||International students and
immigrants attending schools in the United States can experience
multiple "culture shocks." Students from abroad, accustomed to
their countries' educational expectations, must adapt to new classroom
norms in a foreign educational institution. In some other countries,
students must humbly obey their teachers' directions and remain
absolutely silent during a class. Yet in other cultures, students are
allowed to criticize or even contradict their teachers. In one country,
a prayer in the classroom may be acceptable, while in another it may be
forbidden. Cultural differences as well as the experience of being a
newcomer account for some of the adjustment problems that non-native
born students experience. At the same time, a diverse student population
on campuses helps some Americans appreciate that there are different
habits, customs, and attitudes, and that the "American way" is
not the only way.
Diversity in Higher Education
||Young students, middle-aged
students, and senior citizens who wish to continue or extend their
education have a variety of institutions of higher learning from which
to choose in the United States. Some communities have adults schools as
well as two-year colleges (which are also called "junior
colleges" and "community colleges"). Not all students
pursue a specific degree as their goal. They may simply want to receive
specific vocational training that will assist them in their jobs (e.g.,
computer programming or language instruction). Alternatively, if they
have substantial leisure time (as many retired people do), they may take
courses to pursue interests for which they were too busy when they were
younger. Many four-year colleges or universities also have graduate
programs for people seeking advanced degrees.
||There is a saying in the
American culture that "you are never too old to learn."
Increasingly, one sees older and younger people studying together in
American institutions of higher learning. Women are encouraged to gain
new skills to be able to enter the job market after their children are
grown. Other people change careers, which often requires additional
education. Institutions are attempting to meet the diverse needs and
goals of these students.
||Student participation in the
classroom is not only accepted but also expected in most subjects. Some
instructors and professors base part of the students' grade on oral
participation. Courses are often organized around classroom discussions,
student questions, and informal lectures, although large classes can
involve formal lectures during which the student has a passive role.
||In a small percentage of the
more informal classes, students may even decide the topics for study and
choose appropriate books and articles. Allowing the student to take the
lead in this manner is confusing for people in many other cultures. A
Japanese student was shocked when her professor told the class, "I
want you to come up with an outline of the course and a list of books to
read." She felt the professor was not doing his job and was totally
incompetent. The student knew that the professor had always received
extremely good evaluations from his students in previous courses.
However, she could not bring herself to accept his authority when
he treated his students as if they were equals and as if they possessed
as much knowledge as he had.
||In some courses (mainly graduate
seminars), the teacher has only a managerial role and the students do
the actual teaching through discussions and presentations. It is common
for instructors to guide students to take the initiative and to be
responsible for their learning. Students pursuing advanced
degrees are often expected to be actively involved in their own education.
They must be ready to critique theories, formulate models, and interact
with the professor. Students who do not ask questions and do not bring
up their own ideas may appear to be uninterested in the course.
||A professor's teaching style is
another factor that determines the degree and and type of student
participation. Some instructors and professors prefer to guide the class
without dominating it. Many encourage students to question and
challenge their ideas. Students who contradict teachers must be prepared
to defend their positions. In general, confident and experienced
instructors do not object to students who disagree with them.
||Instruction in science and
mathematics is usually more traditional, with teachers presenting formal
lectures and students taking notes. However, the educational trends that
have influenced the teaching of the humanities and social sciences have
also affected mathematics and the "hard sciences." Students
may be asked to solve problems in groups or to design projects. Classes
that are considered applied rather than theoretical stress such
The Teacher-Student Relationship
||Many teachers believe that the
responsibility for learning lies with the student. If a reading
assignment is given, instructors expect students to be familiar with the
information in the reading, even if they do not discuss it in class or
give an examination. The ideal student is considered to be one who is
motivated to learn for the sake of learning, not the one who is
interested only in getting high grades. Unlike in some other countries,
in the United States courses are not usually designed merely for
students to pass exams. A teacher does not respect a student who only
comes to class on the last day to take an exam.
