It’s no secret that the number of non-Pennsylvania admissions at Penn State University Park campus has been increasing for years. In fact, the number of out-of-state and international admissions has increased every year for the past ten years, according to Jill Shockey of the Penn State Public Information Office.
In the past year alone, the number of non-Pennsylvania students increased from 11,799 (30.6 percent of the student body) to 13,115 (33.7 percent of the student body). According to the Penn State Undergraduate Admissions website, 4,621 of those students are international students coming from 131 countries.
The increasing number of international students at Penn State is an important component of the university’s “commitment to diversity,” as outlined by its “Framework to Foster Diversity,” initially implemented in 1998.
However, many students, both international and American, express concern that the university is too distracted by the numbers to focus on integrating these students inside and outside of the classroom.
Photo provided by Doyoun Kim
Doyoun Kim and her boyfriend, Josh Miller, whom she met at Penn State, visit her hometown of Okinawa, Japan.
A global university
Shockey explained Penn State’s goal of becoming a “global university.”
“By bringing diversity and culture to our university, it makes us a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ ” she said. “We don’t all think alike, and so international students give us cultural variation and new ways of looking at things.”
According to Penn State’s Strategic Plan website, working with students from other countries is crucial for students in the sciences but is also encouraged for all students as a way to discover new ideas, resources and opportunities. The Plan emphasizes that prospective employers want to hire students who have experience working across cultural and lingual barriers.
Masume Assaf, Director of International Programs, couldn’t agree more.
“Every situation in the work force these days involves people working with different cultures,” Assaf explained. “The more experience a student has with diversity, the easier this transition into the workforce will be for them.”
While the strategic plan recognizes that Penn State is bound to a specific location and that serving both local and state needs will always be important, it also states that “the local is now heavily influenced by the global” and that this trend towards globalization will continue.
Penn State has plenty of opportunities for students to study abroad, but according to Janet Haner, the Public Relations Coordinator for the Office of Global Programs, studying abroad isn’t the only option for a diverse learning experience.
“We all know that we live in a world with a global society,” Haner said. “[Diversity on campus] is a wonderful sharing opportunity, especially for students who don’t have the time or will to study abroad… They get an international perspective here. Sometimes bringing international students here is American students’ only way of gaining an international perspective.”
But Ruth Sauder, an English composition instructor for international students at Penn State, said she is concerned that depending on international students for diversity as a substitute for studying abroad may be cheating the system.
“I’d caution against viewing international students as a way for U.S. students to save money on studying abroad,” Sauder said. “Getting to know these students as whole people and not just as tokens of the culture they are often called upon to represent might be a healthier and more respectful way to approach the situation.”
The shallow side of diversity
Although Penn State admits thousands of international students each year, some suggest that the university’s approach at establishing diversity is flawed.
Doyoun Kim, an international undergraduate student, said that while Penn State has the right intentions, its plan is more of a shortcut.
“Diversity is not a number,” Kim said. “You can’t just throw a bunch of different people into one place and call it diverse.”
Kim, whose parents live in Japan and Australia and who went to a British high school, has experience integrating into other cultures. However, she also realizes that not everyone is comfortable doing the same.
“I think Penn State wants us to be like a melting pot for all these different groups of people, but really we’re more like a salad bowl,” Kim said. “You can throw Asian people in, you can throw Indian people in, Russian people in, but in the end you’ll still be able to pick them out. They’re still going to be different, and they’re going to separate themselves.”
Aaron Speagle, an undergraduate student from Connecticut, said he enjoys making international friendships but that he rarely finds himself in a position to do so.
“Beyond the two international friends I have made, I cannot say I have really managed to develop any sort of deep or meaningful relationship with any international students,” Speagle said. “They… tend to keep to themselves. This as a result contributes to the shallow side of diversity, the one that Penn State is not aiming for, but accepts simply because the numbers make the university look better.”
Speagle said that he would like to see more international students step out of their comfort zones, but that he can sympathize with those who don’t.
“I know that if I attended a University in another country, I would definitely look to find some students from the U.S. to spend time with so as to avoid going into complete culture shock,” Speagle said. “I think that this is the case with many of the international students here. Only many of them never venture out of these comfort groups to explore and learn about the culture, which as a result causes the system to fail.”
