Easing international students' transition into college and culture

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Aug. 23, 2012

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Rebecca Gao, from Chengdu, China (center) and Valerie Salmon, from Paris, France, attend the ACE Program, a four-week summer course for new international students. Photo by Elizabeth Elkins.

When Beijing-native Yuan Yue arrived at Emory as a freshman last fall, she had already taken an online course to help prepare for academic life at an American university — from brushing up on language skills to advice on writing assignments.  

But it was the cultural side of college that most worried her.  

"I learned about the correct format for writing an essay in English, but what I was really afraid of was that I wouldn't be able to find a peer group to study with," recalls Yue, who recently completed her first year at Emory studying pre-business and German.  

This summer, new international undergraduate students like Yue are finding more help than ever before learning about college life through the new Academics and Culture at Emory (ACE) program for non-native speakers.  

The innovative four-week program is designed to help incoming international undergraduates adjust to academic, social and cultural life at Emory — and Atlanta — long before the fall semester begins, says Ursula Spitzer, assistant director of International and Summer Programs and ACE program coordinator.  

The goal is to give international students an early start on the transition to college life — "a solid linguistic, academic, social and practical foundation for the next four years," Spitzer explains.  

The program includes a four-credit American studies course which explores regional, political and cultural issues while providing students with practical tools to hit the ground running the first day of fall classes.  

Easing the college transition  

As more international students are drawn to Emory —this fall, they account for about 15.8 percent of the new freshman class — Spitzer says campus leaders saw an opportunity to enhance the orientation experience.  

While all international students are invited to attend a required Aug. 23 orientation, the ACE program aspires to achieve a deeper understanding of what it means to study in the United States, while bolstering the skills to navigate challenges.  

As an international student advisor, Spitzer noted a pattern. "Often, we found that by mid-semester, they were struggling — they couldn't keep up with the reading or the writing or they didn't know about what resources were available to them."  

"I would reassure them that there is no stigma in the United States about using campus resources (such as peer tutoring, ESL or counseling services), that American students have no qualms about it, and they're free."  

Instructors were also aware of cultural adjustments going on in the classroom. "The learning style is different," Spitzer adds. "The give-and-take of discussions, knowing when to speak out and when to listen — students from different cultures aren't always used to it."  

Even the basic relationship between teachers and students can take some adjustment, acknowledges Kate Nickerson, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the American Studies program, who says she's enjoyed teaching through ACE this summer.  

Case-in-point: The first day of class, Nickerson announced that she was going to ask questions, encouraging students to enter the discussion. The first student to speak stood to formally address her — a traditional sign of respect, but not necessary.  

"Sometimes, it's the little things — but little things can matter," she adds.  

Cultural experiences build confidence  

The ACE program offers a dual emphasis: Morning classes immerse students in social and cultural issues, through lectures, literature, history and film. Afternoon field trips, evening and weekend activities explore campus and regional resources.  

Working in a small group — the first class numbers 15 students from China, Korea, Turkey and France — undergraduates arrive four weeks before fall classes start, ample time to familiarize themselves with issues ranging from how the library works to classroom dynamics.  

That may mean a discussion of race and social justice along with a trip to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home. A visit to the Buford Highway International Farmer's Market accompanies discussion about U.S. food production and sustainability issues.  

The course culminates with a banquet, where students present digital storytelling projects that help summarize their experiences.  

On a recent day, students requested a chance to practice English in the classroom, proposing a lively debate on the viability of organic versus industrialized food production — a topic that fit well with what they had learned about Emory's commitment to sustainability issues.  

Meeting over lunch after class, Valerie Salmon from Paris, France, Rebecca Gao from Chengdu, China, and Andy Zhang from Shanghai, China, agreed that the course has been a beneficial jumpstart to their college experience.  

Getting a feel for the campus, learning English idioms, an introduction to new foods — it's all been a confidence builder.  

"It just helps to know how it all works in a different country — to know about how the courses work and what teachers are going to expect of you and meeting new people," says Salmon, who plans to major in business.