International Students in the U.S. Offer a Lesson for Classmates

by Cathryn Edelstein

Imagine you hail from Asia, Africa or South America and have been accepted to a college in the United States. You have made the necessary plans to attend – sent in your deposit, obtained the required documents to travel and purchased your plane ticket. As the day to board the plane with your belongings neatly packed in a suitcase arrives you wonder – have I made the right decision? How will I fit in? Are my English communication skills good enough? Will I adjust to a new culture?

According to the Open Doors Report a little over 723,000 students from around the world chose to attend U.S. educational institutions in 2010/2011.  Each had their own reasons to leave their native countries in pursuit of education in the United States. Some sought to broaden their learning in academic areas not available in their native country while others wanted to experience a different culture and believed that studying abroad would enrich their lives and future careers.  Whatever the reason, they took the risk to change their lives – even if for a limited time.

This may sound like a simple concept – after all many of us have traveled and experienced a different culture and with the exception of a few minor bumps, have returned with stories to tell and memories for a lifetime.  Attending a school in a foreign country is entirely different. From adapting to different living accommodations, adjusting to new instructional styles, meeting academic expectations and making friends, students who study abroad risk everything. Combine these challenges with speaking, reading, writing and listening in a second language and we begin to see how demanding an endeavor this really is.

As a college professor, I have educated many international students who face academic challenges that at times seem insurmountable. The constant effort they exert to fit in and complete their assignments successfully often astound me. They often tell me it takes an hour to read and process just a few pages of a textbook. They visit the academic support center a few times for each paper they write.  They are constantly looking up words and translating them into their native languages to understand terms and vocabulary they never heard before. I am always impressed by their diligence and ability to aim high and not use their foreign status as an excuse to do mediocre work.

Recently a group of students from China approached me to listen to a presentation they were going to make in another class later that same day. They listened carefully to my suggestions eagerly taking notes and strategizing how they would incorporate the corrections I recommended. From improper phrasing on their PowerPoint slides to vocabulary choices that needed to be changed, they listened carefully and left quickly to incorporate the changes. In an effort to do their very best work, they sought to practice in front of an available professor and accept the critiques made. This scenario is just one of many I have similarly experienced. Over and over again, I have witnessed incredible effort and this type of work ethic.

Individuals who travel to study in a foreign country should be commended and their extraordinary effort noticed by not only their professors, but by their domestic peers. Too often the extra work they do goes unnoticed. These students have left the comfort of their native environments to explore and grow.  It is ironic that they made the decision to study in a foreign country for their own personal growth because their addition to our communities has added diversity to our institutions and provided their peers and professors the opportunity to learn not only about the cultures they come from, but also show us how hard work and consistent determination ultimately triumph.


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