Engaging International and Domestic Students

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By Downing Thomas

One of the more significant changes that has occurred during the time I have served in my current position is the tremendous increase in international undergraduate students at the University of Iowa, and indeed across the U.S.  And here at the UI we have seen even larger than average increases.  The fall before I started as associate provost and dean of International Programs (fall 2007), we had about 400 international undergraduates in total on our campus.  This past fall, that number was getting close to 2,000. Initially, those who were most involved in supporting this effort were the staff in Admissions, International Programs, Academic Advising, Housing, and a variety of academic support units across campus.  The growth had not yet reached the junior- and senior-level classes in the majors and the faculty who teach these courses.  By now, the faculty in areas seeing large numbers of international students are well aware of the growth, and have had to adjust their teaching strategies to accommodate a mix of students with varied cultural and academic backgrounds.  As this group has made it through the pipeline, we are now considering how best to continue our connections with the students who have begun to graduate in larger numbers, and how to maintain and build life-long ties to international alumni.

At a meeting I attended of the Association of International Education Administrators last week, one session that focused on “Integrating International Students into our Institutions” was particularly well attended.  Gil Latz, the senior international officer at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, and Elizabeth Redden from Inside Higher Ed organized the session (see Elizabeth’s overall summary of the internationalization agenda).  Their session asked the question: “how effectively are we integrating international students into curricular and co-curricular campus life? Research and experience suggest that without proactive policies, international students can be marginalized and subjected to discriminatory behavior, contradicting the global learning goals embraced by virtually every American campus.”

Attendees noted the phenomenon of “a college within a college” to describe the clustering of students with similar social, cultural, and national backgrounds.  While most of those at the session were from U.S. institutions, faculty and administrators from Canada and Singapore who were at my table indicated that similar clusters existed on their campuses.  A colleague from Purdue mentioned a poll on his campus indicating that 90% of international students do not have American friends.  Among ideas mentioned to address this issue, study abroad was mentioned as a tool for bringing various populations together on a level playing field.  Because study abroad destinations are equally foreign to U.S. students and international students, they face many of the same experiences together.  Another possibility for domestic orientation programs (i.e., for U.S. students) would be to stress the advantages—indeed, often untapped advantages—of having a graduate teaching assistant from abroad.  Usually, U.S. students will focus on a single, perceived disadvantage—non-native or accented English.

An important and sometimes overlooked consideration is that in the U.S. attending a college or university is considered by many first and foremost to be a process of socialization through which one develops ties to socio-economic peers that will last a lifetime.  The academic component, while an essential ingredient, may be considered secondary.  The international students who come to us with the financial investment of a lifetime of work on the part of parents -- and in many cases two sets of grandparents -- do not attend college to socialize or become socialized.  They are here, as Dr. Christopher Johnstone (University of Minnesota) put it, for “extractive” purposes, to master a field.  We should attempt to get these two aims to coexist or blend, to find a way to harness the mutual contributions students can make on our campuses.

At the University of Iowa, we are developing two new programs to address some of the challenges of having a sizeable international student population on our campus.  The first is an online orientation program designed to create a required, scalable, sustainable orientation course for entering international undergraduate students that will assist them in the academic, cultural, and social transition, even before they arrive on campus.  Because of visa requirements and financial constraints, most international students only arrive on campus days before the beginning of the academic term.  We need to engage them earlier in the process. The second project addresses the gap that often occurs between incoming students’ English abilities and cultural expectations, on the one hand, and the small class environment that requires active participation in discussions, completion of written papers, and formal oral presentations, on the other.  This program will allow the optional enrollment in a “lab” section for any student in two required general education courses, helping students to practice their oral language skills while also creating a cultural and linguistic exchange among international and domestic students. 

Both of these projects target the incoming student population from abroad.  We need to consider ways to reach our domestic students as well.  I am sure there are many ideas out there and I encourage you to contact me with yours.

Downing Thomas