“Being here is very hard for me. I’m not sure I can do this.”

Liu is an international student from Asia. One year ago, she applied for admission to the university’s psychology doctoral program and to her elation, was accepted. Liu’s goal is to obtain her doctorate and return to her home where she planned to continue her career as an educator.

In preparation for her studies in America, Liu took several English courses, read as much as she could on American culture and questioned a fellow teacher, who had attended an American university, about what she can expect as a student. She also searched on the Internet and obtained information about life on an American university campus. In addition, she took the TOFEL test and passed with, she wrote in an email to her friend, Ji, “flying colors.” To add to her elation, she applied and was selected for a university student teaching assistantship. Liu was confident she had done all she could to prepare for her studies at an American university.

One year later Liu is not so confident. Her emails to Ji are less upbeat and more infrequent. In fact, Ji is becoming concerned about Liu. In one of her emails to Ji, Liu writes, “I had no idea I would feel like this. I am making good grades and keeping up with my coursework, but it is not as I expected. Sometimes, my professor and the other students do not understand my English, and although they try hard to be polite, I feel very self-conscious. They are sociable in class but they do not socialize with other Asian students outside of the classroom. Besides, I think, the undergraduate students I teach are not impressed with my teaching because they somehow equate my knowledge of the subject to how fluent I am in English. I feel like an outsider. Being here is very hard for me. I’m not sure I can do this.”

Ji is surprised at the despondent tone in Liu’s emails. She writes back. “Are there any students clubs that you can join or any other Asian students on campus? Perhaps, you can make friends with them? They can take you around. You can spend time together.” Liu realizes Ji does not understand the problem and feels that she needs to explain. “I’m afraid you don’t understand. There are many Asian students on campus and I have made friends with them. We have our own student club and we work and study together. We visit each other. In fact, except for the time we spend in the classroom, we are always together.” Ji is even more perplexed, she had thought Liu was lonely but it seems that is not the case. She emails back, “then if you have made friends with Asian students on campus, what is the problem?”

What do you think is Liu’s problem? How should she handle it?

This may sound absurd to some, but I’ve known several students in Liu’s position. The ones who did the best at becoming more open and communicative quit buying their textbooks in their home language and quit watching movies with the subtitles on. I knew one international student who constantly complained about how hard it was to translate between the texts and her notes and then we learned she was actually using printed translations of the texts in her home language. The real problem was that she was insulating herself and taking the easy route in her readings, which made everything else harder. Absolutely socialization with peers is important, but it becomes easier once you learn the rhythms and colloquialisms of the natives. Since humans learn best by mirroring and mimicking others and the brain largely functions semantically, the more interactions and experiences you have with real people and with entertainment the more connections you can make between ideas and behaviors and the more the new environment becomes home.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

This scenario brings up important issues. I feel that I am uniquely qualified to comment in the capacity as a former international student in the US and also now as a faculty member. The predominance of comments focus on Liu’s English proficiency: although I agree that improvement in spoken English would be helpful, it oversimplifies the issue of isolation. Liu has immigrated to another country (even if it is only temporary). Her entire emotional and financial support network had just been turned upside-down, overnight. Of course she feels isolated. There is a lot more than improvement in English needed to help the situation. There are significant cultural differences between the US and Asian countries and also between the US and other Western countries. Also in some Asian cultures failure is not an option, this also can place foreigners under enormous pressure to perform. How can UGA help to make international students feel less isolated (on a budget)? How about installing Skype on student accessible computers? The software program is free: all that is needed is a mic +/- webcam (depending on budget). Even though this may sound silly: if you are a long way from home and know that you cannot visit until you complete your program (which may be years)– just being able to hear &see familiar faces can really help remove the feelings of isolation. Given how cheap this is (Skype is free and a webcam <$50), why not try it and set up some student computers to do this. Given the differences in time zones the students will want to use the computers for this purpose A/H which reduces inconvenience to others wanting to sue the computers (eg 12hr+ time differences). Recommendations for Ji: try meeting face to face with Liu: communicating is far more difficult with emails than in person. I am not implying that these suggestions will resolve the problem but I am hoping that they would help.

