In Fall 2012, the University of Oregon welcomed 2,550 international students, its largest group ever—almost double the size of its 2007 international class. These students represent more than 80 countries, but the lion’s share—just over half—are from China.
Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia round out the top five home nations; combined, they account for about 26 percent of UO’s international students.
And UO’s international constituency is getting younger: five years ago, half the University’s international students were postgraduates. Graduate student numbers have remained steady, but now they comprise only 20 percent of the total international student population. The most popular major for international undergraduates is Pre-Business Administration, followed by Economics, Business Administration, Accounting, Computer Science, Psychology, and Biology.
“With a population that’s grown at an unprecedented rate in such a short period of time, understandably, we’re scrambling to answer, ‘What are our students’ needs, and how does the University address those needs?’” said Abe Schafermeyer, UO’s Director of International Student and Scholar Services. “Getting this right means understanding what these students bring to the table—this growth can positively impact and internationalize Oregonian students’ experience, too.”
College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Ian McNeely agrees: “I look forward to the day when the student from Roseburg can exchange ideas and perspectives with the student from Riyadh. There is a tremendous untapped potential here to enrich the diversity of our campus. First, however, we need to do a better job of supporting our international students both academically and socially.”
International Admission and the American English Institute
UO’s 35-year-old American English Institute (AEI), part of the Department of Linguistics, is a thriving, fast-growing institute offering language, cultural and academic training to matriculated and non-matriculated students alike, many of whom are conditionally admitted to the university. The AEI also has online education programs spanning the globe, mainly focused on teacher training.
The AEI boasts more than 100 instructors among all its programs and is actively thinking about its pedagogy and what teaching practices work best for international students, explains AEI Associate Director Alison Evans. “We’ve never stopped hiring and have drained the regional pond of English language faculty—our instructors bring so many different teaching backgrounds and experiences.”
For admission to the University, international students demonstrate academic success in high school, and most take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Their scores on that test determine whether they are eligible for admission outright, or for admission contingent on either scoring higher on the test or completing AEI’s highest level of English instruction, which includes courses in advanced speaking, reading and writing in a U.S. academic context.
Even students in what Schafermeyer calls a “TOEFL grey zone”—just high enough for admission—take a placement test at International Student Orientation, which may require them to take as many as six additional academic English courses.
If the University were to raise the TOEFL score for admission, Evans says, “We would probably not see a significant change in the level of language proficiency. There is a low correlation in part because many students focus on studying for the test rather than improving their overall skills. What we need to do is offer these students more support services such as a writing lab geared specifically to their needs. These are our students and the new demographic at the UO; we owe them the best possible education we can provide.”
Orientation and Ongoing Support
All international students attend a multiday orientation hosted by the Office of International Affairs (OIA) that covers living in the United States, forming social connections on campus, and succeeding academically—that last session covers foundational topics such as grades, credits, and understanding a syllabus. Each student meets individually with an academic advisor and an OIA advisor during orientation, but then joins the general pool of pre-major advisees.
“Orientation overload is prone to happen when students are not only starting at the UO, but also have just moved thousands of miles and are dealing with a second language exclusively for the first time,” said Zach Tobin, International Student Advisor. “While International Student Orientation is the best time to communicate common messages international students should hear, it is difficult for students to take it all in at once. This is why continuing support is needed from everyone within the campus community to help international students during this transition.”
OIA’s small staff makes itself available to international students throughout their time at UO, particularly to help with the complexities of immigration regulations. Other services that OIA provides include financial support through scholarships, orientations, tax advising, and career support; OIA also provides guidance for other campus units in their efforts to help international students. Moreover, OIA organizes cultural events and coffee hours through the Mills International Center, and an international women’s group, among other programs.
There is no campus-wide writing center specifically for international students, though Evans says she supports such a resource staffed by English as a Second Language-trained teachers and GTFs. Tutoring in academic writing is available to all students through UO’s Writing Lab, and international students have always been a big part of the Lab’s clientele, explains Assistant Director of the Teaching and Learning Center, Amy Nuetzman.
The Lab is staffed by 12 undergraduate and graduate student tutors; two are available for appointments and drop-in sessions every weekday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In an average week, they hold 100 tutoring sessions, about 75 percent of them with international writers. Especially during peak times of the term, they cannot always accommodate the heavy demand.
“I’ve noticed that many international students fear being exposed by sentence-level errors—like they’ll have a visible accent on the page that marks them as different. They’re not sure how grammatical correctness will affect their grades, so they feel pressured to produce writing that resembles native speakers’,” Nuetzman added.
Though the Lab’s tutors typically focus on higher-order concerns of argument and organization, they also are trained to work with English language learners who come to the Lab seeking help with sentence-level writing skills. Tutors discuss rules and revision options related to patterns of errors, creating mini-lessons that have the greatest likelihood of increasing writers’ fluency and confidence in the long run.
When faculty members refer students to the Lab, Nuetzman suggests that they explain why working with a peer would be helpful and what aspects of writing they hope their students will focus on. Otherwise, suggestions to “Go to the Writing Lab” can feel like sanctions, or some international students may hear only “Perfect your grammar,” when faculty might have much preferred them to focus on other writing concerns.
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Faculty and administrators will continue the conversation about how best to engage and support UO’s international cohort and draw from the valuable experiences these students bring to the University at “The International Classroom” workshop this Friday, Feb.1