At just under 3,000 students, UO’s Fall 2013 international enrollment broke records for the ninth year running: this year’s enrollment represents a 16 percent increase from just last year, and about a 140 percent increase from five years ago, according to preliminary statistics announced at the October 28th “Serving a Growing International Student Population” meeting for faculty and staff hosted by UO’s Office of International Affairs (OIA).
For the first time, UO international students are paying an additional fee of $125/term, which will be phased up to $200/term in the year 2016. Fees have been a more longstanding practice at other universities; at UO, which prides itself on offering financial aid to support its international students—$1.3 million last year alone—this fee will be waived for the 10 percent of students with the greatest financial need.
“We want to use the fee to shore up existing, and provide new services for these students,” explained Abe Schafermeyer, OIA’s Director of International Student and Scholar Services, who is reaching out to students, faculty, and staff to identify support priorities in addition to the new staffing lines already planned for his office and others that offer student advising.
“This is a very exciting time. Up until now, we’ve been forced to react to these changes. For the first time in a long time we have the chance to get ahead of the curve. We must begin to be much more intentional in actively moving towards the comprehensive academic and social integration of our international students, or it’s a lost opportunity for this campus,” said Schafermeyer.
This Fall brought promising developments, new articulations of need, and creative ideas from different corners of the University all attempting to ensure that UO’s international students have a high-quality academic experience.
Notably, OIA and the American English Institute (AEI), which offers academic English courses for matriculated students, asked all incoming international students except those whose first language is English to take placement tests at Fall orientation—testing for the first time students whose TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores for admission were high enough to bypass AEI’s courses. Ninety-six percent of the high-TOEFL test group placed into the Academic English for International Students (AEIS) course sequence.
“While the sample is relatively small, the results of this test suggest that almost all non-native English speaking undergraduates are in need of additional English language support, not just those entering with low TOEFL scores,” said AEI Associate Director Alison Evans. “Requiring these students to take the AEIS classes they place into would better ensure that these students get needed support at the time they begin UO course work,” she added.
Other changes this year include the relocation of advising and compliance tracking of AEIS students from OIA to the AEI. The new AEIS advising office is staffed by four faculty members who are available to students with questions and problems regarding their AEIS requirements. The advisors also are tracking compliance and contacting students directly for advising appointments when there is evidence that they are not completing their AEIS requirements in a timely fashion. Already, there has been an increase in student compliance, with AEIS class spaces at 101 percent of capacity this term, as opposed to 83 percent last spring, when the number of students dropping their required classes reached a critical level—“at the same time concerns about English language proficiency reached new highs across campus,” Evans noted.
Moreover, this year, the Office of Enrollment Management is undertaking research on how the two most recent cohorts of international freshmen compare to their American peers in course grades and retention. And AEI is surveying faculty to gather more qualitative insights about students’ academic success, needs, and preparedness. (Please take AEI’s survey by clicking here.)
A student’s-eye view
When Professor Mary Jaeger addresses her 160 Humanities 101: “The Classical World” students, and Instructor Bijan Shahir lectures his more than 200-student-strong Physics 101: “Essentials of Physics” course, they each have a particularly careful listener in the crowd: a faculty member from AEI who teaches a linked course of international student language-learners.
“I know exactly what they heard—they take notes; I take notes,” said Instructor Jennifer Rice, whose AEIS 102: “Advanced Academic Oral Communication” students also are enrolled in the physics course. Rather than generalized assignments to practice listening to and speaking English, Rice’s assignments draw from Shahir’s material, and thus have immediate relevance to her students. For example, a typical assignment in AEIS 102 courses asks students to give presentations on a social problem and potential solution; instead, Rice asks her students to present a physics problem and solution.
The language demands of the course are high: students answer “story problems” as homework that require them to understand situations; they answer iClicker quiz questions that must be read, discussed with a neighbor, and answered in a minute; they read short essay questions on exams.
“For me, sitting in lecture, one of the most surprising things is the amount of synonyms and cultural reference students have to make sense of—and that’s on top of the physics. The cognitive load is amazing,” Rice said, noting that allusions meant to make abstract ideas more concrete—like Ferris wheels and balls thrown “downfield”—are often unintelligible to students who come from cultural backgrounds where football and amusement parks are not commonplace.
Rice said that Shahir has observed her class, too, and plans a return visit: “it was just wonderful—the students saw he was really invested in it.” She said that the experience also helped him see how easily language learners can become confused: they had learned about “inertia,” and when Shahir introduced “initial velocity,” the group heard “inertial velocity” and asked him to explain it. “Hearing the wrong things happens so often—students have to use the terms they know to interpret new terms,” Rice explained.
“But they have ‘aha’ moments on a daily basis. They bring in words from lecture written in spellings that make sense to the international students, but not to a native English speaker, and figure them out together in small groups—if the group can’t figure out the intended meaning, common collocations, and correct spelling, the entire class takes it on,” Rice added.
Once, when the whole class and Rice herself were confused about a concept, she agreed to write Shahir a question on the class’s behalf—his thoughtful reply boosted the group’s confidence. They’ve even practiced formulating precise questions for their graduate teaching fellows in office hours. “One of the most intimidating things [about studying in a foreign context] is just to ask questions,” said Rice—working together on their language skills and reaching out of GTFs and faculty are strategies that will serve them well throughout their UO careers, Rice said.
“What [Rice] has brought to the table is comfort and success for our students,” said Shahir. “I’m impressed with her teaching style and her students obviously enjoy her class,” he added.
As Rice’s students grapple with velocity and inertia, AEI Instructor Brian Butler’s AEIS 107: “Reading Academic Discourse” students take on ancient covenants, monsters, and gods among men as they read ancient texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad, and the Bible with Jaeger’s Humanities 101 course. “These are freaky stories,” said Butler with a laugh—“even if you can understand the action, you’ve got to unpack the cultural content—the honor and shame.”
And understanding the words themselves is no easy task. Butler explains that most UO international student language learners arrive with knowledge of about 2,000 “high frequency” words; his course also introduces more than 500 academic words, like “observation,” and “orientation.” But the vocabulary surrounding, say, ancient warfare, or the fact that Homer sometimes calls Achilles “Son of Thetis,” or calls “Paris” “Alexander” is baffling even to domestic students.
“Students need a tremendously large vocabulary to read these texts,” agreed Jaeger. “And part of my job is to expose all my students to words they don’t know.”
Sometimes Butler’s students comprehend very little, in spite of multiple readings: “it’s a slow process for them—this work takes a lot of time, and I admire them for it,” Butler said. His assignments, like asking the students to summarize each paragraph of the primary text in a single sentence, or to annotate the text, underlining main ideas and numbering sub-points, help students break readings down into comprehensible parts.
Even three short, elegant paragraphs of Jaeger’s essay prompt became an assignment for the group: he asked his students to paraphrase every sentence. Jaeger had asked students to consider the definition of happiness Solon offers in Herodotus’s History (exemplified by three figures, including two who died peacefully after receiving public praise), then pick either Antigone or Socrates from other course readings and determine whether they were happy.
“An assignment like this requires high-level critical thinking: they’ve got to comprehend the reading for direct and implied ideas; select relevant examples of happiness and unhappiness; and use a compare and contrast pattern,” Butler explained.
Butler said he hopes that a rigorous curriculum in his course of summarizing, outlining, and holding students accountable for the reading in Jaeger’s course will mean more of his students succeed: “Can they pass the course in greater numbers than in previous years?” Butler asks himself. “I believe they will, and I also expect they will find the experience of working through these ancient texts helpful when they need to carefully work through other, more modern texts in future courses across the university.”
For her part, Jaeger has become particularly attentive to her delivery in class—trying to make her speech as deliberate as possible, using a microphone, returning to and paraphrasing complex ideas, and making all of her lecture slides available so that students aren’t distracted by trying to copy down their content. Jaeger said she was drawn to the AEIS pilot because she’s interested in how people acquire second languages and likes to experiment with her teaching, especially experiments that might reach out to a changing student population. She also hopes the rewards are worth the considerable challenges for her students.
“Reading these works offers great insight into Western civilization and into notions of the individual’s relationship to the state, justice, heroism, rights and freedoms, mortality and the soul that are still relevant today. What do we make of the fact that there is a granite copy of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol? Is Edward Snowdon heroic like Antigone or Socrates?” Jaeger said.
These linked courses will continue next term with Physics 102, Humanities 102, and expand to Economics 201 and 202.
Recent TEP articles on the international classroom: