May 1, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 15

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    Book aims to help international students adapt

    By William Harms
    News Office


    As thousands of high school seniors across the country watch for their college acceptance letters this spring, thousands more around the world are making plans to come to the United States to join them.

    These international students, undergraduate and graduate alike, will add to the 500,000 or so already in the United States. Once they arrive, they will face two big challenges: adjusting to a new academic environment and a new home away from home. In class and labs, they will have to negotiate an environment that encourages active participation, creative thinking, easy interaction with men and women from a wide range of backgrounds, and they will have to do it all in English, which may be their second or third language. Away from class, they have to find new friends and a place to live, set up credit cards, cell phones and bank accounts, and perhaps buy a car.

    International students say it can be exciting and rewarding—that is why they come—but they also say it can be difficult and confusing. A new book, Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada, promises to be a portable guide to help them on campus and off. Published by the University Press and written by Charles Lipson, Professor in Political Science and the College, the book also is intended for the more than 100,000 international students heading to Canada, where standards and practices are similar to those in the United States.

    Based on extensive interviews with students, their advisers and professors, the book aims to help students live comfortably as well as succeed academically, Lipson said. “I explain the importance of participating in class, the stress on originality and creativity, the rules for academic integrity (as they are understood here) and how to work with professors,” he said.

    Many students come from education systems that value memorization and the repetition of facts, Lipson pointed out, and discourage students from exploring their own ideas or challenging their professors. American and Canadian universities, on the other hand, encourage students to speak up in class (even if their English is limited), challenge the ideas of others and write papers with original ideas.

    Relating to professors is another challenge. “In our system, professors are both less formal, but also more businesslike,” he said. Conversations can be friendly, and students are welcome to meet with faculty they don’t know, he noted, but they also need to focus on academic issues.

    Gift giving is another custom that can vary greatly among cultures. Lipson encourages students to write simple thank-you notes after a course is over rather than giving expensive or personal gifts to their professors.

    He also explains how to deal with the challenges of being a teaching assistant, which combines the role of student and teacher. Besides showing up on time and turning in grades promptly, teaching assistants also need to draw the line in socializing outside of the classroom. It’s fine, Lipson said, to get coffee or pizza with the whole class, but it would raise questions of favoritism to invite only a few students.

    Lipson also clarifies American and Canadian expectations for men’s treatment of women. Women are treated equally, often teach classes and serve in leadership roles. Female and male students frequently join each other for lunch, but such encounters are not considered dates, Lipson advised.

    Adjusting to new surroundings is another challenge. Lipson encourages students to read a local newspaper, at least for the first few months, and to explore their new community away from campus. A car is frequently necessary to get around, particularly at universities in non-urban areas. He suggests international students, even those who drive in their native countries, go to driving school so they can deal with tricky local conditions, such as snow, heavy traffic and different traffic laws.

    Shopping local grocery and retail stores, where prices are fixed but do not include sales tax, can be surprising to students who come from countries where sales tax is included and where prices are negotiable, as car prices are here. He suggests international students go online and find product evaluations, wholesale prices and buying incentives.

    Finding a place to live also can be daunting. Lipson encourages international students to work closely with the University housing office and compare options before signing a lease. They need to know if their new home is in a safe neighborhood, convenient to campus and quiet enough to study and sleep,

    “My goal is to help international students adapt to their new environment, to succeed academically and live comfortably,” Lipson said. “After all, they are some of our best students, and we benefit enormously from having them here.”