A New Experience
International students in the spring 2016 International First Year Experience class were asked to write four things that defined them.
The students slowly walked up to the chalkboards where they could write and share their descriptions, white chalk dust falling on the ledge. Some thought about their answers before haltingly scratching them on the chalkboard, thinking of the correct English terms.
Two Asian students stood at the board next to each other, looking nervous until the instructor, Tze Lam, junior in nutritional science from Singapore, came over to give them a nudge in rapid Mandarin.
Domestic students may have written a hobby, a goal or a word that describes a relationship with friends or family. All but one of the seven international students in the small 8 a.m. class wrote something about their home country.
Jing-Ru Tan, a first-year economics student from Malaysia, described his first few weeks in Iowa.
“I’ll die if no one talks to me,” he wrote on the board.
The International First Year Experience course was first implemented in fall 2015. With 4,041 international students from more than 100 countries enrolled at Iowa State then, the course was meant to serve as a safety net and way to connect international students to campus resources, to a mentor and to each other.
Ali Soltanshahi, manager of International Student Services, said the International Students and Scholars Office found that a week-long orientation the week before the fall semester begins was not effective for the jet-lagged students who may have gotten off a 30-hour plane ride the day before.
So ISSO redefined and spread over a semester the orientation information for international students, which included topics on how to navigate campus, campus resources, student loans, the u-bill payment process and how to be a successful student.
Soltanshahi said ISSO hopes students will retain more information about campus resources and feel they have a place to check in with others who understand what it’s like to take on a grueling class load in an entirely new environment.
“We lose students in their first semester to classes,” Soltanshahi said. “[The IFYE class] helps students navigate and go through the culture shock together.”
Sujung Seo, a junior in computer science from South Korea who works in ISSO, is an example of an international student who did it right. Seo speaks fluent English and researched learning communities before she came to Iowa State so that she had a peer base to help with her studies. She also joined activities sponsored by the ISSO and the International Student Ambassador program, which provided a community to ease her through the culture shock.
The adjustment to the classroom is difficult enough for international students, Soltanshahi said, especially for students from Asian countries, because the educational system in Asian countries often centers on passive learning, where students accept information and do not question the teacher. In the United States, speaking up in class, class participation and taking control of your own education is encouraged, which can be a difficult adjustment for international students from Asia, he said.
There is no passive learning in Lam’s 8 a.m Wednesday section of the IFYE class. She asks her students a question, and if they don’t answer, she asks again or calls on a specific student. Lam is an assertive but caring tour guide who coaxes her students into learning about campus resources such as the Student Counseling Services and State Gym, joining other international students for tailgates and pumpkin carving and asking them about other classes.
Lam said she wanted to teach the class so she could help students learn from the experiences she had during her first few years at Iowa State. Lam said she missed many events as a freshman that would have helped her make friends.
“My advice to the other incoming or new international students is to have an open mind, go out, explore and meet new people,” Lam said. “I always say, ‘do what the room does.’”
International students who come to the United States must work to adapt to a new culture while still representing their home country. However, that adaptation becomes difficult with a lack of interaction between international students and domestic students.
Soltanshahi said international students go through a variety of adjustment phases when they first come. After the honeymoon phase, when the novelty and excitement of moving to a new country wears off, small annoyances begin to grate on students’ nerves, whether it be missing family or traditional foods, a roommate or being hundreds or thousands of miles away from home.
For Tan, the first-year economics student from Malaysia who is outgoing and thrives on interaction, that nagging annoyance was the lack of interaction with others. Though Tan transferred to Iowa State from a college in his home country with his girlfriend, Sylvia Wong, a sophomore in biology, something still was missing in his adjustment to life in Iowa. At the bus stop or around campus, the “Iowa nice” complex became apparent in the way a domestic student or Ames resident would smile in greeting or ask a few questions, but the conversation would stop there.
The language barriers became a mind game, an invisible barrier that prevented him from really connecting with students at Iowa State, from delving into the culture and feeling a sense of belonging.
“I’m a person that needs to talk to someone,” Tan said. “If you let me alone in a room without anything to do or anyone to speak to, I’ll be kind of lonely. After the loneliness, the sadness will just come along. I’m used to [living] in a group instead of being alone.”
