By Linh Phung, ELP and Pittsburgh Pathways Director
One core mission of Chatham University is to promote “global understanding” of “world-ready” students. Fulfilling the mission requires the work of all departments, offices, and stakeholders from the University. The Office of International Affairs (OIA) has made various contributions to the mission. Over the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters, the Office served over 130 international students from nearly 30 countries through English language instruction, intercultural programming, ongoing orientation, immigration advising, academic advising, and other services. While conversations around international students sometimes heavily focus on the students’ ability to adjust to the new environment and culture, let us flip the coin and view the presence of international students as an asset to those who come into contact with them.
Interacting with international students helps to develop intercultural communication skills. The fact that international students speak English as an additional language provides their interlocutors the opportunity to use communications strategies, such as attentive listening, confirmation checks, comprehension checks, paraphrasing, circumlocution, and so on. These strategies will be useful for other intercultural interactions where cultural differences extend beyond differences in nationalities and languages to include differences in lived experiences, identities, social memberships, and so on. Teaching international students challenges instructors to implement culturally relevant pedagogies to maximize learning opportunities for all. Usually, instructional strategies that work for international students work for all. For example, errors that international students make may be obvious and even annoying, but making discursive practices in a particular field explicit can be empowering to both international and domestic students who are still learning to “talk the talk.”
Dialogue with international students has a tremendous potential to deepen understanding of different lived experiences and the consequences of those differences. I recently participated in the Intergroup Dialogue training workshop delivered by colleagues from the University of Michigan. I was fascinated by how much I learned from other participants by asking curious questions and listening to others to understand their experiences (i.e., listening to understand, not listening to respond). I realized how different my experiences growing up and studying in Vietnam were while listening to my interlocutors talk about their favorite holiday, their mom’s home remedy to treat cold, or artifacts in their cultural box that told their life stories. I felt as if my journey to learn about the U.S. culture and people around me just started then. It made me think about how to engage in and facilitate more dialogue, especially dialogue about critical issues, among international and domestic students to surface differences and foster better understanding, a first step in contributing to a more equitable world.
In short, international students are not merely “legal aliens,” nonnative English speakers, or the “other,” who need support and accommodation for success (which is, of course, also important). They also bring differences and resources that can be viewed as assets to the University community.