This week in Washington, an extraordinary group of embassy officials and university representatives gathered at the University of California Center to discuss many issues around international education. The Washington International Education Conference, sponsored by the Washington International Education Council (headed by Bill Fish), gathers each year to exchange ideas and to expose university officials to the diplomatic community.
I will be writing several blogs about this experience and the issues raised there. Here, I’d like to touch on some ideas I shared in my own address to the conference. (Bader Address to WIEC January 2013). I shared with participants my observation that universities tend to focus on non-academic issues when supporting their international students. These include securing a visa, getting to campus, and becoming culturally acclimated. While these services are critical, they do not directly support academic success. Indeed, internationals face a series of challenges:
They are focused on outcomes, not process. Many traditional education systems, such as those in China and India, require students to excel at standardized tests. So international students tend to be focused on final exams, rather than class participation and interim assignments. This misunderstanding can lead to failure.
They are very dependent on their families. This is understandable, so far from home, but their families can misunderstand the American college environment. They may insist a student major in Biology, for example, to prepare for medical school, when other avenues are open. If their student has little interest in Biology, that can cause problems.
They don’t understand a liberal education. Internationals often focus on accomplishment and credentialing–which is understandable. But they fail to realize or even appreciate the many learning opportunities of a liberal, exploratory education.
They think careers and majors are the same thing. Majors are a teaching tool in American colleges, not a road to expertise. They poorly predict professional choices. And yet internationals insist that some majors are more worthwhile, even when lesser known programs (say, History) might be a better fit and result in more success.
They rely on memory. Many internationals believe that absorbing and the regurgitating information is their primary intellectual goal. Yet American professors are expecting higher levels of thinking, where problems are solved and connections are made–even in the sciences.
They are vulnerable to failure. We are so impressed by our international visitors that we often overlook their human frailties. Determined as they are, they are no immune to personal difficulties and failings. We must treat them as the sons and daughters of our neighbors, caring for them as we would our own children.