Universities Struggle To Integrate Foreign Students

Feb 22, 2017

 

Haeni Ulfa attended the LCC coffee hour in support of friends who are foreign students there.
Credit Karen Richards

Oregon's higher ed campuses do a good job of integrating international students with each other. The schools have a harder time with a bigger goal: Creating a cultural exchange across the whole institution.

Students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East mingle at a coffee hour at Lane Community College. Haeni Ulfa is from Indonesia. She graduated last fall and is taking advantage of a visa allowing her to work in the U.S. for one year.

 

Ulfa: “My tolerancy to other people is so high right now. I knew a lot of different people from different ethnic background(s), and about their attitude and everything, so I can bring it back home.”

 

Oregon's campuses have many programs to help foreign students befriend one another and take the experiences away with them. Similar coffee hours take place at U of O and OSU. Very few if any participants are U.S. citizens. Yet administrators want these students to socialize with their domestic peers.

 

Mark Hoffman is Vice Provost at Oregon State University. He says about 12 percent of their enrollees are from other countries. They'd like to get to 15:

 

 

OSU partnered with a company called INTO to build its International Living Learning Center and run the Pathways program.
Credit intoglobal.com

Hoffman: “It's part of an overall larger scheme to internationalize our campus, and to expose domestic students to students that think differently than they do and have different values and cultural norms.”

He admits, OSU comes up short:

 

Hoffman: “We have a strong goal of integrating. I think you'd find very few institutions that suggest that they are where they'd like to be.”

 

Part of the reason for the clustering is logistical. Abe Schafermeyer directs International Student Services at the University of Oregon. He says foreign students get to campus a few days before everyone else:

 

Schafermeyer: “This is known throughout the international education community as sort of a really important moment when students first come onto campus. So one of our signature programs is an international student specific orientation.”

 

Abe Schafermeyer says beyond speaking fluent English, learning to think critically in a second language is an added challenge.
Credit Karen Richards

He says the induction gives students a familiar cohort right away. It also feeds the human tendency to seek people with commonalities.

The sorting may continue when students move in. Most campuses provide international dorms, including Lane Community College, which encourages foreign students to live in Titan Court downtown. Mark Hoffman says OSU sports a modern facility with restaurants and study spaces:

 

Hoffman: “The International Living Learning Center, where a large percentage of our international students reside, I think about 60 percent, is about five years old.”

 

The building includes classrooms for the “Pathways” program. International students who need extra time learning English take the transitional classes until they're fluent enough for degree coursework. Jizhou Ren started the Pathways curriculum last fall. He came from China to study engineering at OSU:

 

Jizhou: “In my classes, all the students are international students. So I think [it's] great because I can learn a lot of different cultures like India, like Pakistan.”

 

 

U of O held an International Student Valentine's dance in one of the Global Studies dorms.
Credit Karen Richards

It makes sense that his classmates are all from outside the U.S., but Jizhou and hundreds like him won't learn alongside domestic students for a year or two.

 

Communication may be the biggest obstacle to integration, even for students who came with English skills. Cathy Dong is a U of O journalism major from China:

 

Dong: “Well I learned English before but just small things, like how people start a conversation, like 'How are you?' When I first came here I didn't know how to respond. I was like, umm?”

 

Post-grad Ulfa from Indonesia says people here spoke more quickly than she was used to, and with more slang:

 

Ulfa: “We speak in English back home, we did conversation, but we are not facing real Americans. But I really want to learn. I have to know.”

 

 

Haythem Aboadel learned about LCC from a teacher in Yemen who had gone to school at the University of Oregon.
Credit Karen Richards

Most foreign students want to push through the difficulty. In fact, people who choose to study in the U.S. are predisposed to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture.

Haytham Aboadel is studying at LCC to be a dental assistant. The two years before he came here, he went to an American school in Yemen. It prepared him and his classmates to study abroad:

 

Aboadel: “Some of them went to Germany, and some go to Malaysia, some are in the U.S., Canada, I have friends almost all over.”

 

Most international students tell similar stories of multi-national connections. Yet there's one cross-cultural bond that's elusive.

 

Imai: “To make American friends.”

 

Nao Imai is on a year-long exchange from Japan.

 

“I think that's [the] hard part for international students. We have like events for international students, but it's too hard to communicate with American students.”

 

Imai says she's already planning to visit friends she met here from Korea and Europe. She's starting to get to know some Americans in her dorm. Abe Schafermeyer says a new housing rule at U of O may help:

 

 

Ev Lee applied to Oregon State University because he liked the big green campus he saw online. He says he now feels like a Beaver.
Credit Karen Richards

Schafermeyer: “Up until this point we've had a large percentage of international students choose to live off campus, but in the fall of 2017, there's a new mandatory on-campus requirement for living for incoming traditionally aged freshmen.”

It'll be a good opportunity for domestic students to reach out. They'll find international dorm-mates who are happy to be a resource. Ev Lee is a Taiwainese OSU pharmacy student:

 

Lee: “Why do you want to study something [in] a book if you can just meet a live person over here? I can tell you my culture, my religion and my food. And more accurately.”

 

Maybe in this era of increased global connections, more American students will take the time to get to know, and then maybe visit their classmates from around the globe.

 

Note: Students expressed concern in the wake of recent travel bans, but most echo the opinion of Alishya Idrus, a U of O student from Malaysia, who said she felt the university “had their backs.”