Campus News

UB workshop addresses communication problems for international students

Diverse students take notes during a class.

Class participation means different things in different cultures. Instead of talking, some students might be carefully taking notes and actively listening. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published March 1, 2018

“I think we can say without any hesitation that international students face stressors that domestic students do not face.”
Ellen Dussourd, assistant vice provost and director
International Student and Scholar Services

Language and cultural barriers among international students and faculty can be broken down and fostered into a richer, more beneficial academic environment, Ellen Dussourd, assistant vice provost and director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), told faculty and staff attending a recent workshop.

“I think we can say without any hesitation that international students face stressors that domestic students do not face,” Dussourd said during the “Teaching and Advising International Students” workshop held in Capen Hall.

The workshop was one of numerous sessions on a variety of topics that ISSS offers for UB employees who work closely with international students. ISSS also offers workshops and activities designed to help international students acclimate to UB and to living and studying in the U.S.

While some cases of cultural difference might end in laughter, others may end in tears, Dussourd said.

She recalled an instance of an international student attending a party with her roommate. The international student expected the two would stay together at the party, but her roommate met up with guy and started “making out” in front of her. They soon ditched her.

“This was a shock to this international student because these kinds of displays are not at all acceptable in her culture,” Dussourd said, noting that for this student, culture shock meant witnessing her friend’s public display of affection followed by her own sense of abandonment.

Using examples like this, Dussourd detailed some of the challenges international students encounter while living and studying abroad.

She also discussed the cultural differences in the academic environment for international and domestic students, covering such topics as the importance of “saving face,” group harmony, culture shock and academic integrity — and what faculty can do to provide a holistic environment for UB’s international and domestic community.

“There is deep concern among many international students, particularly students from East Asia, about losing face for themselves, for their group, even people outside their group,” Dussourd said.

She defined “face” as the presentation of one’s pride, dignity and image to others. Americans often “save face” — an attempt to preserve respect and avoid humiliation — for themselves. For international students, saving face can mean something different.

“There are situations where international students would be acutely embarrassed, even mortified,” she said. “And Americans wouldn’t be the least bit bothered if the same thing happened to them.”

Face-saving acts international students employ include not asking questions; not admitting they do not understand; not challenging the other person, whether it be a fellow student or professor; and not correcting something someone else said. Recognizing these face-saving actions and understanding them can lead to a richer environment with better communication, Dussourd explained.

She noted that differences in vocabulary can also cause miscommunication in an academic setting and in the classroom. “You can imagine an Indian TA talking about ‘5 by 15,’ thinking that he’s talking about division, not about multiplication. And American students understand it as multiplication.”

Dussourd said differences not only exist for international students, but for domestic students as well. American students, for example, may have difficulties understanding British English.

The barriers caused by differences in language and culture within and outside academia all affect how students behave, she said. And on campus, the consequences can affect grades.

For instance, common cultural values in East Asian countries emphasize group harmony, modesty and self-restraint, she said, while on the other hand, American culture focuses on the individual values of independence, self-reliance and assertiveness.

“For a lot of international students, actually asking questions in class and participating has a negative interpretation — not a positive one,” Dussourd said.

Class participation means different things in different cultures, she added. Instead of talking, some students might be carefully taking notes and actively listening.

“You can have completely opposing views of the same action,” Dussourd said, “and all of this is at play in a class.”

A classroom experience that unifies different groups instead of allowing them to stay separate fosters participation, she said, adding that she believes most students at UB feel safe and accepted.

“International student feel safe and comfortable at UB,” she says, “because it is a diverse environment.”

There needs to be effort on both ends, Dussourd said, noting that differences can be overcome when both sides reach out and communicate.

And having clear policies and examples of academic integrity benefit both international and domestic students, she said, avoiding confusion and misunderstanding. And faculty should encourage students to take advantage of office hours, she said.

Dussourd also urged faculty to remind students to take advantage of UB services designed for international students. These include the English Language Institute (ELI, 320 Baldy Hall), the Center for Excellence in Writing (209 Baldy Hall) and ELI’s Open Lab (Clemens Hall).

For more information about the services provided above, visit ISSS’ website.