– Professor, UGA

She is a fish out of water culturally, and she needs to try to associate more with the natives both on campus and off.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

As an American student, my experience in graduate school is much better for having international friends. I would like to encourage other students like myself to take a little time to attend the many exciting events hosted by various international student groups on campus. Many are designed to share parts of the home culture with Americans and I always feel welcome, plus I learn a lot. Studying abroad is rough in many ways, and I consider myself a bit of a host with a responsibility to help welcome guests. An invitation to study over coffee or hang out downtown can lead to a fantastic friendship, and you might be able to stay with each other on international vacations down the road! It’s not all on Liu’s shoulders, or at least it shouldn’t be.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I sympathize with Liu, as I also experienced some isolation especially during my undergrad years here in UGA. (In my class, often I was the only one who was not white). However, in graduate school you meet more and more international student (even though none from my country). I honestly think it’s ok to hang out with just / mostly asian, I still speak English all the time (because none of my friends speak the same language). Granted, we still don’t get some american idioms and jokes, but I don’t think we have to force ourselves to blend in with the americans socially. We work with them 8 hours a day already!!!!

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I understand Liu’s frustrations and I would like to share my experience. As an international student (latin) I also struggled with the language even though I did my high school in a bilingual school…my main issue was understanding professors (those that mumble, and people that speak very fast) as well as increasing my ability to understand and speak faster and better. It took me a while but I took measures on my own…I started watching TV in english all the time with no subtitles to force myself to understand. Also since I didn’t have any hispanic friend in my department I was indirectly forced to socialize in english 24/7. Additionally, at the end of my first year Ii had to move so I chose to find a roommate and I ended up sharing a house with an american student…then I not only had to speak english at work but also at home…gradually my english got much better to the point that I’ve been told that I almost don’t have an accent…I understand the frustration that Liu in feeling cause i lived through it…but at the same time I decided that if I wanted to master another language besides spanish I needed to speak and socialize more with native speakers. I understand that for example, it’s very comfortable to speak in your native language on a regular basis, cause I’ve done it myself with other latin students and friends. I also understand that in the case of Asian Students it must be harder because of a completely new language, but also it doesn’t help much when at work you don’t speak (Asian Students tend to be very shy, I am too) and when you go home you turn the switch off and speak in your native language everyday…I am very shy but I took the challenge of speaking with my accent, some people actually like to share and explain things as well…Whenever I went out with friends and I didn’t know something, they were glad to explain to me the context of the conversation, or the character etc etc…same with new words, thats a good icebreaker. Also the more you read and watch TV you’ll learn how to get the meaning of a word by the context its been used…or you can always ask. I believe that a way you can help yourself would be to watch TV in english, read magazines and watch TV series to understand the culture, characters, icons of American culture, etc. Television helps tremendously in getting the jokes and slangs, as well as helping with your listening skills and building vocabulary. Writing material besides your usual readings helps too. Go to the stores and by cultural magazines so you can learn about people, music, or whatever you like…people are always friendly and are always willing to teach you something. Don’t be afraid of asking, people are patient and at the same time they’ll learn from you, every culture has something else to share…go to lunch with your fellow classmates/office mates and share with them.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I think may be Ji just needs to listen more – to hear what Liu is saying. It sounds like her competence is questioned because of her language which certainly would be disheartening and that the other non-Asian do not socialize with her or other Asian students outside of class.

I think that, as a friend, I would listen and try to understand why she is upset and then brainstorm ways in which she might address this in order to be more comfortable in her own program.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Liu is having a hard time navigating the entry rituals of her cohort. She is feeling self-conscious and confined to Asian students only. She could seek out a tutoring situation where she could practice day-to-day conversation with an English native speaker. The tutor could also practice pronunciation with Liu. As her confidence increases with the tutor, she could take a chance to find friendly first-language English speakers in her classes and speak to them. It could be confined at first to asking about assignments or commenting on the work. It is not easy, but often even speakers of the same language don’t understand each other!