According to John Hurst, Assistant Director of Residence Life, many international students find communication to be the biggest roadblock to branching out.
“Sometimes it’s cultural not to speak up,” Hurst said. “It’s hard for a lot of kids to deal with… They don’t understand the culture. There are space boundaries, too. That’s why we spend so much time training Resident Assistants on diversity, because it’s really hard for different cultures to understand one another and openly interact.”
Hurst said that he’s found international students crying in the stairwell on the Saturday before Thanksgiving break.
“It’s hard to communicate to them because they’re international and their interpreter or their friend left for break already,” he said. “So we ask them if they knew they had to leave and they tell us, ‘No, I didn’t know.’ ”
Hurst said he respects such students for taking on the challenge of life in another country, which sometimes means being lost and confused.
Struggles in the classroom
Communication problems can also affect international students within the classroom.
According to the Penn State Admissions office, international students must pass an English exam to show they are proficient in the language. However, many international students are finding that speaking and understanding English are more difficult than reading it.
Changchang Wu, an international student majoring in English, said her first year of classes at Penn State was challenging.
“The first semester was the toughest time for me,” Wu said. “The professors talked really fast and used big words that… frustrated me because I couldn’t understand. Thus my note taking wasn’t good because I didn’t get the main points and couldn’t spell the words.”
Wu said listening to spoken English was the most difficult part of her classes.
“The speed of the speech, the unfamiliar vocabularies in the speech and picking up the main point in a long speech can be really difficult for English as a Second Language students to cope with,” Wu said. “I realized that I needed to train my listening skills. So, I watched more TV, made friends with Americans instead of only Chinese friends, listened more carefully in class and took notes when other students took notes.”
Wu said her poor communication skills made her self conscious enough to affect her grades.
“In some smaller classes, the instructors not only take attendance, but also participation points,” Wu said. “I was really quiet at that time because sometimes I was self-conscious about my poor grammar and accent.”
International students also may face the difficulty of adapting to unfamiliar academic standards and expectations.
Nicolette Hylan, a Ph.D. student in English and a composition instructor, said she has come to understand some of “the unique challenges many international students face as they struggle to acculturate themselves to the conventions of the American university.”
She said her first classroom encounter with an international student occurred during her second semester of teaching English 015, Penn State’s first-year writing course.
“Throughout the semester, the student (from Korea) struggled to avoid plagiarism, so I met with him several times to review citation conventions,” Hylan wrote in an email. “I understood at some level that his plagiarism was unintentional, but I still found myself getting frustrated with what I saw as his carelessness.”
Hylan explained that the training she received during her first year of teaching “did not address how the writing skills we’re asked to impart to our students reflect Western cultural values of individualism, linear thinking and intellectual property rights.”
The university does offer a version of English 015 specifically for students whose native tongue is not English, ESL 015.
Brooke Ricker, a graduate student in applied linguistics, has taught multiple semesters of this course and said she’s noticed some of her students’ struggles to adjust to the American classroom.
In addition to learning a “huge amount” of specialized language, she said they also have to negotiate cultural norms, like how they should address their teachers and when they should ask questions.
“Many international students have never worked in groups, have never had seminar discussions,” Ricker wrote in an email. “Many students come from cultures in which education is defined as memorizing and repeating the words of the masters, and so they struggle with American notions of individuality, creativity, and plagiarism.”
Ricker said she feels torn between her responsibility to teach American rhetorical conventions (her course’s objective) and her students’ desperate need for help with grammar and vocabulary.
“There is also a problem that many students just aren’t prepared for 015, and we currently don’t have a lower level or preparatory class for them,” Ricker said.
Ricker said that although she thinks ESL 015 benefits international students academically, it does them a disservice outside of the classroom.
“Because ESL 015 is ‘segregated,’ only international students, it doesn’t help them integrate socially,” she explained. “It gets them to know other international students, not just their own ethnic/national group, which is good, but it ends there.”
The Office of Engineering Diversity does offer special preparatory classes for incoming students, which integrate American and international students. The Pre-First year Science and Engineering (PREF) program offers courses in first year calculus, physics, chemistry and English, along with a time management and study skills course.
Hylan taught English for PREF program, and her class included students from Kenya, Haiti and Honduras.
“The PREF program reflects a bona fide effort to increase the retention of under-represented engineering students,” Hylan said.
While the program did benefit international students according to Hylan, she cautioned, “Any efforts to increase the retention of international students should acknowledge the differences between and among ‘international students,’ which is a sweeping category, indeed.”
Photo provided by Changchang Wu
Changchang Wu, an international student and English major, took a wilderness literature course this semester that sent her backpacking in West Virginia with 23 American students.
Making diversity successful
Ricker said there are numerous ways the university could help students better integrate both inside and outside the classroom.
“I would love to have integrated or ‘linked’ sections of first-year writing classes, meaning that an ESL and native-speaking section would be paired for projects or activities,” she wrote. “I’ve read about that being done at other schools and think it’s a tremendous way to take advantage of diversity.”
She also said the Multilingual Writing Research Group has discussed putting together a half-day training for instructors and tutors working with ESL students for next year.
“I think writing teachers in particular need to learn to ‘read through’ grammar issues and look for quality of thought and argument, and also need some basic exposure to contrative rhetoric (the idea that different cultures have different argumentative patterns),” Ricker said. “Contrastive rhetoric has been heavily contested for good reasons, but I still think it could help teachers begin to see difference as a resource, not a deficit.”
Assistant Director of Residence Life John Hurst said he thinks that one of the first steps to successful diversity is making the students here comfortable in their new environment.
“Our problem is that what’s normal or comfortable to one culture is different from what’s comfortable to another,” Hurst said. “It’s really difficult to focus events on campus around both American cultures and international cultures at the same time. And so, in order to get internationals comfortable enough to branch out, you almost need to design programs specifically about their culture to bring them out and meet people.”
There are numerous clubs and organizations on campus geared toward bringing students from different countries together.
The International Language House is just one of many. This program gives students the option of living on a residential hall floor with students from other countries, mainly France, Germany and Spain. Students get a feel for different cultures and languages by being involved with these international students on a daily basis.
Stacie McLeod, the Residence Life Coordinator for the International Language House, said she believes that this living opportunity benefits both students looking for cultural diversity and those who aren’t.
“Every year there are students placed on the floor who may not have preferenced it,” McLeod said. “As a result there are some people who may not have known it existed, so it’s a great place for people to branch out and learn about cultures they were not aware of.”
McLeod said the International Language House has International Coffee Hour every week where students get to know one another better. She said she thinks it is a really effective program.
Hurst agrees that international programs at Penn State help to bring students together. However, publicizing these events to students often proves problematic.
“The student groups are amazing,” Hurst said. “They put on lots of programs, but it’s very difficult to get communication from the HUB… up to East Halls. It’s not easy to communicate these programs. You have to be adventurous to go looking for these kinds of events, and most people aren’t. ”
According to Hurst, the university is making a lot of assumptions about the outcome of the global university goal.
“It’s really all about the out-of-classroom experience,” Hurst said. “The out-of-classroom experience is really what residence life is. [Penn State officials] aren’t experiencing what’s going on. They say that we’re becoming diverse, but they’re not monitoring it so how would they know that?”
Some students agree that Penn State’s goal for a global university would be better reached by focusing less on the admission statistics and more on the out-of-classroom experience.
“There has to be a better way to mix them up, not just bring them here,” Kim said. “I think if Penn State wants diversity, they need to worry less about the numbers and more about the content.”
Kim said she thinks Penn State admits too many international students to keep track of whether or not they get involved in the community. She said the university just expects them to, but unfortunately not all of them do.
“If they admitted less international students and promoted more events where people got to come out and try foods from different cultures and experience some art and entertainment from different countries, it might mix things up a little bit,” Kim said.
Speagle believes the university has the right intentions, but that the strategic plan needs to be reevaluated before progress can be made.
“I believe that the program is on the right track,” Speagle said. “However, some changes need to be made to our international student program to help them learn about our culture to better integrate them to be Penn Staters.”
Speagle said that one of the reasons he came to Penn State was to receive a well-rounded and thorough education and that he believes that international students are entitled to the same.
“There is much more learning going on during our time in college than just the learning done in classes, and I think that finding a way to better diversify would be a huge boost to the educational offerings of Penn State,” Speagle said.