Foreign Students Bring International Flavor to Wilkes Campus
By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13
Bowen Wang hated to do it, but he had to be honest with the other students on his integrated management experience team. They had taken him to a Chinese buffet.
“I had to tell them it wasn’t real Chinese food,” the freshman in the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business and Leadership says laughing. “Not like what we have in China.”
But Wang also speaks warmly about the team from one of his first business classes at Wilkes. “Our team name was the word ‘business’ in Chinese,” he says with a grin. The fact that the Sidhu School is named for an alumnus who came to Wilkes as an international student – Jay Sidhu MBA ’73 – makes Wang’s next comment even more gratifying.
“Coming to Wilkes is the best choice I ever made,” he says. That’s high praise from any freshman. For one who traveled more than 6,600 miles from his home in Rizhao, Shandong Province, to attend the University, it’s an extraordinary affirmation of the educational experience.
“I cannot say enough good things about Wilkes,” says Wang. “I will have more opportunities to practice my English here and master the language than at a large university with many Chinese students.” The University’s size matters in other ways, too. “This is a small university, big enough to develop myself, but small enough so that professors give you attention,” he says, adding, “Everybody is so nice to me. They know how difficult it is to come here from another country, and they are very patient.”
Wang is one of a growing number of international students at Wilkes.
Internationals have long been part of the campus. But in the last decade, thanks to recruitment efforts targeting foreign students and strong programs to support them once enrolled, numbers have increased. During the 2013-2014 academic year, 255 international students were enrolled for academic classes or in the Intensive English Program. Wilkes has the largest population of international students of any college in northeast Pennsylvania.
The experience of being a foreign student has changed over the years. International students have enrolled at Wilkes at least since the 1950s. At one time, such students found their way to Wilkes via personal relationships between administrators and faculty and their foreign counterparts. More recently, the University’s admissions team has started to recruit internationally.
Selling Wilkes Worldwide
Xiaoqiao Zhang ’10 understands the challenges of studying in the United States. She remembers the adjustments that she had to make when she came here as a high school student from her native China. Her experiences as an international student who made the most of her Wilkes education also made Zhang the perfect choice to become Wilkes’ first international recruiter. Her position was created in 2012.
“This job is very personal. It’s my alma mater,” Zhang declares. “I want to make this school as well-known and appreciated as I want it to be.”
She admits that it’s sometimes challenging to sell Wilkes to families in China. Schools with high name recognition, such as Ivy League institutions, are top of the list for many. Zhang emphasizes her own undergraduate success – which included playing varsity tennis, high profile internships with television networks and going to graduate school at Columbia University – when recruiting. Zhang travels to China for six weeks at a time, speaking at college fairs in multiple cities.
“I tell them that the language environment here is what made my English so good,” she says when Chinese parents compliment her fluency. “I tell them that you want to go to a school that prepares you to be the best, where you’ll get personal attention and many opportunities. That school is Wilkes.”
A tireless cheerleader for the University, there is now a cadre of Chinese students on campus who call her “Mama Xiao” and come to her for advice on navigating life in the States.
Staff in the Center for Global Education and Diversity also has recruited in South America. Companies specializing in international recruitment organize such trips. College and university representatives travel to a series of organized college fairs, where students and parents can talk to them at their school’s booth.
Saudi Arabian students are a strong presence at Wilkes because the University participates in the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program that pays for students to study in the United States. Once those students succeed at Wilkes, their friends and family members are more likely to attend.
There is strong interest in attending school in the United States, says Melanie O’Donnell Wade ’93, Wilkes vice president for enrollment, and schools are wise to leverage it.
“Almost every young person in America has something highly coveted by people in all other countries – and that’s the education at our colleges and universities,” Wade says. “To be the international destination for higher education is something we should be proud of.”
Wade says that international students are good for the University because of the tuition dollars they bring. But she emphasizes that there other important reasons why it’s good for Wilkes to have a globally diverse student body.
“It is valuable for our domestic students to be exposed to students from other countries,” Wade states. “Many of our students, as first-generation college students, have never traveled beyond this region. The working world they are going to enter is an international one. One of the best ways to prepare them is to have a student body that is internationally diverse.”
Crash Course In Culture
On the Thursday before spring semester begins, the first floor of the Max Roth Center hums with the sound of different languages. Saudi Arabian students, the women’s heads wrapped in the colorful scarves called hijabs, cluster on one side of the room. A Chinese student clutches a cup of coffee in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. Others navigate around a table of refreshments.
The international student orientation introduces the students to Wilkes. It’s also a crash course in United States culture and a time to process the paperwork required by the Department of Homeland Security in order for international students to study here.
Welcoming them all is Georgia Costalas, executive director of the Center for Global Education and Diversity and director of international student services. For two days before the start of each semester, Costalas and her staff, plus a team of work-study students, prepare a new group of international students to begin their American college experience.
“It’s amazing: People will be coming in the door who don’t speak English,” says Costalas. “We’ll have 40 kids in here speaking different languages, all having questions and different needs. We collect about eight different documents from each student, so one of our work-study students is a runner, taking them upstairs to copy and returning it to me.”
The center was started in 2008 to address the needs of a growing population of international students. The two-day orientation includes a workshop about the F-1 visa, which foreign visitors must have to study in the United States. There are parameters for students with such a visa: They may have jobs on campus, but not off. They must be enrolled in school full time. Paperwork must be filed and protocols followed if an international student returns home during summer or holiday break.
Other sessions during the two-day orientation include campus tours (complete with translators), a resource lunch to introduce students to campus services and an academic protocols session. The latter, Costalas says, is particularly important.
“We cover aspects of U.S. culture that affect the U.S. classroom,” Costalas says. “The concept of time and how we demonstrate respect are two examples of things that can be quite different. We have to explain to our international students that being late for class can be viewed as a sign of disrespect.” Arguing critically in class – an accepted part of class discussions – seems like a sign of disrespect for the professor to foreign students. Becoming accustomed to these cultural differences takes time.
The center is the hub of life for foreign students, a place where they bring questions and concerns and also a place to socialize. The center staff supports student clubs promoting cultural diversity. They include the Asian Interest Society, the Hindu Spirtuality Club, the Indian Cultural Association and the Saudi Interest Club. The clubs hold events that allow other members of the University community to learn more about their cultures. The center and the Intensive English Program sponsor trips to places like a New York Yankees baseball game.
It also sponsors the weekly Global Coffee Hour, held in the Savitz Lounge of the Henry Student Center. Coffee hour traditions – such as cutthroat Uno card games – keep students coming back for camaraderie and refreshments. An American student, Deanna Moore ’14, organized the coffee hours for the past four years until graduation in May. Her goal was to attract more students by adding themes and special programs. For example, one event featured two chefs from the Wilkes-Barre restaurant Katana who taught attendees how to roll their own sushi.
Moore, a management major and international studies minor from Tobyhanna, Pa., enjoys working with international students – so much so that she hopes to continue after graduation. She grew up appreciating cultural differences because her father and grandfather had military careers and lived in other countries. “It’s an entirely different world,” she says of working at the center. “It brings a different culture to Wilkes that so many people don’t know about.”
She is proud that events like international orientation do more than provide information. They also are the starting point for campus friendships.
“My sophomore year, I knew we were doing something right when new international students would jump up and down and wave at me from across the greenway,” Moore says.
Moore also participated in another program – Global Thanksgiving – that pairs international students with faculty, staff and student families to experience the American holiday. Accounting student Yujia Jiang from Fuzhou in China’s Fujian Province, spent Thanksgiving 2011 with Moore’s family. “That is what solidified my friendship with Yujia,” says Moore. “When Yujia’s mom came here, she asked if our families could meet. My mother, sister and I got together with them while she was here.”
Making the Adjustment
For many international students, the first stop on their Wilkes journey is Hollenback Hall. The building across from Farley Library on South Franklin Street is the home of the Intensive English Program. The program has five class levels progressing in difficulty from level one, for students with little or no English language skills, to level five for students who have almost mastered the language well enough to begin taking classes at Wilkes. Classes are taught year-round, and students take up to a year and a half to master English. Only students scoring high enough on the TOEFL or IELTS exams are exempt from taking intensive English classes before they can enroll in regular classes. TOEFL is the Test Of English as a Foreign Language. The program also sponsors a conversation partners programs pairing American students with an international student who wants to practice speaking English.
In her first-floor classroom, Dee Balice, one of five program teachers, is addressing her level two class. Balice’s level two students – one man and six women, all from Saudi Arabia — are still challenged when expressing their thoughts orally or in writing English.
“In English, please!” Balice – known as Mrs. B. — admonishes them good naturedly. “I don’t know Arabic.” An energetic woman with short dark hair and glasses perched on the edge of her nose, Balice hands back folders containing the first draft of an essay about the dangers of cell phone use while driving. She turns to the blackboard and draws a diagram of a table.
“One of the biggest problems that students have is learning that they need to have supporting ideas,” Balice says as she completes the drawing. “All students, not just international students. Each major point must have a supporting idea. Without those legs, the table top falls.”
Balice uses many methods to illustrate her points. To explain the meaning of the English word affectionate, she shows students a picture of her cat cuddling at home. “That’s affectionate,” she explains. The class breaks into individual groups to work and she circulates among them to talk one-on-one about their writing. Offering encouragement here, a suggestion for improvement there, she pauses and raises her voice slightly. “Class, Hidayh used a very good word that I want to share with all of you. Violation,” she says as she writes it on the board. “It means breaking a law.”
Balice challenges the students and most rise to her expectations. Student Mansi Ashkan says, “Every international student should have a teacher like Mrs. B.”
Wilkes’ Intensive English Program is accredited by The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation – now a requirement for such programs thanks to 2012 federal legislation. The Wilkes program is the only one to receive accreditation through 2024. Kimberly Niezgoda directs the program, which was established at Wilkes in 2006 to strengthen services for the international population. Preparing foreign students for the demands of English in college classrooms is far different than teaching conversational skills.
“These students aren’t just learning to speak English,” Niezgoda explains. “They are learning academic English. About 5,000 words are needed to survive in English. American high school graduates have about 20,000 academic words as they enter college.”
If language is the first and greatest adjustment for international students, there’s one thing that clearly ranks second. Bowen Wang remembers that Xiaoqiao Zhang counseled him to buy a 40-meal plan in the cafeteria. “I still have most of them. I haven’t used them,” he says. Eating American cuisine also was cited as a concern by the Saudi students in Dee Balice’s class.
The food dilemma leads many internationals to live off campus. “We can cook our own food – but sometimes I have to go to New York to find things I want, “ says Yujiya Jiang. Like her American counterparts, going to college and living off campus has helped her to develop life skills. “When I was at home, I couldn’t cook, do dishes or wash my own clothes. My father said it was time for me to grow up. I’ve become more independent.”
Weather also is an issue for students from places like the Bahamas or Saudi Arabia. Andrew Asare ’14, a mechanical engineering major from Ghana, sums up the experience. “The weather was difficult,” Asare says. “I had never seen snow or been exposed to such cold temperatures. I learned to layer up and got gloves.”
Asare says he had help navigating life in America because his three older brothers attended college here. His brother Geoffrey attended Tufts University, his brother Phillp went to the University of Pennsylvania and Ernest went to Arcadia University and then to graduate school at Columbia University. His younger brother, Edward, a junior computer science major, followed him to Wilkes.
“My mom wanted me to be close to my brothers so I would have a support system,” Asare explains.
All of the students said culture shock in a broader sense stems from differences between their country’s standards for manners and accepted behavior and what is acceptable in America. The differences are often complicated and can range from what is the proper way to show respect for faculty to how loud students can be in the cafeteria.
Among the most significant cultural differences are those experienced by Saudi Arabian women who come to the United States. “The women here have freedom. They can drive and can walk anywhere they want,” says Norah Aldharman. In her country, women cannot drive cars or travel alone. A husband or male relative accompany most of the Saudi women who come to Wilkes.
Aldharman and fellow students Ahlam Almaki and Maryam Almarhoon say Americans frequently ask questions about their dress, which includes the traditional hijab, a scarf covering their hair.
For every student, a circle of friends is a significant part of their Wilkes experience. The process of forming these relationships is more complicated for internationals dealing with issues of language and culture.
Business students like Bowen Wang and Yujia Jiang have made friends through classes. “Everything for a business major is teamwork,” Wang says.
A team of a different sort helped Andrew Asare find his place at Wilkes. He and his brother Edward are both soccer players. “I started here in fall 2010,” Asare recalls. “It was really nice to have welcoming teammates. I can’t imagine not knowing anyone when I came here. Coach (Phil) Wingert has guided me all four years.”
Although it can be more challenging for others still mastering English, the atmosphere is positive. “All American people to me are friendly,” says Saudi student Mansi Ashkan. Alumna Felixa Wingen ’09 who came to Wilkes from Germany and is the former assistant director of the Center for Global Education and Diversity, says such positive impressions are due to the Wilkes culture.
“What really makes Wilkes a great place for international students are the staff and faculty, people who are caring,” Wingen says. “Any international student struggles – but to know you have so many you can turn to – that’s something that so many students know when they’re there.”
That this should be the overall impression is as important for Wilkes as it is for the international students, says Costalas of the Center for Global Education and Diversity. “Wilkes is the ‘America’ they are experiencing. When they return and talk about what America is like, they will be talking about the America that a Wilkes student sees and is part of.”