Frank’s Grand Plan: An International Lifeline?
Back in February, Colorado State University’s President Tony Frank said, “CSU has a long-standing tradition of attracting international students to its world-class academic and research programs, and I’m very excited about the opportunity to expand that through our new relationship with INTO.”
As he did so, Frank set the ball rolling on his mission to, as he put it, “grow CSU’s footprint in parts of the planet that were previously beyond our reach.”
Almost as soon as the statement floated off Frank’s lips, faculty members began to wonder what this development held in store for them. People have grokked over the implications of having the international student population almost double over the course of five years, from today’s figure of 1,100 students to around 2,100.
Why is CSU entering into this partnership? Is it a global brand expansion, or is it just about the added, and badly needed revenue that can be funneled into CSU’s coffers?
Frank spelled out his fiscal worries during the annual President’s Fall Address and University Picnic on Sept. 13, 2012.
“There will no longer be public funding for higher education in the state of Colorado,” Frank said. “It will happen within the next 7 to 10 years on our watch.”
According to the Student Financial Services section of CSU’s website, a Colorado resident undergraduate student living on campus will pay a total bill of almost $22,000 per year. Compare that to nearly $40,000 for an international student. If they bring a spouse, make it $50,000. These sorts of figures must be extremely attractive to a university looking for a way to bring in more cash.
A Level Playing Field
On the south side of the congested Lory Student Center parking lot, at the top of the concrete steps that are usually coated with crude, chalk written, recruitment drives for frats and sororities, sits the office of academic adviser Elisabeth Wadman. Working within the engineering faculty, she doesn’t have much enthusiasm for the brave new INTO CSU world.
“Right now,” said Wadman. “A lot of people just see it as a way to bring revenue to the institution. Yes, we need that, but we also need for it to be a benefit in ways other than money.”
Wadman envisaged a fundamental retooling of the role that international students could play within the department.
“It’s going to take a concerted effort,” she said. “Because I think that not only do they have a lot to learn from our domestic students, our domestic students have a lot to learn from them. Engineering being a universal, it’s important to work on that aspect.”
Unfortunately, the process for enrolling international students at CSU has its share of problems.
Many foreign students take English placement exams in their native countries, reach a required level on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scale, and become ‘direct admits’ to the university. A directly admitted international student has as much freedom to chose classes as an American high school graduate.
“TOEFL scores, honestly, are not worth the paper they are written on,” Wadman said. “We have had issues with cheating, and people taking courses online, or at other institutions, and paying somebody else to take that class for them. It becomes apparent when you receive emails from someone who cannot communicate in a written manner in English, yet they got an A+ in a course.”
This sort of academic dishonesty should lead to students being thrown out of class, if not out of school altogether. But, maybe because of concerns about frightening off CSU’s new cash cow, “sometimes the university isn’t willing to back a department up when it comes to that,” said Wadman.
It also seems that the university hasn’t put together an adequate plan for international student transcripts either. There are numerous hassles involved with studying at a foreign university: They can run on different semester schedules, and all of the student’s previous work must be evaluated to see what courses it satisfies. Add to that some translation and visa rules and you have an extremely time-consuming process.
To beat the clock on admissions, CSU has taken a novel approach: Completely ignore the problem and forge ahead.
“How is it that you admit somebody a week before classes begin, and they are an international transfer student?” said Wadman. “That’s not fair to the student, it’s not fair to the adviser, it’s not fair to the faculty, and it’s not fair to the program.”
Bridging the Language Gap
International students often find themselves struggling as much as their advisers. They arrive at CSU, have some prep time in remedial English placement classes if required, and then they are set loose around campus.
“Native English speakers speak too fast for us. I don’t know anyone in my major, so I usually study by myself,” said Lee Seonju, a biology major from South Korea.
The fact that Lee (Korean naming tradition dictates that the family name goes in front of the given name), who speaks English extremely well, hasn’t integrated more into CSU’s campus culture is disheartening.
“I live in Aggie Village with my friend,” said Lee. “I feel that CSU doesn’t really promote any of my outside campus life. If I don’t look for it, I don’t do it.”
She continued, “Now they send me e-mails about ‘do I want to be a mentor?’ I need a mentor!”
Echoing Lee’s concerns, Wadman continued, “We’re going to struggle with comprehension, and we’re going to have students struggle in classes because they’re not able to understand right away.”
There is always the danger that this could lead to faculty members having to teach a two-track lesson – Catering to bright, but non-fluent English speakers on one side, and native English speakers on the other.
Meeting the Student’s Needs
So as CSU banks the monetary gain from this merging of ideas and cultures, who’s job is it to pick up the slack and navigate international students through their CSU academic career?
That responsibility seems to have fallen squarely on the shoulders of the English department and the CSU Writing Center, both located in Eddy Hall.
“These students are smart in their first language, they are college material,” said Louann Reid, head of the English department.
Reid saw many options available to international students to help them make the transition.
The remedial classes that some have to take when they arrive via the INTO CSU program are designed to get them up and running. Known as a ‘pathway’ course, they are supposed to get students ready for American-style college life. Lee Seonju didn’t see it like that.
“In my case I didn’t really go to the real classroom. It was online lecture,” said Lee. “So, it’s not intense enough compared to the real class.”
As more international students arrive, the English department will have to expand to accommodate their needs. More international composition classes will have to be offered, and someone has got to pay for that.
“We will be hiring more adjunct faculty to teach those courses,” said Reid. “We have a request into the provost for a tenure track faculty specialist in ESL (English as a Second Language) Composition. So, once the numbers increase and we can show the need, we’ll remind the provost of our request.”
Downstairs in the cramped CSU Writing Center, they also expected to get busier as more students come in seeking help with academic papers.
Coaches and students are often perched around tables, and one woman appeared to be stuck in the middle of the room performing a balancing act with a table and some notebooks.
The ‘office’ area of the Writing Center is constructed from screens and crammed into the corner of the room. The thought of a deluge of students is worrying.
“We need a bigger space,” said Tobi Jacobi, associate professor of English and incoming director of the Writing Center. On top of the lack of space, the needs of international students differ slightly from the center services offered at present.
“Right now,” said Jacobi, “I think they would like appointments and longer sessions, but we just don’t have the capacity to do that.”
Jennifer Levin, a new ELL (English Language Learner) specialist hired by the Writing Center, is in the process of conducting a needs analysis. Her preliminary findings matched up with Jacobi’s prognosis.
“Right now, we can handle the number of students that we are getting in the writing center,” said Levin. “But, if we’re looking at having up to 10 percent of our student enrollment being international students, then that’s going to really affect numbers. It’s going to really make us want to expand the center.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Back over on the north side of the Lory Student Center car park, nestled on top of the small grass slope is the College of Business, domain of Michael Jaramillo.
A self-confessed ‘old-hand’ at dealing with the trials and tribulations of foreign students, Jaramillo is director of undergraduate programs.
What advice could this man have for faculty and management alike? What can they do about the transcripts? The visas? To Jaramillo, flexibility is the key.
“You’re not just sending a quick e-mail,” said Jaramillo. “You have to interpret, get it converted. It’s an extensive process and it takes time.”
For Jaramillo the benefits for the university were plain to see, and they were much more than monetary.
“This is very exciting,” he continued. “The more international students we have in our college, the better all of our students, international and American students, are going to be qualified for what they are going to experience.”
As the days tick away to the end of the semester, and worries about visas and transcripts continue to plague advisers, students congregate as usual in the Behavioral Sciences building. What do these students think having more international students around will mean?
“I don’t think it will affect CSU too much,” said Leah Tanaka, a senior Language, Literatures and Cultures student.
“I don’t know if it will make a difference,” said Brenda Valdez, a senior Art major from Fort Morgan.
She continued, “I think it’s a good thing, it’ll make a much more diverse community here.”
“It’ll probably mean more study abroad opportunities for CSU students,” added Tanaka.
Katherine Odanaka, a senior Zoology major from California saw the whole thing as a non-debate.
“Where I come from,” said Odanaka. “Our city is mostly foreign students who have moved over with their families. It doesn’t bother me; I’ve grown up with it. Experiencing it here will not make any difference.”
(This article originally appeared online at http://www.intocsu.weebly.com in December 2012.)
© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved