We wanted to share a message we sent to the exchange students in our region this morning…
The U.S. presidential election is over. It’s been a wild ride, one that you have been privileged to witness — yes, privileged, no matter which candidate you were hoping would win. It has been one of the most contentious, divisive campaigns this country has seen…believe it or not, it’s not the most contentious or the most divisive election in our history. It has brought to the surface the “high’s” of living in a democracy, and, we’re sad to say, it also has brought out some “low’s.” You may live with a host family who are rejoicing this morning, or you may live with a host family who are worrying about the future. All of your host families, regardless of who they voted for, are citizens of this democracy.
It’s the future we want you to think about, as well as the present. Now, the next phase begins. This, too, is part of the “American experiment” — what happens after a major election, even when half the population voted for someone else? You are here to witness that. Over the next few months, you will see the peaceful transition of power to a completely different group of leaders; President Obama noted this morning in his address to the nation that “the peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks our democracy.”
You will see peaceful disagreement with the policies of those leaders. You will, no doubt, also see less-than-peaceful disagreements. As President Obama also noted, democracy can be “messy.” The divisiveness mentioned above is significant, and it’s serious. It means we have a lot of work to do, both here in the U.S. as the new Administration takes office — as well as abroad, with you, your families, and your home cultures. You are part of what it’s all about.
We encourage all our students to talk to their host families about the meaning of the U.S. election and the meaning of democracy, open political discussion, free speech, and civil disobedience. All of these issues are part of what we hope you are learning during your exchange. Talk to your local program coordinator. Talk to us, too. As you no doubt have learned, Americans love to talk about these issues. What’s most important after yesterday is that it we all must continue to talk about these issues, and more.
International students in the United States are seeking a combination of intellectual and cross-cultural experiences that will prepare them to succeed in the global marketplace. With billions of dollars of funding, cutting-edge research and innovation, and unmatched flexibility on more than 4,700 campuses, the United States offers unparalleled educational opportunities. But with this depth and breadth also comes complexity and confusion. Succeeding at a U.S. college or university can be difficult if you don’t understand the system.
There are many reasons why students choose to spend their university education in a foreign country. Motivations range from a desire for adventure, to having a wider choice of institutions as compared to back home, to an opportunity to study with a particular professor in a specific field.
All, however, face the challenges of living in a foreign country, studying in a foreign language, and understanding the nuances of a culture in which they did not grow up. In their new book, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, both of whom have long experience in the field of international education, have tried to address those challenges as they apply to students coming to the U.S. for college-level study.
Why This Book Could be Useful
There are more than 4,700 U.S. colleges and universities, Berdan and Goodman tell us. The variety is tremendous and includes large state-run institutions, small liberal arts colleges, specialized institutions, and two-year community colleges. The range of opportunities this variety presents is attractive to international students. It also presents a challenge to those same students, since there is no centralized application process or standardized set of application acceptance guidelines. It’s school by school.
One’s first reaction to that, if you’re from the U.S., is “of course, it’s school by school!” Berdan and Goodman explain that this is not how many countries manage college applications. Just imagine the challenge this poses to students from other cultures; not only are they trying to navigate a foreign culture and understand the nuances of English before they get here, but they have to do it one school at a time.
Berdan and Goodman note that only 4 percent of the 21 million students in US colleges are from other countries. Schools have seen increases in recent years. The authors believe that these increases will continue. Our world is becoming more interdependent, they argue, and it’s important for US students to meet and interact with others to be effective global citizens. I would agree. Having our own children and young adults interacting on an ongoing basis with international students is one reason why I work with high school exchange students. Berdan and Goodman also note that tuition from international students provides another source of school revenue; the Institute of International Education’s 2015 Open Doors report estimates that international students contribute $30 billion to the U.S. economy annually.
The authors also believe in the cultural exchange and citizen diplomacy aspect of encouraging international students to study in the U.S. Students who study here will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of who we are as Americans. They will, hopefully, establish friendships that will last over time and create bridges towards improved cross-cultural communications.
Berdan and Goodman provide students with practical tools and tips. An incoming student can use these tips to improve chances of admission at a school that “fits” with the student’s goals and to improve chances of success once the student sets foot on U.S. soil. This, perhaps, is where this book can be useful, if we can get the students for whom it is intended to read it and use it.
Studying in Another Country is not Just the Application Process
Preparing to Study in the USA does more than its title initially suggests. The authors try to take into account the lack of knowledge of their foreign student readers regarding the US college admissions system. They also try to convey some of the nuances and cultural perspective of a different system. The lack of a centralized admissions agency, mentioned earlier, isn’t just a “fact.” It’s the basis of a national approach—a cultural perspective—that will seem totally alien to many students. It has its source in American history, a history that the authors argue has resulted in an education system different from that of any other country.
The book covers practical tips as well, however, “how to” suggestions that an international student should relish. Chapters include not only admissions and graduation requirements an international student can expect from a typical U.S. college, but also information on getting a visa, how to deal with university registrars, information about college advisers, approachability of college professors, and health care.
I was pleased to see a section on academic ethics and plagiarism. As Berdan and Goodman note, how the U.S. education system defines “plagiarism”—and enforces violations—takes international students by surprise. It’s not that foreign students believe cheating is acceptable; rather, it’s the rigorous application of attribution rules and the dedication to individual critical thinking that can be difficult for students from other cultures to comprehend.
The chapter on college sports might raise some eyebrows; isn’t college about academics, many will ask. Our high school international students could probably jump in here to tell you that sports play an integral role in the American educational system, both at the high school and college level, and that having some understanding of sports helps an international student be a part of his or her host community. Just look, as Berdan and Goodman note, at how sports idioms occur throughout the English language.
Safety also receives mention. Berdan and Goodman don’t try to downplay this issue. Student safety is an issue everywhere. That does not mean students are unsafe. It does mean you need to pay attention to your surroundings and learn what’s real, what’s not. If you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world — or learn about other cultures and customs which could help prevent future “bad things” from happening. Berdan and Goodman treat the subject objectively and explain what students can do to protect themselves.
A Checklist to Success
I don’t think this book is perfect. I think the authors could have emphasized more strongly the need for students to work on English skills. Many teachers, professors, and other students have commented on the inability of many foreign students to truly participate as full members of their university community due to poor English comprehension and limited vocabulary. I also would have liked to see more emphasis on how to really succeed in one’s daily life. While the authors do suggest becoming active in extracurricular activities and being open to learning from fellow students (see, e.g., Chapter 11: Campus Life, and Chapter 15: Making the Most of It), the recommendations seem understated. Those of us involved in international cultural exchange see first-hand the difficulty many students have in truly throwing themselves into their host culture. We all tend to seek the familiar, even if we’re adventurous enough to study abroad. Many international education professionals lament the tendency—at both the high school and post-secondary levels—of international students to hang out together rather than seeking out their fellow American students. Could Berdan and Goodman have planted a stronger seed for future students?
Such shortcomings, however, do not take away the book’s value. As those of us who work with international students know, placement is just the first step. Students often think that placement is the key element to their success. Where will I end up? Will I be in an interesting place? Why would I want to even consider studying ____ (fill in with preconceived notion of why any particular location might be considered “undesirable”)?
That’s simplistic thinking, and it’s something we work on with our high school international students and their families. An initial placement for a high school exchange student does not make or break a student’s success; so, too, admission to a particular college is just the beginning. Using the 15 chapters in this book as a checklist, international students coming to the US for college can begin to learn much more as they begin their education journey.
Intercultural exchange takes many forms in the United States and elsewhere. In the U.S., international exchanges at college and post-graduate levels have been underway perhaps 90 years ago or more; they gained in popularity and began to include secondary students in the years after World War II. Success of the well-known Fulbright Program—which began right after the war—probably contributed to increased interest. Several of the organizations active in international youth exchanges today have now celebrated their 50th or 60th anniversaries.
Senator Fulbright wanted to promote “international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” International exchange at the high school level has similar goals: to expose foreign teenagers to the United States with the intent of fostering long-term understanding and cooperation at a person-to-person level. Those teens return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of the U.S. and positive impressions of the American people, which (hopefully) translates into better relationships between countries as those teens become adults and leaders in their own right.
High school exchange programs have achieved a great deal over the years, with important limitations. Spending a semester or academic year abroad is not free; in addition to program fees, most students must be prepared to pay for personal expenses during their time abroad. The result is that most students coming to the U.S. come from comfortable economic backgrounds. Many students have already been to the United States on vacations or short-term study programs. For students in some countries, it seems to have become a rite of passage more than a cultural learning exercise; if a significant number of your classmates are doing an exchange year in the U.S., then you feel the need to do it, too, without necessarily thinking about alternatives or whether it is the “right” thing for you.
So, one might ask, do we still need middle-class intercultural exchange primarily between Europe and the United States in today’s global economy and inter-connected world? Perhaps a more appropriate question might be to ask whether other intercultural experiences may have become just as important. We need to expand the concept.
In the U.S. in recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of Asian students (primarily China and South Korea) participating in incoming exchanges. Beyond that, few students of color participate, whether at the secondary or post-secondary levels. Very few come from Africa and other regions troubled by political unrest. Virtually no U.S. high school students study abroad (about 1,100 in 2013-2014 according to data from the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel). Only about 1 percent of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education study abroad. Senator Fulbright’s original goal of “international good will” calls out for attention.
The U.S. government does directly sponsor some students; see, for example, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Congress established the YES program in 2002 as a response to the events of September 11, 2001. The program encourages teens from primarily Muslim countries to participate in international education exchange in the U.S., and more than 6,000 students have participated. Since 2009, the program has also sent U.S. students to study in Muslim countries (currently about 65/year).
A different type of organizational example—but equally distinctive—is Mobility International (MIUSA), based in Eugene, Oregon. MIUSA aims to provide exchange opportunities to people with disabilities. Its projects include the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; the organization also works with the YES program and other U.S. Department of State international exchange programs to assist students with disabilities coming to the U.S.
