Annually, approximately one million international students study in the U.S. where they advance science and research in various fields. Many international students go great lengths to accomplish their goals and fill voids in the job market, and several Nobel laureates were once international students. In response, it is crucial to acknowledge mistakes professors make and how to best avoid these to both welcome and support international students.
Professors in U.S. colleges are often unaware of how certain interactions, assumptions, and comments may affect international students. Here are some dos and don’ts for working with this population:
Don’t #1: As an instructor don’t assume that difficulty articulating or an accent indicates a student’s inability to produce high quality work.
Do #1: Acknowledge that someone with an accent and language difficulty speaks more than one language and may be more articulate in their writing (formal communication) than in their spoken English.
Don’t #2: As a professor don’t make assumptions about cultural backgrounds or communication patterns based on limited knowledge (some cultures are more direct than others). Don’t misinterpret low engagement in the classroom as disengagement. Also, try to avoid making references to American pop culture. This may discourage international students from participating in class.
Do #2: Cultural differences can be used for instruction and turned into teachable moments. International students can provide examples for comparison and bring awareness on how differences can be bridged through open communication. If using a reference to American pop culture, be sure to clarify these references for international students.
Don’t #3: In our classrooms we often use group work to complete projects. Do not let students form their own groups. This could encourage international students to form an outsider role, and they may be picked last because their classmates interpret their language challenges and accents as an obstacle to the group project’s success.
Do #3: Assign students to groups and let them take on different roles. This way international students can prepare to complete their part. Most of the time they will choose to go above and beyond.
Don’t #4: When an international student approaches a professor for constructive feedback and wants to know why they got a certain grade, don’t tell them they did well considering this is not their first language.
Do #4: Explain what parts they missed, misunderstood, and why points were deducted the same way you would with a domestic student, and encourage questions.
Don’t #5: Don’t misunderstand quiet participation as inactivity.
Do #5: There is such a thing as “quiet participation.” In the early months of their academic journey, international students are still processing in their own language, so their receptive vocabulary and written responses take time. Provide opportunities for brief reflection before calling on international students for answers. Written reflective responses are also beneficial to domestic students.
Don’t #6: Don’t say, “Your English is already really good.” This puts the emphasis on the students’ language ability rather than their content knowledge and performance on assignments.
Do #6: It is challenging for international students, where English is their second language, to converse without grammatical errors. You can support language learning by using Universal Design Principles and provide closed caption during videos, or you may permit recording lectures. This aids language learning and does not require additional work from the instructor.
Don’t #7: Try not to avoid learning international student names or something unique about them because you have difficulty pronouncing a word. Imagine how difficult it is to pronounce everything correctly in a different language.
Do #7: Try to learn an international student’s name and/or a few words in their language to give them the feeling you are genuinely interested in them and their backgrounds. This can help make them feel more at ease in your classroom. Try to use phonetic language to remember names.
Don’t #8: Don’t ask international students if they are planning on staying in the U.S., or ignore their visa and travel restrictions (depending on visa status). This makes international students feel uncomfortable. In a graduate setting, this information may be used to take advantage of these students.
Do #8: Acknowledge that international students’ challenges are different based on visa restrictions, economic situations, political climate, and inflexibility of changing majors, transferring to other universities, or abandoning abusive lab situations or mentors.
Finally, remember this: International students, like freshmen in college, are making a challenging transition. Some may be in this country by themselves without family and friends, some may live very far away from anyone or anything familiar, while others may have a cultural community and family to encourage them. Culture-shock, adaptation, and language challenges require a lot of energy (Baier, 2005). Try to show that you care and foster connections between both domestic and international students. International students can open up a new perspective of the world and become colleagues and friends to you and other domestic students (Rivas, Hale, Burke, 2019).
Dr. Stefanie Baier is the curriculum development director at Michigan State University. She oversees graduate teaching assistant training and supports professional development for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, many of them are of international backgrounds. Dr. Baier researches student success, international student adjustment, and assessment and evaluation practices.
The author wants to thank Dr. Mitra Asgari (Cornell University) and Dr. Sibal El Dallal (University of Michigan) for their valuable insights in writing this article.
Baier, Stefanie Theresia. “International students: Culture shock and adaptation to the US culture.” (2005).
Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs: https://www.iie.org/Why-IIE/Announcements/2018/11/2018-11-13-Number-of-International-Students-Reaches-New-High
Rivas, Julia, Katherine Hale, and Monica Galloway Burke. “Seeking a Sense of Belonging: Social and Cultural Integration of International Students with American College Students.” Journal of International Students 9, no. 2 (2019).