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International Students Face Similar Challenges in the US


Student leaders and a professor at Duke University lead a presentation sharing information new international students will need.


Anyone who seeks a college education will face some challenges. These include difficult projects, busy schedules and complex social situations.

The new responsibilities of being an independent adult can be frightening. And for an international student, this experience can be even more intense.

Over one million international students studied at the many colleges and universities in the United States last year. Many of them came from countries where English is not the native language. But language was not the only barrier they faced.

ELS Educational Services is a company that operates several centers at colleges across the U.S. These centers help international students improve their English. In February, ELS researchers presented a study at the yearly conference of the Association of International Education Administrators.

This study collected the opinions of 662 international students at 23 different U.S. colleges and universities. Many expressed concerns about their relationships with professors. More than a third said they wished their professors would provide additional helpful criticism. Thirty-three percent wished professors would try harder to understand the international student experience. And 28 percent of the students wished professors would provide non-U.S. examples in class materials.

"Ultimately, to be successful in a classroom you have to understand what the expectations are, but also, the right way to express concerns and questions."

John Nicholson is the vice president of marketing and communications for ELS. Nicholson says the way students prepare to study in the U.S. affects their experience. He says many believe if they know enough English to pass a standardized test, they are ready for American higher education. But, he says, this level of language ability alone will not prepare them enough for their new learning environment.

"Ultimately, to be successful in a classroom you have to understand what the expectations are, but also, the right way to express concerns and questions."

Lisa Giragosian is the director of the international student office at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She says the findings of the study are common among the students she meets. And, she says teachers share in the responsibility for the difficulties expressed by international students.

"For every faculty member who’s very conscious … and globally-minded and seeking an international student’s opinion, there’s somebody else who’s not. And I’m afraid sometimes we’re dealing with the mentality that you’re studying in the United States and getting the knowledge from this particular professor or class, and that being totally inclusive is not taking priority."

Giragosian argues that international students add a great deal to the experiences of American students. As a result, she says, professors need to be equally open and accepting of all their students. That is why Duke offers training programs for professors to better understand how their international students think and learn.

First-time international students at Duke University play some games to get to know each better before their classes begin.

First-time international students at Duke University play some games to get to know each better before their classes begin.

But, Giragosian admits students from other countries will have to work especially hard for their U.S. education. The education systems in many countries do not put the same value on student involvement that the American system does. For example, American professors expect students to ask questions and lead discussions. Also, every nation has its own cultural history and rules for young people to learn and follow.

So, Giragosian suggests international student should try to find as many resources as they can to help them. This includes both before and during their studies in the U.S. She says students should try to meet with professors in their office hours outside of class. Also, she suggests they form groups with other international students. They can meet to discuss their shared concerns and practice things like speaking in class.

When I was in Ethiopia, I was taught to be more reserved, more quiet. Whereas here everyone tends to speak up, express their opinions all the time.

Kedest Mathewos is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She began studying global health at Duke in August of 2016. The 19-year-old attended an international high school in her home country. So, she says, she knew some of what to expect when she came to the U.S. However, she admits she still struggled at first, even with extra preparation.

"When I was in Ethiopia, I was taught to be more reserved, more quiet. Whereas here everyone tends to speak up, express their opinions all the time. So, it’s kind of hard to get used to that."

Mathewos earned a MasterCard scholarship to help pay for her education. The program chooses several students from African nations and supports them as they seek college degrees. Mathewos says the program has helped her a lot by connecting her with past members. She has learned from their experiences.

Sharing experiences continues to be very important to Mathewos. She often meets with other international students to talk about the problems they are having, like those listed in the ELS study. Also, she recently created a program that gives letters to professors at the beginning of a study term. The letters ask professors to consider the special challenges international students face.

The first-year student hopes the program will help get professors and students to work together to find ways to solve these problems.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. What problems do you have as an international student in the U.S. that this story did not discuss? How else do you think international students and professors can work together to deal with these challenges? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

challenge(s) – n. a difficult task or problem

schedule(s) – n. a plan of things that will be done and the times when they will be done

classn. a series of meetings in which students are taught a particular subject or activity

marketingn. the activities that are involved in making people aware of a company's products, making sure that the products are available to be bought

standardized testn. a test where all test-takers take the same test under the same or reasonably equal conditions

ultimatelyadv. at the most basic level

facultyn. the group of teachers in a school or college

consciousadj. knowing that something exists or is happening

globallyadv. involving the entire world

mentalityn. a particular way of thinking

particularadj. used to indicate that one specific person or thing is being referred to and no others

priorityn. the condition of being more important than something or someone else and therefore coming or being dealt with first

reservedadj. not openly expressing feelings or opinions

tend(s) – v. used to describe what often happens or what someone often does or is likely to do

scholarship n. an amount of money that is given by a school, business or an organization to a student to help pay for their education

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