There is another place where intercultural exchange would be valuable, and it doesn’t require intercontinental airplane trips. Last year, the public radio show This American Life did a two-part podcast episode called The Problem We All Live With. The episode stuck with us. It made us think about another very real American need for intercultural exchange, one of a totally different nature — or is it really that different?
As events in Ferguson, Missouri (and other places around the U.S.) have made clear, a massive cultural divide exists between different ethnic and economic groups in this country. In the podcast, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt interviewed a young Latina woman who went from a high school that is 1% white to a college that is 75% white. Upon reflection, the student seemed to realize during the interview just how little she knew about white culture in the United States.
Kiana Jackson: Everybody’s really friendly. And I kind of didn’t expect that as much. Just coming from like, going to school in the south Bronx and just commuting all the time, everybody’s not so friendly. And here like, everybody will stand there for like a whole minute holding the door for you till you get there. Just friendly all the time. And sometimes you’re like, you don’t know if it’s genuine, because you’re not used to it.
[Later in interview…]
Kiana Jackson: Some of the kids from my high school who are like seniors now, they’ll talk to us and be like, oh, what school should I go to? How do you like your school? The advice I give to seniors is like, OK, everybody’s going to want to be around their same kind of people.
But if you’re always in the same environment, always doing the same things with the same people, you become naive. Or like, you don’t really know about the world. It’s better if you experience something different, because you get a feel of other people. And you end up changing, you end up becoming a different person, a lot based on the community you’re surrounded by. And that’s reality. Your environment really makes you.
Kiana notes at college that people held the door open if they were entering the building immediately ahead of her. At first, she assumed this was “a white thing”; after all, she was with mostly white people. But was it really, she began to ask? Could it be a city vs suburban/rural thing? Could it be an economic thing? Could it be something else entirely?
Most white teenagers, when it comes to black and Hispanic culture, probably would have similar initial reactions. Whatever you see, must be because they’re black/Hispanic/whatever. Most of us have no idea what is “normal” in each other’s lives. How much is “white,” “black,” or “Hispanic,” as opposed to economic, urban, or rural—much less regional or country-specific?
We need to find new ways to bridge cultural divides in the United States, divides that have only been made more dramatic by the effective re-segregation of many of America’s schools in recent years. International youth exchange is great, and we would like to see more of it; we believe U.S. students and our students from other countries benefit from getting to know each other. But we believe that we need an equal effort at the domestic level. We need American high school students to be trading places with other American high school students.
A recent article, Why a Global Education Doesn’t Have to Mean Going Abroad, discussed elements of this at the university level. It reviewed several university programs that have initiated “study away” programs (as opposed to, or in addition to, “study abroad”). The article reviewed programs where students live with immigrant families in Maine; where students live with minority or immigrant families in Los Angeles before going abroad or to another culture in the U.S. such as German-speaking Amish in Pennsylvania; and a U.S.-Mexico border-studies program involving issues critical to migrant communities.
Programs like this are just a beginning. Unfortunately, our culture and our educational system act against U.S. students being attracted to such programs. If affluent students from one part of the U.S. spent a year in less affluent schools in another part of the U.S., they would be concerned about the impact it might have on their admission to college or on their ability to play on sports teams at school. These are reasons U.S. students also give for not being able to spend a semester or academic year abroad. An additional—and likely unstated—reason will also be that students and parents are afraid, much as they are afraid to go to most Asian countries, many South American countries, and Africa.
In many ways, different parts of the U.S. are more alien to many of our children (and to adults as well) than are many European countries. That’s something we should try to do something about.
Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, YES program, This American Life.
Thousands of teenagers from other countries spend one or more years studying in the U.S. They come from countries all over the world. In each case the students, parents back home, and host families are taking a big leap. Many students have great experiences during their time in the U.S., improving critical language skills and forming life-long relationships. But many stumble along the way. Some change host families or schools while in the U.S.; some return home early. Many simply have a less rewarding time than could have been the case. Often it comes down to one problem: communications!
Better problem-solving skills and communications could help avoid these situations — communications between student and host parents, student and parents back home, student and siblings in a host family, and even host parents and natural parents back home. There can never be too much communication when it comes to teenagers and adults, not to mention the added challenge of inter-cultural expectations and misunderstandings.
In this book, you will learn about many of the opportunities for miscommunication in the context of students studying in the U.S., and how to solve problems when issues do arise. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer, but “communicate early and often” is pretty close. Host parents, parents back home, and students themselves are making a big investment when it comes to any high school study abroad option. This book can help make that investment a success.
Thanks today goes to the folks at The Power of Moms, which has published my book summary of this short but important guide. Parents back home are a key factor in the success of a student’s academic semester or year abroad, and A Parent’s Guide to Study Abroad fills a needed niche.
Read my review here at The Power of Moms — and stay and visit while you are there. It’s an online community providing support and tools for mothers around the world. There are articles, podcasts, online training options, and, of course, book reviews.