“Come Again?” What Regular Appointments Can Mean to International Graduate Students

Uncategorized / Monday, February 25th, 2013

Jessie By Jessie ReederJessie is the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a dissertator in literary studies, focusing on 19th century British Literature and Latin American revolution.

Have you ever studied a foreign language? If you’re like most American students, you took a few years in high school, and maybe a few more in college. It was probably French or Spanish, maybe German. That’s a pretty typical exposure in the United States. A few of us, spurred on by interest, will have studied abroad and continued our studies to an advanced-intermediate level. But rarely are we required to inhabit this second tongue. To subsist on it.

Imagine going on to graduate study in your chosen field—perhaps it is philosophy, engineering, or anthropology. Many of us have done this, and we know the challenges it brings. Immersion in a new level of discourse, brand new expectations and genres for writing, and an environment filled with high-powered thinkers and producers. It’s enough to make anyone sweat. Now imagine you’re pursuing this rigorous work abroad, and doing it all in your second language.

Let’s say it’s German. Your reading every night, already covering challenging new topics, is in German. Your class discussions, digging into the complexity of this new material, are held in German. If you want to talk with your professor about a paper topic, a difficult concept, or even a missed class, you must do so in German. Are you sweating a little more? Can you imagine the gaps in understanding you might have, or worry about having? Let’s face it: “ontology” is a tough enough concept to grasp, even if you know the full meaning and nuance of every word used in its definition. It’s hard enough to form a graduate-level argument, even when you are struggling to express it in your first language. Your classmates are all native German speakers, which means they can focus 100% of their energy on acquiring the material. For them, language is as transparent as air. For you, it is an overgrown thicket, constantly obscuring your path.

The "Red Gym" on campus is where International Student Services is located.
The “Red Gym” on campus is where International Student Services is located. Photo credit: University Communications

When I work with international graduate students in the Writing Center, I’m constantly playing out this scenario in my mind. My doctoral program has been just about as challenging as I can handle, and I get to speak my native language every moment of every day. Not to mention that if I were to live abroad, I could count on hearing English spoken in a great number of other countries. It’s not likely that a student in Madison will ever hear a professor, classmate, librarian, barista, bus driver, or landlord break into the relief-bringing strains of their native language… say, Russian. I try to imagine the experiences of our English language learners from China, Peru, and Thailand—and I’m just bowled over by their courage, effort, and ability. According to International Student Services here at UW-Madison (with whom we partner in lots of different ways), 1,100 new international students joined our campus this year alone. That’s an awful lot of really impressive people!

As a Writing Center tutor, I am hyper-aware of how much we mean to these students. They are swimming upstream through ceaseless waves of partially-legible information. We give them a chance to slow down the flood for a moment. Perhaps we spend an hour talking about what a literature review is. Or we devote 30 minutes to a confusing paragraph in their writing, which helps them feel confident that they’ve fully expressed the idea in their head that they fear their new language won’t accommodate. Maybe we simply provide a handout on APA style that their professors assumed no one needed.

These services aren’t really any different from the ones we provide to native English speakers. But a recent conversation with one of my international students helped me see that we have an impact on our students we may not even be aware of.

I have been working with “Abby” since October. She’s a graduate student in the social sciences, and she’s new to the U.S. Abby is an absolute delight to work with—she’s always laughing, and she blends her sense of humor about graduate school with an incredible work ethic. She’s a sponge for writing skills, and in the past four months her writing has become markedly more organized, efficient, and clear.

But in addition to talking about her writing, we also talk about her new life at an American university. So much of her experience requires translation—and not just language. Professors’ expectations, the demeanor of her classmates in seminar, and the social dynamics of group work, are all facets of her education that she needs help interpreting.

Recently she confided in me that one of her biggest challenges in graduate school, amongst all the ones that might seem obvious and loomingly terrifying, is feeling ignored. If she’s had a short night’s sleep (and who wouldn’t, reading dense academic writing in a foreign language), English comes more slowly off her tongue, and the pace of classmates’ conversation seems to skim by without her. It can be hard for her to feel as though she’s really part of the discussion, both in class and in working groups. She worries that she’s seen as a nuisance, not a peer. Touchingly, she told me that if she returns to teach or study in her home country, she will have an entirely different approach to international students, now that she knows their experience.

Now, Abby is a tough cookie. She doesn’t dwell on her challenges; she stares them down. But our talk got me thinking about how, for students like her, the Writing Center might be a lot more than just a place to learn about writing. If the tutor and the student have a strong relationship, it can be a place for the student to be heard. To converse for an hour about tough concepts, at a pace that suits them, with an engaged listener. To slow down the river of language that is constantly bearing them along, to make eye contact, to talk to an eager listener, and to have someone say, “Yes, I hear you, and your idea makes a lot of sense to me. It’s worth writing about.” How many graduate students have an hour every week like that, and how valuable would it be to their confidence? How much more so when they struggle not just with tough material but with the opacity of a second language and the strangeness of a new university culture?

Family members of a doctoral student, Xin Chang, and her daughter, Katie, pet a horse during a break in wagon rides for the second annual International Student Farm Outing at the Schultz Family Farm in Cottage Grove, Wis., on June 13, 2010. Co-sponsored by the Schultz family and the University of Wisconsin-Madison International Student Services (ISS) Photo Credit: University Communications

The Writing Center is immensely popular with our international graduate students, and it’s no wonder. As tutors we offer a lot more than just our experience with certain genres, or our knowledge of important writing skills. We provide a place where a student can say, “I have trouble reading handwritten English; can you help me understand these marginal comments?” or where they can confess to feeling totally lost in the methods section of an assigned reading, and to do so with someone outside of their field, someone who they don’t fear is too busy, someone they aren’t afraid they must appear unquestionably capable in front of, someone who will not assign them a grade or determine their future in research.

And ultimately, by listening, by affirming, and by addressing these students’ concerns, we can do them the best service of all: we can reassure them, from our position of experience, that their classmates who speak fluent English suffer many of the same anxieties and gaps in understanding. That their challenges may be different in degree because of their language barrier, but that they aren’t different in kind.

Hopefully we can help them feel confidence and a sense that someone’s listening. These aren’t, I would argue, tangential to the lifelong process of learning to write. I think, actually, they are the two most important tools in a writer’s kit.

As a coda, I’d like to mention that we have a number of international students teaching in the Writing Center, from Poland, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Canada, and Yemen. It would be wonderful to hear from some of them in the comments, as I’m sure I cannot begin to do justice to their experiences as instructors!

13 Replies to ““Come Again?” What Regular Appointments Can Mean to International Graduate Students”

  1. Jessie, what a hopeful post. I often feel as though I’m not doing nearly enough to help the multilingual writers I work with in our Writing Center at UW–Madison. What can 30 minutes with me really do? But maybe it does more than I think. That being said, I want to be sure to check in more, to see what really is useful. Thanks for the reminder to do so!

  2. I love this story. This touches me a lot. Being a student in other country is not a easy thing. I appreciate her sympathy. When I was TA. and RA. in my previous Master’s program, I did not know how international students felt.

  3. This ruminative post, Jessie, has led me to rethink what sometimes feel like smooth and easy interactions with multilingual graduate writers. When I am lucky enough to work with international students who are so expert in their research and so poised in their self-presentation, I often fail to recognize the challenges they face expressing that expertise and clarity in their writing. Like Stephanie, I am comforted to know that just by echoing their ideas back to them I am helping them recognize their competence as writers, and am helped a lot by your reminder to be guided by their concerns.

  4. Thank you for this post, Jessie. I would echo your comment on the value a Writing Center tutor can offer just by not being an advisor or professor. In my experience, international grad students can feel like they are being judged and scrutinized all the time, so offering a productive space in which to escape that pressure is one of the best things we can do. Ongoing appointments with these students are so rewarding (definitely for me, hopefully for them?) because you get to see them not just succeed at individual challenges, but grow more confident and practiced in how they deal with their significant challenges.

  5. Thanks for this post, Jessie. I had this kind of experience first hand in my last semester of Japanese when I was trying to write a speech. I had such complicated things I wanted to say, but I either lacked the vocabulary or the knowledge of syntax to express them in the foreign language. I had to consult my TA in Japanese, and this language barrier prevented me from producing anything I was happy with.

    As you do here, I draw on my own foreign language experience when working with multilingual writers. I frequently talk about my difficulties in switching to Japanese, particularly when we discuss grammatical concepts like articles. I love that you focus our attention on how we help beyond just talking about writing.

  6. Thanks for this post, Jessie. It’s a great reminder about the different kinds of ways that tutors can support students. International grad students come to the Writing Center with engaging and impressive ideas, and I often feel like my “contribution” as a tutor to their overall experience is very small. This helps me to think about how my focus should be broader than just the writing they bring.

  7. thanks for writing such a thoughtful, empathetic post, jessie. i really like the perspective you provide. i’ve worked with many international students, both in one-time sessions and as ongoing appointments, and so often i feel as though i’ve failed them due to my lack of esl or grammar knowledge, or because i was unable to successfully bridge whatever communication gap we may have been experiencing. but it’s nice to think about how even just being a supportive voice can be as helpful (if not more so) than whatever technical feedback we provide.

  8. I concur, Jessie, that working with multi-lingual writers at either the graduate or undergraduate level is often an inspiring (and awe-inspiring!) experience. I in no way mean to elide the abilities of and challenges faced by non-native English writers/speakers, but I wonder if this positive reflection could be useful for thinking about other students, too. Are there tools or attitudes we adopt when working with multi-lingual writers that might be helpful in other writing center work as well?

  9. Thanks Jessie! I really enjoyed reading this and I think of many of my own experiences in working with international students. The conversations about how my students felt in class and in life while in America always made me realize what I take for granted. I think another discussion all together would be an understanding of social cues when working with students fro different countries (re: the Ukrainian phd student who always brought presents for each session because that was what you did for teachers…)

  10. Hi Jessie:
    Thanks for a wonderful article and for your hard work and dedication. International Students are so lucky to be working with you and your colleagues at the Writing Center. Something else that you can do is to chat informally with international students in any of your classes before the class begins. It may be the only conversation that they have with an American student that whole day, and you made it happen. Nowadays it seems like everyone is texting or checking emails. It would be great if more students reached out to each other in person (not virtually).

  11. Jessie, thank you for blogging on this topic! I work at International Student Services and I have to say that sometimes I feel we are the only ones who recognize how amazing our students are and what a challenge it is for them to be here. I am so glad to know that we are not the only ones and that others on this campus are reflective about the challenges they face. If everyone (students, faculty, staff) were as culturally sensitive as you are, this campus (and world) would look and feel very different.

    1. What a fantastic piece, to acknowledge the challenges of acquiring knowledge through a second tongue. I too am continually in awe of international students, especially those studying in the US for the first time, and their persistence to understand a new language and culture. They may not know it, but many people want to help; they just have to be brave enough to reach out.

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