International students who attend graduate school in the United States recognize the many advantages of our graduate education system and arrive with appreciation and energy to accomplish great things with their faculty and peers. At the same time, these students experience significant challenges that go beyond adjusting to living, learning, and working in a foreign language, and vary depending on the background of the student — whether he or she is new to graduate study in the United States or has experience in this system.
Students and mentors alike will benefit from understanding that no matter where a student is from, there are cultural, educational, and social norms to be learned in graduate school.
Language and culture in the classroom
Despite their abilities and accomplishments, international students can feel less competent in the early stages of their programs. Lack of linguistic proficiency or lack of knowledge about the U.S. academic system can be hurdles to overcome in the initial stages of a research or teaching assignment. Most international students have experienced very different classroom communication patterns. For example, in the educational systems of East and Southeast Asia students are passive in interactions with professors, whose authority goes unquestioned. International students can be taken aback when U.S. students speak up without being called upon or challenging their professors' views.
Interaction in graduate seminars can seem unnecessarily competitive to international students, who fear that if they do not exhibit these same behaviors, professors will judge them as less capable or less intelligent. Finally, many international graduate students come from countries in which only a small number of high school graduates are admitted to university, so the different level of preparation of first-year undergraduates in the United States can be a new challenge for international teaching assistants.
The rules of the academic game
When international graduate students arrive on campus, they need to demystify three cultures: the U.S. culture, the culture of the university, and the academic culture in their departments. They discover that policies in graduate departments can be quite different from those in their home institutions, or are opaque or difficult to interpret. For instance, some may find it hard initially to understand why they can accept teaching or research assistantship "work" but are not permitted to work off-campus. On a subtler note, international graduate students might rely on different assumptions about how faculty members and graduate students should relate to each other. Many East Asian graduate students, for example, have reported sensing a kind of interpersonal "coldness" from some U.S. faculty who, while informal and jovial with students during seminars, remain distant regarding students' personal or family lives. In other countries, the faculty-graduate student relationship often extends beyond academic discussions and may include various types of non-academic interactions with students and their families.
In moving far away from families and friends, many international students can feel a great sense of displacement. Those who are new to this country and who bring their partners and children with them worry about how well they or their families will adjust to life in the United States. Even for students from countries with a large number of fellow nationals studying at UNL, uncertainties about how to socialize with Americans can raise stress levels. After a while, some students may begin to wonder about how they will be accepted at home when they return with different dress, talk, and behavior. In essence, they worry about becoming foreigners in their own countries.
- The Institute for International Teaching Assistants, a summer program offered by the Office of Graduate Studies, helps prepare international students for their roles as graduate teaching assistants.
- The International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) helps international students maintain their immigration status and comply with U.S. employment regulations, and assists UNL departments to retain their international students and researchers.
Suggestions for Students
- Learn about American academic rules and regulations. Read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and make sure you understand what is expected. If you don't understand, ask your mentor, advisor, or someone in the Graduate Studies Office.
- Although you may be tempted to spend social time with peers from your home country, look for opportunities to interact with other students as well. If you are still learning English, these interactions will help you practice and improve your language skills. You also may benefit from participating in a Conversation Partners Program.
- Ask advanced graduate students to offer advice on how to navigate the UNL system. Their experiences will be recent and relevant.
- Ask your peers or the professors themselves about the best ways to interact with your professors and mentors: in person, e-mail, phone, office hours, or group meetings. It is important to feel that your lines of communication are open as you adapt to a new environment.
- Help your peers and faculty mentors learn that even international students who speak English very well can still experience cultural dissonance or confusion about U.S. graduate education.
- Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the United States may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single country visa that prohibits them from traveling freely outside the United States. Also, they cannot work for pay, except for TA or RA positions. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about international student travel or work, contact the International Affairs Office.
- Talk with faculty about your past training and point out the new demands you face from the American educational system. If it is hard for you to jump into classroom discussions, ask if they will help you acclimate by calling on you for specific responses, or suggest some other strategy.
- If you find it difficult to converse via e-mail, let faculty know that seeing facial and body expressions helps your understanding. Most faculty will be willing to accommodate your needs, but first they must know what those needs are.
Suggestions for Faculty
- Encourage international students to read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and be available to help them understand what is expected if they come to you for advice.
- Help international students acclimate to your seminars by occasionally calling on them to participate in discussion. Assure them, especially those who are the most quiet, that you are stimulating dialogue and not singling them out.
- Reserve extra time outside of seminars or labs to interact with international students. Ask them about their research and outside interests, their families, how they are adjusting, and what education is like in their home countries.
- Realize that not all international students have difficulties with English; many of them were trained in English-speaking institutions, and for others, English is their first language.
- By the same token, avoid assuming that if an international student speaks English well, he or she does not experience cultural dissonance or confusion about how U.S. education works.
- Offer a variety of ways for international students to meet with you so students with different levels of linguistic competence can choose how to communicate with you comfortably: in person, by e-mail, phone, scheduled office hours, or group meetings.
- Make it a point to introduce new international graduate students to more advanced international students, and to U.S. graduate students with international experience.
- Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the U.S. may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single-country visa that prohibits them from traveling. They also cannot work for pay, except for TA and RA positions, and are excluded from many U.S.-based fellowships. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about your students' travel or work, contact the Office for International Affairs.
- If you have ever traveled to another country, recall how you had to rely on others' assistance to acclimate to the language and customs. Offer international students the same courtesies you found helpful.