Coaching Non-Traditional Students Part 1: International Students

Coaching Non-Traditional Students Part 1: International Students

While each and every student who arrives on a college campus comes with a unique set of experiences, just as each human being on this planet has his or her own story to tell, the majority of incoming college freshmen have similar biographies: most are between the ages of 18-20 and have graduated from an American high school of some kind within the previous six to eighteen months. However, there are a few categories of students we classify as “non-traditional” for one reason or another; for example, older students who have been out of the education system for five, ten, or maybe even thirty years before deciding to either finish a degree they started years ago or attend college for the first time. Also, over the last ten years our universities have seen more and more veterans entering college having just come back from a war zone. Some of these veterans find themselves trying to “make it” in the world of higher education while simultaneously dealing with the effects of PTSD or traumatic brain injury; others simply may find it difficult to adjust to college life after multiple deployments overseas.

International students, especially those for whom English is a second language, also face some unique challenges. Students in these “non-traditional” categories face many of the same boulders in the road as their more traditional peers, but there are a few extra boulders that students in each of these groups often face, and it is our job as success coaches to never take a one-size fits all approach which prohibits us from serving these students effectively.

Let’s start with international students. At my independent university with an on-campus, undergraduate student population of 1500, 10% of those enrolled full-time are international students. This year, we have 154 international students from 33 countries, in addition to those who are enrolled online or part-time. Over the years, my success coach colleagues and I have worked with international students who come to us on either academic probation, academic warning, or semester warning, and I’ve found that, while many of the reasons they have fallen short mirror those of their American counterparts, there are generally two categories in which International students have unique needs or issues.

1. ACADEMICS: Academically, international students who are assigned a success coach are neither generally more prepared nor less prepared than American students for college coursework; however, I have seen two things, time and again, get in the way of a student’s success: English proficiency and differences in academic structures in their home countries v. in the United States. Imagine reading a finance textbook for the first time. Now imagine doing so in a language other than your native tongue. All non-native English speaking students are required to pass tests in English proficiency before entering college (such as the TOEFL), but being able to speak, read, and write in English is not the same as begin able to fully grasp a concept like quantum physics or Jungian v. Freudian theories of psychoanalysis when taught to you in your second or even third language.

Sometimes, with my non-native speakers, I guide them toward resources like software programs that can read textbooks aloud, while other times we work directly on improving their English. With some students, such as a girl named Claire I worked with who was from the UK, it’s not the language but the structure of our educational system that takes a little getting used to. Claire came to me as a transfer from a university in England where nearly all of the academic heavy lifting was done in the last year of school. Because the structure is so heavily skewed towards final exams at the end of a three or four-year process, many students (Claire included) figure they can spend the first two years of school sleeping late, skipping class, and playing darts at the pub, then, in the final year, cram in preparation for these highly important projects and exams. And while I am not experienced enough in higher education in the UK to judge the wisdom of such a plan, I can tell you that it’s not going to work at most American universities. Once Claire and I worked together to adjust her work habits to the new status quo, she did beautifully, but it did take some adjustment.

2. CULTURE SHOCK: To varying degrees, most international students experience, as Claire did, some kind of culture shock when adapting to life and school in a foreign country. For these students, maybe even more than for the rest of our student body, it helps to have a success coach who they talk to on a weekly basis. I get asked questions on topics anywhere from “what am I supposed to do with a parking ticket?” to “I think I have a cold, what should I get at the chemist?” One of my new students this semester, a Kuwaiti named Hassan, is just now experiencing his first, Ohio winter and wanted advice on driving in the snow. I’ve also helped shepherd international students through cultural differences in the ways in which American students and professors interact with one another.

A few years ago, another of my Chinese students was having major problems understanding the concepts in one of her classes, and I advised her to go directly to her professor, either after class or at office hours. “Julie” (her English name) told me in meeting after meeting that she would, but each time I asked her whether she’d spoken with her professor, she demurred. I suspected that Julie may have been affected by cultural differences between the relationships of professors to students here versus in her native China. Americans generally prize egalitarianism, as evidenced by the informality and comfortability with which many of our college professors and their students interact. We expect students to treat their professors with respect, but professors are not generally thought of as so high status as to be unapproachable. Julie was so intimidated by the thought of talking to her professor directly that instead she suffered in silence, letting her grades slip into the danger zone.

Similarly, American culture generally prizes initiative. We are encouraged to voice our opinions, talk in class, and initiate conversations with strangers. These cultural attitudes can seem anywhere from awkward to anathema to students from some, more culturally reserved or socially-hierarchical countries. Some cultures have different de facto rules concerning things like punctuality, plagiarism, or bribery, all of which I have encountered during my tenure as a success coach. Whatever the cultural hurdle, I make it clear to my students that I am there for them no matter what to help them achieve success.

In the end, we are all more alike than we are different, and often international students who end up with success coaches face the same boulders in the road as their American counterparts. I’ve had international students who struggle in class due to a language barrier, but I’ve also had those who just didn’t go to class or turn in their homework on time! I’ve had some who failed a course because they were too intimidated by the professor to get help, and I’ve seen some who failed because they just didn’t study! However, even some of these common boulders can become mountains with the added realities of attending a college or university in a new country. In the next couple of blogs, I will be touching upon specific issues faced by veterans, older students, and other “non-traditional” types, but for now, I will just say Sayonara. Adios. Adieu. Shalom. Ma’a Salama. Arrivederci.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

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