||Many instructors hold a belief,
reflecting cultural values, that an informal, relaxed classroom
environment is conducive to learning and innovation. It is common for
students to have easygoing and friendly relationships with their
professors. The casual professor is not necessarily a poor one and is
still respected by students. Although students may be in a subordinate
position, some instructors try to treat them as equals within the limits
of the teacher-student relationship (egalitarianism and informality are
characteristic American traits).
||Professors and instructors may
establish social relationships with students outside of the classroom,
but in the classroom they maintain the teacher's role. A professor may
go out for coffee with a student, but still expects the student to meet
deadlines and study for exams. The teacher may give extra attention
outside of class to a student in need of help, but probably will not
treat the person differently when evaluating schoolwork.
||Professors have several roles in
relation to the students: they may be counselors and friends as well as
teachers. Students must realize that when a professor's role changes,
they must appropriately adapt their behavior and attitudes. An American
professor and his Middle Eastern graduate student became friends, but
the student was not able to adjust to the different roles the professor
had to play. When the student would come to the office and sit for one
to two hours at a time, the professor became resentful of what he
perceived was an intrusion. However, the student did not intend to anger
his professor/friend. The student had more relaxed attitude about
time that was tied to his culture, and he, unlike the professor, did not
separate work (or study) from socializing. The American professor
compartmentalized his work and social time. The distinction for the
student was unclear.
Trust, Honesty, and the Honor
||Trust is an important
expectation in American education. The "honor system," imposed
by the teacher and the school, demands that the student be honest in all
areas of schoolwork. Violation of the honor system can result in failing
a course, having a permanent record of the violation in the student's
files, and even being suspended or expelled from the university. Many
students are also aware that they can jeopardize their rapport with
fellow students if they are dishonest. Students who cheat may lose the
respect of other students, particularly those who study for exams and
work independently. Some instructors leave their classrooms when
students are taking an exam. They may or may not say, "I expect you
all to abide by the honor system" (which means, "Don't
cheat!"). Even if the words are not stated, the student is expected
to work alone and not share answers.
||In one midwestern university
handbook, the following behaviors are listed as examples of academic
people's work and submitting it as your own without citing the source.
tests, take-home exams, and papers submitted for credit.
false or inaccurate data.
providing information to another student that would be used dishonestly.
of records and
official documents--This includes forging signatures or falsifying
information on academic documents.
||College officials take these
rules seriously and punish accordingly. (Although some American students
do try to cheat, they know what the consequences are.) Plagiarism, or
presenting another's ideas (either in written or oral form) as one's
own, is a concept tied to cultural beliefs. Americans believe in respect
for other people's property, and this includes their ideas as well as
their research. The words and ideas of academicians, scholars, and
researchers are considered private property. If others' research and
ideas are to be used in someone else's work, they must be acknowledge by
a citation (a written reference indicating the source of the material).
Sometimes, it is necessary to obtain written permission to use an
extended piece of information (or ideas) in a book or article to be
published. When international students are accused of plagiarism, it
maybe that they omitted the citation out of ignorance and not because of
dishonesty. In the academic world, Americans consider the lack of
citation as tantamount to a "stolen" idea. Many students from
other countries do not share similar ideas about private property,
especially private property in the form of ideas or research. Still,
they have to adapt to the rules of their college or university.
||Students from countries where
"beating the system" is a survival technique have to adjust to
the fact that in the United States any kind of falsification of official
school documents is considered dishonest and is punishable. In an
attempt to "beat the system," several Eastern European
students were expelled from their college after it was discovered that
they had given false information about their prior schooling on their
applications for admission. Their attempt to take advantage of the
system in order to better themselves may have been a natural response to
having struggled in a society with many bureaucratic barriers.
