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Help international students thrive on campus

Follow these five tips to help students far from home fit in.
By Dawn Wotapka

Kimberly Swanson Church, Ph.D., recently returned from Uruguay with her eyes opened. Between the spring and summer semesters this year, the University of Missouri–Kansas City accounting professor spent time teaching a data analytics class at the Universidad de Montevideo, where she was the foreigner.

“It really did give me an important perspective that I didn’t have before,” she recalled. When learning a challenging subject such as accounting in a second language, “you have to translate it into your native language and then translate it back,” she said. “I’m so amazed by these students.” With that experience in mind, she vowed to reexamine her teaching methods to ensure that her international students feel as comfortable as possible in her classroom.

International students have become commonplace on U.S. college campuses — 1 million of them attended U.S. colleges and universities in the 2017–2018 academic year. It can be easy to forget they’re far from home — sometimes for two or four years at a time — without the support system that many U.S. students have to help them navigate economic, social, and familial issues. As a result, some may need a little extra attention to ensure they thrive.

“To me, that is something that, I think in a perfect world, everyone at the university [would be] aware of,” said Eric Leise, director of international relations at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D. “It’s really important that the whole institution takes part in” providing extra support to international students, he said.

The feeling is the same at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. “This is our bread and butter: Domestic and international students,” said Ryan Lemon, the school’s director of international initiatives. “It’s important to make sure these students are happy and they’re having a good experience.”

Here’s how faculty can help:

Put class materials in writing. Church’s time in Uruguay reminded her of the importance of having all her class materials available in writing. She realized that in class discussions and videos native English speakers “still speak at a pace that can be difficult to keep up with, especially when there’s slang.” As a result, she aims to bolster the ways her students can “see the words” in addition to hearing them. If possible, she said, send students notes ahead of class to give them more time to prepare.

Get to know individual students. At Gordon College located north of Boston, professors learn about their students before the semester starts, said Alexander Lowry, a professor of finance and executive director of the Master of Science in Financial Analysis program. Each instructor receives information about the student, his or her background, and a photo. The goal is to help faculty prepare for diversity and different education needs. If your school supplies this information, do any prep work you can to know your students before the semester starts, and don’t be afraid to reach out to international students before the first day of class.

As each class starts, Church breaks the ice by asking each student to craft a postcard of themselves doing something they enjoy. She also asks for a fact about themselves that she would be unlikely to guess. She then tries to find something in common with each of the students and uses that to initiate a conversation. She also asks international students about their home countries and topics such as how U.S. food is different. With the student present, she also tries to find pictures of their homelands on her computer to fuel conversation. “I didn’t realize the impact that was having on my international students,” she said. “It almost became a conversation lifeline for them.”

Remember cultural differences. Many professors count class participation as part of a grade, and U.S. students understand this.  However, not every culture rewards open dialogue or criticism of leaders, and international students may be nervous that their English isn’t perfect. Think about individual backgrounds before criticizing someone for not adding to a discussion or asking a student to speak in front of the entire group, Leise said. “It’s a matter of reading your classroom and understanding the makeup of your students,” he pointed out.

In cases where students seem reluctant to speak up, Lowry tries to engage with the students more by inviting them to brown bag lunches or office hours.

Church said she engineers her classroom groups so that international students are not together in the same group. In small groups, she hopes they’ll be more vocal and grow more confident. Her goal is to “give them a way to shine and to feel successful without putting them on the spot,” she said.

Tread lightly with politics. Depending on what’s going on in the news, you or your students may bring up global events in class. In such cases, leave your politics at the door and focus on how events relate to the subject matter — for example, how tariffs might affect accounting, Church said. After all, “this is not American history. This is not debate,” she pointed out. “This is accounting.”

Think of life outside the classroom. Remember that because international students may be far from home for extended periods, they’re less likely to have a car and they may stick around during extended breaks when most of the school’s services shut down. Some professors and staffers open up their own homes to students for meals during Thanksgiving and other extended holidays. “We have an open table; we want to invite them here,” Lowry said, of himself and his wife. “We should be [welcoming], and that’s just an easy way to do that.”

Finally, remember that you can learn from these students as well. “They’re constantly teaching us things, as well, that you can’t learn in a book,” said Lemon.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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