Tan seems confident and sure of himself. In his college in Malaysia, he was a student leader. He doesn’t hesitate to share his opinion or ask a question in a clear, commanding tone in the IFYE class, during an International Student Ambassador meeting or when he approached staff at State Gym during a class treasure hunt meant to familiarize the students with the facility.
His English is fluent, except for when he has to pause in the middle of conversation to search for the right word. Tan said many international students find the language barrier a problem because they learn some English, but not enough to have in-depth conversations.
“When we get here it’s so different,” Tan said. “The first problem is the language barrier. We’re taught that it might be OK for us to speak English. The accent and the phrases are totally different.”
The language barrier makes it difficult to make friends with domestic peers, he said.
It is easy for international students to speak to professors. The conversations are formal and easier to navigate, Tan said.
But having easy conversations with friends is a lot harder, Tan said. The colloquialisms and slang terms friends sling around and inside jokes during conversations are hard to understand, he said. It takes time and patience to build English skills adept enough to manipulate language into slang, and Tan said he feels uncomfortable asking friends to explain conversations to him.
Wong, his girlfriend, agreed.
“We’ve seen domestic students who are very friendly,” Wong said. “They’ll even take the initiative to talk to us first. Some will even ask us, ‘Are you still feeling comfortable to speak English?’ That kind of question shows that they do understand we as international students have our difficulties.
“I’ve also seen some who I would say [are] kind of rude in terms of when the way we speak is different from them,” she said. “If they don’t get it -- or if they get it -- they will still kind of ignore you sometimes.”
For a shy student such as Ann Chen, the language barrier has made her hesitant to speak or draw attention to herself. Her long hair draped over her face as she sat at her desk in the IFYE class and whispered with another shy international student in the class. Both wavered before answering questions or participating in activities.
Chen, a freshman in statistics from China, left her home to go to high school in the United States because her parents wanted her to learn how to apply her education to real-world scenarios and not just regurgitate facts from a teacher, which is what education in China taught her. She started high school in Buffalo, N.Y., three years ago, living with a host family whose mom taught AP Calculus and could help Chen with her studies outside of class.
“I didn’t really want to leave my parents, but I don’t want my parents to worry about me,” she said. “At first I was afraid to talk with Americans. I just thought they would think I was stupid or silly if the word I said has some grammar mistakes.”
Chen said the language barrier has kept her from understanding some things her professor said in class, which made it difficult for her to make a friend from the United States.
“Most people just introduce themselves, and that’s it,” she said of domestic students. “I hope they can say more, but I’m not sure I can talk with them about the topics. I would hope I can make some American friend. It’s easier for me to make Chinese friends.”
While Chen’s shy behavior is not a problem in itself, she said she was “not at all” shy or quiet in her hometown in China.
“In the United States, I want to tell you something, but maybe I don’t know how to say that word,” she said. “I just won’t talk to you if I cannot say that word. It’s difficult.”
Chen’s body language is usually closed off, but it becomes animated when she wants to make a point. After speaking a sentence fluidly, she paused and added “maybe” or “I’m not sure.” At the end of a conversation, she smiled, tilted her head and apologized for not being more fluent in English.
Like Chen said, it’s easier to make friends that have a similar background or are from the same country.
Wong said she understands why international students want to stay in their own groups.
“They don’t get us; we don’t get them,” Wong said of domestic students. “It’s definitely lonely. We know the pain. We know how hard it is to come thousands of miles away from home. The locals don’t know.”
Wong said that while she has mostly been treated with kindness and indifference, a few students have made her feel unwelcome. One student in her class, she said, repeatedly shakes his head with an annoyed expression when she speaks in class.
Although Wong said she is not the only one the student acts disrespectfully toward, it reminds her of discrimination she has seen in Malaysia, which has three main cultures: Chinese, Indians and native Malays. Some racial tension has always existed among the groups, Tan and Wong said, and that racial tension helps Wong understand why a student would feel uncomfortable around her.
“It’s a part of their environment,” she said. “We as Chinese in Malaysia, our families always tell us the bad things about Malays or Indians. When we are young we accept it. But after we get to know some Malay or Indian friends, we know that not all of them are [bad].
“A person like that [student in her class] should not affect my mood because of his racist acts,” she said.
“I think it’s pretty normal to have a little bit of this experience,” Tan added.
International students come to the United States for more than just the educational experience, said Lam, the International First Year Experience coordinator.
“We come here to study because we want a new experience,” she said. “Otherwise, we would have stayed in our own country.”
Lam, who uses tough love in the IFYE course, does not let her students forget their commitments to edge out of their comfort zones to try new experiences and interact with new people. International students must be ambassadors of their culture, Lam said.
“I know that sometimes they are afraid of asking because sometimes there will be rejections,” Lam said. “I just want to be the constant reminder to them that, regardless how many times you face rejections, you’ve got to try because there are also people curious about our culture. People are willing to try our food, to learn about our countries.”
She won’t let them speak in their native language during class. It would be a waste of the experience to simply get an education and return home the same person, Lam said. She wants her students to understand they can have rewarding experiences outside of the classroom.
Singapore is a diverse country, so Lam said she is not afraid to approach others from different backgrounds, but she said she understands why some of her students are hesitant.
“I grew up in a multicultural country,” she said. “I will go out and talk to them. But if you ask me about China, the population is mainly Chinese, so they did not grow up in [a diverse community]. Asians tend to be more conservative, maybe some of them will not know how to respond.”
Just as domestic students create their own cliques, it is normal for international students in any country to cling to each other to provide a sense of normalcy.
Soltanshahi said the International Students and Scholars Office found the same tendencies to attach to other students from the same country in U.S. students studying abroad in Italy.
Isolation and a sense of being lost can set in when students have no way to relate to the culture around them, he said. But not participating in new experiences can affect more than just personal life.
“There’s a fine balance,” Soltanshahi said of international students’ friends from their home country.
“They help you go through the transition, whether they are a senior and have gone through the experience or go through this experience with you,” he said. “That’s helpful, but at the same time, if you are not integrating to the larger community, then you are kind of in a silo, and you may not have any American friends. You may not have looked for jobs or developed a resume because you are always within your own community and you’re always speaking your own language.”
Soltanshahi and Lam said the purpose of getting an education for all students is to broaden their experiences. Not only is that important for international students, but also for domestic students, who could do a better job of merging the communication gap with international students to create more interaction between the groups.
But domestic students struggle with pushing the bounds of familiarity, too.
Freshman Rachel Christensen, freshman in open option from Plymouth, Minn., said that although she does not think international and domestic students have trouble interacting at Iowa State, students of any background should feel comfortable talking to each other.
Madison Houge, freshman in open option from Butler, Mo. , agreed, but she said she does not feel comfortable reaching out to someone.
“As of right now, I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching someone like, ‘hey, want to get coffee?’” she said.
Houge said she would feel more comfortable talking to a student of similar background, although she admitted that it’s important to learn about cultures different than your own.
Quinton Houg, a freshman from northeast Iowa, said he comes from a homogenous community that lacks diversity. Everyone -- even domestic students -- go through culture shock, he said.
Steven Abramsky, a freshman from New York, said many domestic students at Iowa State don’t reach out to international students. He, however, has many international students as friends because other friends introduced them or he lives near them.
Abramsky said he would be understanding of international students and help them communicate if there was a language barrier, but he believes there are domestic students at Iowa State who are not as understanding.
“It just seems like people want to keep to themselves,” Abramsky said. “It’s hard for them to get out of their comfort zone.”
Although he would like to make international students feel welcome, Abramsky sees no need to force a relationship.
“It’s just like making any other friend,” he said. “If you don’t click with them and have the same interests, it’s like, ‘OK, maybe we should just have an occasional lunch or something.’ It’s a person. It’s not really a color.”
He said it’s still important for all students at Iowa State to keep an open mind and communicate with those from different backgrounds.
“It definitely helps someone grow as a person,” Abramsky said. “You learn a lot about the world. It reminds you that you’re not in this little bubble. There’s more to the world than just yourself and what you’re used to.”
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