– Doctoral Student, UGA

It is very important for non-native English speakers to make continual progress in both spoken and written English. Having a good “TOEFL” score is not the same as having professional proficiency in English. Professional proficiency in both spoken and written English is what students, colleagues and faculty expect. It is incumbent on the student to identify and use opportunities to develop professional English proficiency during the entirety of his or her graduate studies–and beyond. I have several non-native colleagues whose English is better than my own, so I know it is possible to become an outstanding English speaker. I am not proud of my mastery of only one language, but this much is clear: the language of international science is English. Foreign-born students studying in the United States have a unique English immersion opportunity, if only they will take advantage of it. My university offers English classes for non-native speakers. The community has voluntary activities by the score, including clubs like Toastmaster’s that help people become proficient public speakers, religious organizations that sponsor English classes, and many other formal and informal opportunities for practicing English. These sorts of activities will also help Liu to gain greater understanding of the context (and not just the technicalities) of American English and American culture. I am not suggesting that Liu give up her friendships with her compatriots: no doubt, these are an important source of social support. Perhaps her friends (who may be having similar language problems) will help her by joining in activities that will further develop language skills.

– Professor, UGA

Well, I do not have a solution, and I am also one of the Asian PhD students. I just wanted to repeat that after three years in the United States I am feeling exactly the same way as Liu. I will curiously waiting for suggestions. Thanks for raising this important issue.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Liu’s character certainly seems capable of taking risks. She has left her homeland to pursue an education in a perplexing foreign culture. This kind of circumstance is usually underestimated; by both the student and those around her. One can never overestimate the obstacles of fitting-in with a different culture. Having said this, there is no easy answer for Liu. She has the option of attempting a deeper dive into her adopted culture (and thus putting herself at further risk of non-acceptance) by attending non-Asian social gatherings, or groups, etc. Or, quite frankly, she can do nothing, and pursue her degree with diligence until such time as she arrives upon graduation and returns home. Sadly I’m afraid, this has been done many times on many campuses. Here is a novel idea: Perhaps the university may find the wherewithal to either create social mentors for foreign students (voluntary), or perhaps tap the horrifically underused resource of cultural understanding that is to be found in the plethora of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (and their groups) on college campuses. These folks indeed thrive on maintaining cross-cultural levels of experience, and might serve to aliment a foreign student’s social needs quite well.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Liu has many great qualities, according to the description. The one quality she seems to need more of is, unfortunately, one of the most difficult for many of our international students. English! The quintessential inconsistent language, full of rules that only sometimes apply, full of little booby traps for the non-native speaker. Good communication in any language is full of subtleties, and most native speakers are unaware of just how difficult it is. And not only English itself, but spoken English – attempts to find the right combination of words for a certain meaning can be so close to the mark, and yet so far away in the meaning that is communicated. Frustration on the part of listeners (her students) is not their fault. Yet successful English for teaching is a very high bar to set for an international student, and the level demanded of them must seem unfair at times. It takes time. If she really wants to work on this problem, Liu needs to start asking English-speaking students to have lunch with her (for example) on a very regular basis. She needs to socialize as much as possible with English-speaking persons. An adult learner will never become perfect in a second language (after all, none of us are perfect in our first languages), but idiomatic English can begin to flow more naturally and comfortable over time. It also depends on Liu’s attitude and personality – she must be open and humble enough to *ask* her English speaking friends to correct her here and there. I have high admiration for all of our international students who attempt to climb this Mt. Everest of English language in order to study in the U.S. Best of luck to each and every one of them!

– Professor, UGA

I think that Liu being a Psychology major really needs to understand first, how the human psychology works. Knowledge has power, so if Liu thinks that there is a language barrier, then she needs to do everything she can, to improve on her language. Since much of her learning can come from people around her, so she should make it a point to converse with anyone in English only, even with her fellow Asian friends. Moreover, she should not feel embarrassed in learning new English words (or speaking skills) from her own undergraduate students. She should not think that how can I learn from someone who is much younger than me. When it comes to learning we may even learn something new from a 5 year old, and there is nothing wrong about it. As far as socializing aspect is concerned, I think about the Newton’s third law of motion: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. So if I give a smile to someone, I am going to get a smile back, if I can be a friend first then they can be my friends too.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Copyright The University of Georgia, CGS Project


This project was made possible by a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, with generous support from Pfizer Inc., and the Ford Foundation.

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