Nevertheless, the American university administrators could not excuse
this kind of dishonest behavior, despite the students' cultural
Competition and Grading
||Relationships between students
in the classroom can be either cooperative or competitive. In programs
or courses where a degree is not being pursued or where grades are not
given, there is usually a friendly exchange of information among
students. Likewise, when courses are taken for credit only (i.e., the
students will be graded either "pass" or "fail"
only), students are willing to share notes and be helpful toward each
other. However, in some courses, an individual's grades are calculated
in relation to others' scores. Therefore, in classes where such a
grading "curve" is used, students may be reluctant to share
lecture notes or other information for fear that their own grades will
||There are other reasons for the
presence of competition among students. A high grade-point average (GPA)
is needed for entrance to superior graduate schools. Students feel the
pressure to achieve high grades when there are relatively few openings
in graduate programs. In addition, when facing a competitive job market,
graduates may be hired largely on the basis of grades and the faculty
recommendations. Generally, American students are fairly grade conscious
and often look for ways to improve their GPA. Some instructors give
students opportunities to do extra-credit assignments.
||Occasionally, students disagree
with the grade they have been given by their instructor. In this
circumstance, if evidence is shown that the grade (whether for an exam
or for the entire course) does not reflect the students' work,
they may approach their professor with their objection and ask for
a change in the grade. It is extremely important that students be polite
and respectful (yet assertive) and not express anger.
Student Stress and Coping
||Younger students sometimes have
emotional problems in their educational environment. The stress of
taking exams and of meeting deadlines can cause difficulty for those not
used to responsibility and intense work. On the other hand, older
students with children or with experience in jobs or the military adapt
to pressure and stress more easily. A student who is also the parent of
three children, for example, knows that grades, exams, and reports are
not the most important aspects of life. Older students are also less
likely to be intimidated by instructors or professors.
||When some American students find
it difficult to cope and have excessive stress, they may seek counseling
(usually with college counselors or psychologists). Many schools offer
"peer counseling" in which students with experience actually
advise other students. Younger students living away from home for the
first time may not know how to handle their newly found freedom and
responsibility, and may prefer to talk to someone close in age who has
had similar problems. For many international students and new immigrants
in the United States, counseling, whether by peers or older
psychologists, is not culturally comfortable. (In many cultures, one
does not talk to strangers about personal problems.) There are certain
things that students can do on their own to cope with problems. In one
university handbook, the students are advised to try to manage stress by
doing the following:
- Make certain you get enough sleep during stressful times.
- Learn to relax your body.
- Set priorities; think about one concern at a time.
- Learn to accept what you cannot change.
- Learn to say "No" (i.e., do not let yourself be
persuaded to do things you do not want to do).
- Talk it out; share your stress with someone you trust.
- Avoid self-medication with drugs and alcohol.
- Develop a support network of friends.
International and Immigrant
Students in the United States
||There are some predictable
problems for international students and immigrants studying in the
United States. Making friends is a challenge (this is also true for some
American students). Many colleges and universities offer a variety of
student clubs and organizations where both foreign-born and American
students have a greater chance of meeting people with shared interests.
Information about these extracurricular activities is often posted in
the student center and listed in the student newspaper. Sometimes
foreign students and immigrant find Americans to be
"cliquish." (Americans find some non-U.S.-born students to be
cliquish as well.) If people feel excluded from the social aspects of
American college life, they should actively seek people with shared
interests. It is unlikely that students will make friends just by
passing people in the hallways.
||Foreign or immigrant students
may be disoriented during the first few weeks at a new school because
they do not understand the system and are not willing to ask questions.
Many students do not take advantage of the numerous services offered on
campus that assist students in developing new skills and social groups.
Some colleges offer students tutorial support in such subjects as
writing, language study, computer skills, and other basic subjects.
Students who appear to be most successful in "learning the
ropes" are those who take the initiative to ask questions, locate
resources, and experience new social situations.
||The American classroom is
governed by numerous culturally dictated attitudes and expectations. For
example educational practices such as the honor system and student
participation indicate a respect for individual responsibility and
independence. Foreign and immigrant students should anticipate that
cross-cultural misunderstandings may arise as a result of differences.
Having an awareness of cultural differences and flexibility with regard
to one's own expectations and behavior are important factors in
enhancing successful learning.