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The University of Cincinnati is offering training to faculty and staff to help its growing number of international students feel welcome, comfortable and prepared to succeed.
UC was home to more than 4,200 international students and scholars during the 2018-19 school year. And while retention rates among international students are already comparatively high compared to UC’s domestic enrollment, UC International is committed to giving them a positive experience.
“The goal is to help our students achieve academic excellence and personal success,” said Ronald Cushing, director of UC International Services.
The training is part of UC’s commitment to inclusive excellence as outlined in its strategic direction called Next Lives Here.
International students come with a drive to succeed. They have a lot invested in their education.
Ronald Cushing, UC's Director of International Services
UC International launched a pilot program this year to offer training courses for faculty and staff that touch on changes in immigration laws, cultural expectations and biases and the unique challenges facing students who are living on their own far from family and friends for the first time in their lives.
“Providing faculty and staff with the tools they need to help our students succeed is priority one. Knowing what resources are available when in doubt — that’s one focus of the program,” Cushing said.
Simply knowing how to pronounce a student’s name can go a long way toward making him or her feel welcome, he said.
“We give them cultural skills to deal with students from diverse backgrounds so they can understand the perceptions students might bring with them,” Cushing said. “All of that is important for faculty to make the most of their classroom.”
UC International recruitment and support specialist Michelle Huang said students facing a combination of homesickness, social isolation, anxiety and culture shock can make some withdraw to the point where they don’t even want to go to class.
“I had a student who was extremely homesick in his first semester. In the fall he didn’t finish his finals,” she said.
Huang is uniquely qualified to address to these issues. Before working at UC International, she left China to study in the United States as an international student.
But there can be differences in academic expectations from student to student as well. Some students might be reluctant to solicit help from a professor. And they might not know what kind of participation is expected of them in a group project. Even academic concepts such as plagiarism are not universally understood.
“UC faculty are often concerned about plagiarism. In Confucius-influenced cultures, intellectual property is often considered a shared property; whereas, in American or western academics it’s considered your personal work that has to be acknowledged and cited,” she said.
We often see homesick kids at the beginning. It can be acute.
Rebecca Hale, UC International Services Advisor
UC International and its partner UC Libraries encourages professors to lay out rules for proper citation and attribution in advance so students understand what’s expected.
Cushing said international students have a strong retention rate at UC, a Carnegie Research 1 research institute that attracts top faculty from around the world.
“International students come with a drive to succeed. They have a lot invested in their education,” Cushing said. “But we can make it easier for them if there’s a better understanding on everyone’s part.”
Lauren Steinmann, an educational advisor at UC International, said students sometimes run into frustrating situations in unexpected places.
“It’s hard going grocery shopping by yourself in a new place, for example,” Steinmann said. “They might not know how much a ‘pound’ of ground beef is because they use the metric system. So during their first semester, they’re doing a lot of adapting to their new environment.
“They often have a lot of life-in-America questions,” she said.
International students also face the same stresses and pressures as their American peers, which can be taxing on their mental health, she said. UC International makes sure incoming students are aware of the resources available to them, including UC’s Counseling and Psychological Services, which can help those in crisis or who just feel overwhelmed.
Steinmann said one problem common to all college students is making new friends. To that end, UC International hosts a variety of events and trips designed to help students break down social barriers and have fun. They just took a trip this year to visit the Alamo in Texas. And they’ve organized trips to Mammoth Cave and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Rebecca Hale works as a student advisor for UC International and teaches English as a Second Language. Students come to UC with their own expectations about American college life that might not jibe with reality.
“We often see homesick kids at the beginning. It can be acute,” Hale said. “But it may come in stages, too. There’s a honeymoon phase where they love American culture. But they can become frustrated and irritated with everything, too.”
Hale said she uses her language conversation group as a place where students can share their feelings and commiserate with other students.
“We try to cultivate the class as an environment where the students can talk about what it’s like for them here,” she said. “It can be easy to generalize, ‘All U.S. students are like this.’ But we talk through it and humanize the issue. We’re all prone to making snap judgments.”
Faculty and staff in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science were among the first to sign up for the training. Instructors in the training sessions typically include college advisors, experts on immigration and faculty who serve on UC International’s Planning Committee, Cushing said. There are also representatives from UC’s Office of Ethnic Programs and Services, which hosts an annual WorldFest cultural celebration.
Also contributing to the curriculum are UC Libraries, the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, UC’s Counseling and Psychological Services, UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services and the Lindner College of Business.
Cushing said even the smallest efforts to improve the experience of international students can have long-term implications.
“It can influence the decision by their brothers and sisters and friends and other relatives to enroll at UC. And 20 years down the road, they’ll remain more engaged as UC alumni. This impacts all of that,” Cushing said.
Eventually, Cushing said, UC International plans to distill these lessons into a short digital course like others offered to UC faculty and staff.
“Culture influences everything, from how students deal with their classmates on group projects to how they approach test taking and writing papers and interacting with faculty members,” he said. “The more faculty members understand all of those issues, the more prepared they will be to teach international students. And they can take extra steps to prepare their students to succeed.”
Featured image at top: UC International staff members Rebecca Hale, Lauren Steinmann, Michelle Huang and Ronald Cushing. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services