and Student Association and a soccer club, where he met most of his close Chinese friends at Brown. Cao said his friendships are mainly with Chinese students. He sees Americans as more independent — Chinese people tend to stick together in groups whenever possible, he said.

He also said Chinese grad students work more than their American peers. “Chinese students work very hard — the international students tend to be working harder than the American students,” he said.

Yuanyuan Zhang GS, a second-year graduate student in the chemistry department, said she usually spends time with other Chinese students because they attended the same university in China as she did or are now in the same department at Brown. Bennett said many Chinese students are in physical sciences programs such as chemistry.

“If I am not familiar with his or her life, and he is not familiar with mine, it’s hard to talk to each other,” Zhang said.

But Shumin Yao GS, president of the Chinese Scholarship and Student Association and a student in the chemistry department, said she would like to see more interaction between Chinese students and other students on campus. Chinese students do not tend to make a strong appearance at Graduate Student Council events, said Matteo Riondato GS, the council’s president.

“I wonder if the events are not appealing to them, or if (the Chinese Scholarship and Student Association) already takes care of the social aspect of their graduate student life,” Riondato said.

The association hosts many traditional activities like the celebration of the Chinese New Year but hopes to cooperate more with the Graduate Student Council and the Year of China initiative.

“We want more meetings with American students here — in that way we can make friends with the Americans,” Yao said. “I am thinking we can have parties together with them.” She said she thinks it is difficult for Chinese graduate students to socialize because they “do not love social networking” and are busy with their research and studies.

Though some departments hold events to welcome new students at the start of the fall semester, students should not rely on the University to support their social life, Bennett said. “We do things to support (international students’) interests and to respect their culture and backgrounds, but I think it’s up to the student at that stage in their lives and their careers to take more ownership and sort of navigate,” he said.

Acculturation, not assimilation, is key, Bennett said. Assimilation speaks to encouraging people to possibly forget who or what they are, Bennett said, whereas acculturation is about helping students become acclimated to the environment at Brown.

The University has a program for international teaching assistants, which includes a language component, instruction on how to navigate Providence and assistance with setting up cell phones, bank accounts and housing, Bennett said.

But the University currently lacks many resources provided to international students at other schools, including a devoted space on campus to find advising, social opportunities and assistance with legal issues, said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. “We need to develop our advising programs to address the particular needs international students have,” she said.

Learning English

The University requires all international students in the physical sciences to take a two-week summer Seminar for English Language and Acculturation.

Zhang said she had never stepped foot in the United States before coming to Brown and found it difficult at first to communicate in English. She now speaks English regularly with her adviser and peers. “Speaking in research language is not quite a big problem for me now,” she said. But speaking “out of the circle of my study” can be difficult.

“If you want to improve your English, it’s better to take social activities with American people here than taking class,” Yao said. She said she now has trouble recalling the material she learned in an English for Internationals course.

Cao also said he found communication difficult at first. He said he came to the country in 2005 to attend Providence College as a visiting scholar for about two years before applying to the PhD program at Brown.

“When you are nervous, especially at the beginning first year, you’ll find it’s very hard to organize what you want to say in English,” he said. He said he tries to keep his presentations simple. At conferences, he said he replaces spoken explanation with lots of information on slides. But he said he has gained confidence.

“I think the biggest support goes back to people,” said Barbara Gourlay, coordinator for the English for international teaching assistants program. She emphasized the importance of “creating environments and structures in the University that encourage and promote communicating with all people using English.”

As a component of their English for internationals courses, first-year international students are paired with undergraduate native English-speaking consultants to converse for one hour each week during the semester.

Yao said she found her consultant very helpful, both for learning English and for familiarizing herself with American culture. Yao also has a host family through th
e International House, with whom she has spent Thanksgiving and other American holidays. “We have a very good relationship — it really helps you to learn about American culture,” she said.

Teaching to learn

In the classroom, Chinese graduate students also face challenges. During her first semester as a TA, Zhang said she worried about understanding and answering students’ questions. “I think the students would like to communicate with me, and if they ask questions, I want to feel like I’m helpful,” Zhang said.

Gourlay said the University tries to work with the departments to find a good match between students’ individual communication skills and the departments’ needs. “It’s not a one-size fits all,” Gourlay said. In one case, a student did not have the necessary certification, so they worked with the department to find appropriate duties and responsibilities that would allow the student to meet departmental requirements.

“Sometimes people have good English skills, but they don’t necessarily have the necessary teaching skills,” Gourlay said.

Gourlay said departments are invited to participate in the final TA evaluation process each year. An English as a second language professional and undergraduates also attend evaluations. “At all points in our program, we really value the input that undergraduates give us in terms of, ‘Is this person a successful communicator in English for classroom purposes?'” Gourlay said.

“In general, once students exit our program with the certification status that they need, it really is the department’s responsibility to oversee what happens in their particular classrooms,” Gourlay said.

Being a TA brings challenges for both undergrads and graduate students. Graduate students are not necessarily placed as TAs in classes they are familiar with, Cao said. Students may ask some very detailed questions that TAs may not be prepared to answer, Cao said.

Yao pointed out that being a TA is time-consuming on top of all the other work graduate students have. A full-time TA position, which consumes 20 hours per week, takes up too much time, she said.

Occasionally a department will come back asking for more help with certain students, Gourlay said. But Bennett said he had never heard a program come back to say the graduate student TA was not prepared after going through the training.


The departments tend to know where their students go after Brown better than the Graduate School, Bennett said. “That’s data we actually want to capture and understand better in the Graduate School,” he said. “We’re working more closely now with Alumni Relations to begin to collect that data for all graduate students,” he said.

Gourlay spoke of how graduate students seem to have “very specific ideas of what they want to do,” but exposure to the possibilities at Brown opens up their worlds.

Yao said during her first semester as a graduate student, it was difficult to think about the future. “You come here, and you see so many things different from your own country, and you begin to feel that your own country needs some change, and you begin to consider what you are going to do,” Yao said. “For a month I was thinking, ‘What I am going to do? I’m so worried about my future.’ But then I concluded I’ll spend my five years to learn and get opportunities I can get, and then I’ll know about what I’ll do in the future.”

With four more years to complete her PhD, Yao said she is unsure of her future plans. “America is a better place for research,” she said. “It’s a developed country. There is a better working atmosphere.” But some graduate students choose to return to their home countries because they want to help their own countries develop, Yao said.

Cao, who is finishing papers and looking to publish them, said he hopes to complete his thesis this year and look for a position as a professor in China. Nowadays, some Chinese students would rather stay in China if they can find a decent job, Cao said. He mentioned his twin brother, who stayed with a Chinese company and makes more money than Cao does now, and his wife’s brother, who decided not to go to graduate school in America in favor of a position at a bank in China. But “if I go back to China I will miss lots of things here,” he said.

Zhang said she would prefer to return to China and would like to become a professor, though it depends on what type of job she can find. But she does have four more years at Brown. Though she suffered anxiety during her first semester at Brown, she said she feels now that “everything is settled down.”

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