The Changing Face of CSU
The INTO CSU program is set to almost double the number of international students on campus within the next five years. At present there are around 1,100 international students studying at CSU, and almost a third of them are from China alone according to Colorado State University’s 2012-2013 Fact Book.
With 54 students, South Korea is in fourth place on CSU’s list of ‘Top Countries of Origin for International Students’ behind China, Saudi Arabia and India. Libya rounds out the top five with 43 students.
Ye Xiaohui from China and Lee Seonju from South Korea have both been studying at CSU for over a year (both women follow the naming conventions of their respective countries and place their family names in front of their given names).
Though their paths have never crossed, their experiences are remarkably similar.
The Changing Face of CSU: Ivy
“The rule is, if we can pass the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) we can come straight in,” Ye explained.
Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t able to hit that mark. That meant a spell in the Intensive English Program at CSU.
“I took some classes,” said Ye. “Like listening, writing and speaking. I was also taking some CSU classes at the same time.”
Ye, or Ivy as she prefers to be known (it’s common for many Chinese to have a nickname), quickly moved on and jumped headlong into regular American university life.
“The writing class helped me,” said Ivy. “I learned the basic principles on how to write an essay. I didn’t like the speaking class, because we all (the international students in the program) had accents. So, it was so hard for me to understand them.”
American life has its own special set of problems for international students. There are cultural minefields for people to navigate. Some students come from cultures where it’s considered impolite to immediately accept something being offered. The student soon finds out that once they have refused, there is no second offer forthcoming.
There can also be underlying tensions between U.S. students and international students about wars, human rights issues and economic problems. There are often just plain old misunderstandings when speaking in a second or third language, and there are moments when you wouldn’t get on with people even if you spoke the same language.
“For my first week, I stayed with one of the volunteer families,” said Ivy. “She was so nice to me, and the reason I was staying there was because the dorm wasn’t ready.”
She continued, “After that I moved into the dorm. My roommate was an American student, but we didn’t talk much, because my English was so poor.”
The fear of having their English language skills judged can lead some students to clam up altogether.
“I was always on my own,” remembered Ivy.
That was a year ago, have things progressed much for her?
“I still feel like a Chinese student,” said Ivy. “Sometimes we hang out with U.S. students, but not that much.”
She continued, “What’s interesting is that right now I’m living in University Village and there are a lot of Chinese students. We don’t talk in English with each other, even though we are in an English-speaking country.”
Could this be the fault of CSU? Has the university been doing enough to promote the cross-cultural aspect of studying at a foreign university?
Is University Village failing to live up to its goal of providing an “academically supportive, family environment for students who are interested in living in an interactive community,” as it states on the Housing and Dining Services website.
Has it been about the almighty dollar all along? And those almighty dollars certainly add up quickly when you consider that an international student will pay almost $25,000 per year in tuition alone, compared to around $9000 for an undergraduate classified as a Colorado resident.
“Maybe we (Chinese students) are not open enough. I am not confident with my English, so I just don’t want to talk,’ rued Ivy.
Regular class life seems the same for Ivy as it does for anyone else at the university.
“Actually, for classes we can understand most of the problems,” explained Ivy. “After class we need to read the textbook, or some document, which can help us understand better.”
Liberal Arts classes appear to cause the most difficulty.
“There are lots of non-academic words,” said Ivy. “So even though I translate them, I don’t get the idea.”
But, CSU appears cognizant of problems encountered by international students like Ivy in class, and is more than willing to take the time to help them out.
“I went to meet my TA (Teaching Assistant) once,” said Ivy. “He gave me a lot of resources. But, I didn’t do anything with them. I just studied on my own.”
This attitude seemingly flies in the face of the point of being an international student. To get to know, and mingle with on multiple levels all of the student body you are surrounded by.
“For me, the big idea is to get a higher education,” said Ivy. “You need to live on your own, you need to do a lot of things by yourself. It’s challenging. When I ask for help, there is always help. But we prefer to work on our own.”
Ivy continued, “I have tried to change my habits, I try to hang out with more native students. It has helped a little. I have an English language partner from the Chinese club, and we help each other. We meet once in two weeks, but that’s fun because you can talk. She’s interested in Chinese culture so we have more to talk about.”
Ivy reflected for a minute or so on the statement she had just made before adding, “One of the reasons that I don’t want to talk with people is because sometimes I feel they are not nice.”
Ivy continued to blow off steam, “We are still struggling with our English, and sometimes when I talk I need to think about Chinese words, to translate, and sometimes I can’t.”
The Changing Face of CSU: Seonju
“I like biology,” said Lee. “It was frustrating, at first, because it was hard to understand everything. But, now I am adjusting, it’s OK.”
Even though, Lee’s study habits are startlingly similar to Ivy’s: working alone and cramming for exams.
“Native English speakers speak too fast for us. I don’t know anyone in my major, so I usually study by myself,” stated Lee.
She has mixed feelings on the preparation CSU provided for her mainstream classes.
“I was nervous because I hadn’t experienced anything in American university,” said Lee. “But, it wasn’t really practical. I didn’t go to a real classroom. I had online lectures. It’s not intense enough compared to the real class.”
The classroom setting presents its own set of unique problems for international students whose first language isn’t English.
“It’s really hard to ask any questions during the class,” said Lee. “I need more time than anybody else. So, I have to go after class or during their office hours.”
Lee continued, “If it’s my major then I don’t think it’s very hard. But, if it’s about American culture or history things that I’m not really aware of, then it’s really hard. To Americans, it’s like common sense, but to me it’s a total strange thing.”
While she was in the Intensive English Program, Lee was bombarded with requests to go to international nights, to meet other international students, to generally find her feet. In Lee’s view, CSU hasn’t really continued to offer that helping hand to integrate with American society.
“I live in Aggie Village with my friend, and 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,” said Lee.
CSU’s Office of International Programs does have a calendar on its website that lists events for international students, but all of the activities are campus based or university organized. Dating back to the start of the semester, nothing was on the calendar that could be classified as ‘outside campus life.’
“Now they send me e-mails about ‘do I want to be a mentor?’ I need a mentor!” laughed Lee as she considered the possibility.
“I don’t think I’d be very helpful to them. I’m still learning about American culture.”
(This article originally appeared online at http://www.intocsu.weebly.com in December 2012.)
© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved