A group of international students presented proposals regarding the perceived lack of cultural, academic and career support for international students at the Board of Trustees forum on Thursday, Oct. 8. The draft of suggested improvements is reflective of the unease many international students have felt transitioning to Oberlin, students say.
While Oberlin provides some programs for international students, such as designated pre-orientation, some say that the College’s perceived insensitivity to the needs of students from other cultural backgrounds makes the adjustment process difficult.
College junior Malika Ghafour from Afghanistan said she experienced an example of this frustration when she visited the Counseling Center.
“[Counselors] just talk to me, and when I share stuff about my family, my country, they say, ‘Okay, I can help you with that, but I don’t know the way your culture works,’” Ghafour said.
Ghafour took English for Speakers of Other Languages classes in her first year and said she found them less helpful than expected. The courses aim to prepare international students for American academic classes by enhancing their English proficiency and familiarizing them with citations and the honor code, but Ghafour found them time-consuming and unhelpful.
“We spent time on grammar and basic stuff about language that I’m sure every student who comes here knows a little about,” Ghafour said. “But the main purpose [of ESOL] should be helping students with academic writing skills, not the other stuff. … It would be more helpful if ESOL provides basic steps that guide students to the academic courses.”
College junior Hengxuan Wu, an author of the suggested improvements for the College, said the academic expectations placed on international students who have learned English as a second language are often overwhelming.
“I feel like people just expect me to be really good at writing and reading when I take a lot of Politics classes, and they just assume that I can totally do 80 pages of reading in English in one night,” Wu said. “It is these little things that makes this experience so hard.”
Wu discovered many of these issues through conversations with friends and as a peer mentor for incoming international students, many of whom feel like outcasts in a new culture.
“I knew I wanted to go to the trustee forum to talk about international students’ accessibility issues, and I saw a few other international students — especially Chinese students— who signed up, so I just emailed them to see if they would like to meet and discuss their concerns,” Wu said.
Despite these difficulties, Oberlin does not offer an adequate community of support, many international students say. The International Student Organization, a group intended to alleviate some of these hardships, has not been a satisfactory source of support, according to some international students.
Instead, the international student community has fractured into smaller, more specific groups like the South Asian Students Association, the Chinese Student Association and others.
“Right now, all the international students are kind of grouped, and I’m the only Afghan student here, so I cannot literally belong to any of them,” Ghafour said. “I just want to combine all the groups together because now, in their small groups, maybe they can solve some of the challenges, but I believe that if they come together as a large group, they can do more to overcome the challenges that they are facing as international students.”
Wu and other students proposed that the College should do more community building for international students. They suggested the creation of a community coordinator — a “go-to person” who has similar experiences and understands their challenges as foreign students — to provide support for students and help facilitate community building.
The proposal also suggests more tailored academic and career advising for international students, as well as a network with international alumni who can mentor them in career development.
According to Ann Deppman, director of the Office of International Students, efforts to strengthen career services and build an alumni network for international students are ongoing.
“I think there are valuable and important conversations that a number of offices are trying to have to help students to think [about] what can we do in these areas,” Deppman said. “It would probably not be happening as soon as students would wish it to happen, and part of the reason is just that we have a much smaller international alumni population than our current international students population now, so [the Career Center’s] ability to quickly identify alumni in an interested area or field is going to be challenged until we graduate out enough international students.”
Deppman said she recognized the importance of supporting the international student body, but cited a lack of staff and resources when discussing institutional support. She encouraged students to continue offering specific proposals for how the College can better support international students.
Dean of Studies Joyce Babyak also invited students to have more conversations with the administration about their concerns.
“The General Faculty Advising Committee will soon be holding listening sessions on academic advising in Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with Senate,” Babyak said. “This will give students the opportunity to share information about their experiences with academic advising.”