ASU, international students work together to build 'global experience'
ASU is an academic home to more than 10,000 international students from more than 120 countries around the world.
In the many voices, dialects and backgrounds of students interviewed, many told similar stories of triumph and trial, like meeting diverse friends in spite of language barriers or reaping the benefits of an international education despite discontent with the English programs offered by ASU.
The experience of living and studying in a foreign land is often glamorized, but how do students overcome the real world problems that materialize when the haze of wanderlust settles? How do ASU’s international students handle the pressures of academia and assimilation while finding a space to grow?
When counseling graduate student Keiko Aoyagi and family studies freshman Ayaka Yamamoto came to Arizona from their bustling Japanese hometowns, they were already familiar with the English language and certain aspects of American culture.
But the two months they've spent in America haven't been seamless just because they've practiced English for years. Both girls said they wished their initial orientation would have explained detailed ways to engage in events and clubs on campus that could help them meet other students.
Senior Bhumika Devnani sits outside the Memorial Union Starbucks on Oct. 2, 2015.
An imbalanced orientation
“For me, it’s easier to meet international students than it is to meet American students, because Americans already have their cliques,” Aoyagi said.
Yamamoto agreed. She said she wished her orientation coordinators would have made it easier for her to find more social events.
Carol Sumner, senior associate dean of students, said international student orientation has encouraged students to attend several campus events, like athletic events, presentations and other campuswide social events.
Another specific way ASU addresses this issue is through Global Guides, a peer mentoring program that helps international students transition to life at ASU by matching them with a domestic or international student mentor.
One-on-one relationships like these are important for a University with so many nationalities and career goals represented. According to documents released by the University provost’s office, 68 percent of all international students enrolled in the fall 2015 semester come from Asia and nearly 19 percent come from the Middle East.
The top college choices for international students on ASU’s Tempe campus are engineering, business and liberal arts and sciences.
For Yamamoto and Aoyagi, orientation was a decent place to start meeting other international students, but not all international students get a formal orientation.
ASU’s visiting scholars, who come to the school from many different backgrounds, levels and ages for different periods of time, don’t have a mass orientation session like full-time undergraduate and graduate students.
Candy Sandoval, associate director for the International Students and Scholars Center, said visiting scholars receive one-on-one orientation at a University-level before being sent on to their respective colleges where they will spend the entirety of their time.
Other students said they struggled more with class structure than their orientation.
Haidar Alsayedali came to ASU from Saudi Arabia just to study in the Global Launch program, formerly known as the American English and Culture Program. Nearly 9 percent of ASU’s total international student population goes through Global Launch, which amounts to more than 900 students.
While he said he was happy he joined the program, Alsayedali felt it lacked a certain amount of specialized attention. For example, he mentioned that Arabic students generally have a stronger grasp of verbal English, whereas students from other countries have stronger grammatical fluency.
“I think working with the students in their individual cultural groups more will help maximize the effectiveness of Global Launch,” Alsayedali said.
Bob Thompson, Global Launch’s program coordinator for conversation and reading programs, confirmed Alsayedali's comments about the proficiencies of Arabic and East Asian students.
Thompson said a student’s placement in the program is an average of their competency in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and that students simply have to work more diligently on the facets they struggle with most.
To aid in this, Global Launch offers support activities such as reading programs, writing centers and conversation groups.
Global Launch also offers mentorship and advising for students. Renata Tiepo Fonseca, who studied computer information systems at ASU during the 2014-15 academic year, said her advisor, who was part of AECP at the time, was one of her biggest advocates and provided the most help to her and her fellow Brazilian students.
Kae Sawyer, director of student services, added that Global Launch classrooms “strive to ensure a degree of language diversity,” and intentionally arrange classrooms so that students from different cultures are combined.
International students who are admitted to ASU have a few options: They can complete the Global Launch program in its entirety, partially complete the program and then leave to take the TOEFL, or avoid Global Launch altogether by taking the TOEFL or an equivalent test.
“If we had the option to test out of it, and if I feel confident that I already know English well enough to take the final exam and pass, that saves time,” Hamsini Gopalakrishna, a materials science and engineering graduate student and the secretary and treasurer of the Coalition of International Students, said. “I think you can learn more that way.”
A recent State Press article also reported that some of ASU’s international students find the TOEFL an inadequate measure of their true potential. This is a sentiment shared by student Jeanbat Busisi, who came to ASU from the Republic of Congo.
Busisi said he sometimes feels that “the level of English class an international student is put in doesn’t necessarily reflect who they are.”
Nonetheless, the department of English strives to make their international English courses (ENG107 and ENG 108) as inclusive as possible.
Paul Matsuda, an English professor and the director of second language writing, said he personally trains groups of writing teachers to equip them with the strategies, skills and resources they need to best serve each diverse student that comes into their classes.
Matsuda called the writing program “highly individualized,” and said the international English professors provide the amount and type of feedback necessary for each student to understand their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Although the classroom is arguably one of the most important facets of an international student’s on-campus experience, their ability to experience a successful and fair off-campus experience is just as critical.
Fair housing protection
Ben Joseph, founder of Friends of Internationals at ASU, said he’s seen some students be “pushed around by apartment people” while trying to secure off-campus housing because of struggles communicating.
Dominique Beltran, an ASU housing representative, said the University recommends off-campus housing options, but isn’t highly involved in the process. However, national origin is a protected class for housing in accordance with the city of Tempe, meaning internationals who feel they are discriminated against can file complaints with the city.
Complaints from those who feel they are affected by national origin discrimination work through the reconciliation process with Theresa James, homeless and fair housing coordinator for the city of Tempe.
James said she sees her fair share of national origin complaints from international students, particularly those from the Middle East. Her job is to educate internationals about their rights and help them through the process of filing a complaint, though she says the discrimination really comes down to “prejudice, ignorance and bias.”
The positive side of assimilation
Despite the struggles of assimilating to a new environment, other stories show that there is much to be celebrated in the life of an international student at ASU.
“The true ASU experience is a global experience,” Yashwanth Nandakumar, former president of the Coalition of International Students, said. “There needs to be a space wherein you can mix like-minded people from different places with different values to have that true experience.”
Nandakumar reflects the international immersion he so passionately encourages. He loved his time as an ASU student so much, he said, that he didn’t want to leave.
So he didn’t. After graduating with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering last spring, he stayed with ASU as a graduate researcher.
“This school has been very good to me,” he said, adding that his immersion into this American university didn’t fully begin until he started to take advantage of the various resources and organizations available.
For him, those resources and clubs included the Coalition of International Students (CIS), Indian Students Club and Project Humanity.
Nandakumar said he wanted to make CIS a real resource for international students and a space where international and domestic students could talk to each other — a space which he hopes will break stereotypes.
“The trick (to helping international students bond) is really just finding even that smidgen of commonality,” said Gopalakrishna, secretary and treasurer of CIS. “For any event we put on, we’re there to have fun. That’s enough to bring people together.”
But the CIS board is striving for more than just a “fun environment” — they’re working actively to bring Nandakumar’s hope of abolishing stereotypes to fruition.
One such effort led to their participation in the Tunnel of Awareness. Xin Zhou, who moved to the U.S. from China and is now an adviser for CIS, said the tunnel gave students a space to display issues they were passionate about, from social justice to stereotypes.
CIS and the other participating organizations are not afraid to spark conversations on these topics, especially if it could help break the international stereotypes the board says they continue to face on campus.
“There’s a general, slightly false assumption that just because you’re not from an English-speaking country, you don’t know English well,” Gopalakrishna stated as an example of the stereotypes she’s faced.
English proficiency hasn’t seemed to stop CIS from being, in Zhou’s words, “the voice of the international student population.”
But CIS isn’t the only place for an international student to find their voice.
Listen below: International students told The State Press what they listened to from their native countries.
A safe space in America
Xiaoxiao Wang remembers the nights spent chatting in friends’ apartments when the same words that flowed so easily between the Americans required his focused effort to grasp.
It was fall 2013, and Wang had just come to ASU from Sichuan, China, to begin his master’s program in computer science.
“I think my lack of confidence in English is what made it difficult,” Wang said. “I was afraid of expressing the wrong emotion, so it was hard to express myself at all.”
Things became easier for him once he found Bridges, a faith-based social community for international students. In his words, Bridges became a “safe” space where he could make mistakes without fear of judgment.
“I liked that we could have different ideas and reactions when talking about the same topic,” he said. “They all have a very open attitude.”
Ali Garcia, who is on staff with Bridges part-time, said that’s exactly what it hopes to accomplish. The organization’s focus is on meeting the physical and spiritual needs of international students while at the same time providing an emotionally safe place for them to form community.
“At the end of an international student’s journey here, what sticks out in their mind is the relationships,” said Joseph, founder of Friends of Internationals. “I just got an email from an old student from Zambia saying that our group was like a family to him. They cherish that.”
In spite of international organizations’ passionate efforts to create spaces for internationals to connect with each other, a large part of the transition must occur internally.
“Yeah, I think the initial problem was myself,” Wang said. “It was my willingness and desire to step out.”
Bhumika Devnani, a biochemistry senior from India, agreed. “I blame myself for most of the things. I should’ve been more open. You have to make connections in order to learn things.”
It is true that any dramatic lifestyle change requires a certain amount of mental and emotional growth, but assimilation is not complete without a strong, healthy atmosphere for growth.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @lina_lauren on Twitter.