One of my daily pleasures is to spend some time reading the Philadelphia Inquirer with a nice cup of coffee. Some days I read thoroughly, other days I skim, but no matter what I always read the comics. I just can’t get through a day without reading the comics. (And let me here digress to say that I have been reading the comics in the newspaper since I was a very little girl. I do not want my newspaper comics taken away from me. So all you evil forces conspiring to destroy the daily newspapers: I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, for this and many other reasons. And please don’t tell me I can read them on the internet. It isn’t the same.) Hmm, when I digress, I really digress.
Several of my favorite daily strips have lately taken to remarking upon the horrible insult that is the approaching end of summer, with its inevitable back-to-school consequences. This got me to thinking about some of my own back-to-school experiences from years past. We take for granted that there are aspects of this “back-to-school” experience that are shared, common, and repetitive, even as we age from K-12 to college and grad school (and even as educators in the K-12 and college/university systems). But what if you are encountering “back-to-school” in the U.S. for the very first time, as an international student? What’s that like?
Around this time twenty-five years ago I was preparing to begin my first year as a graduate student at MIT. I have no idea what the process was like then for international students, but take a look at this set of instructions for international students arriving at MIT this year. If that doesn’t just make you sick with anxiety, you aren’t breathing. Keep in mind they have to do all that in addition to all the things you normally would be doing to prepare for the start of graduate student life.
When I arrived on the MIT campus as a new student in Course 22 (that’s nuclear engineering to you non-MIT folks), all new students were informed that we would have to take a test of written English. We native-English speakers were assured that this was a mere formality but that everyone had to do it. I still felt some anxiety about it though I am sure it was nothing compared to my fellow international student classmates.
Upon arriving at the designated test site, we were handed a blue book and a two-page sheet of instructions. The instructions told us that we had to write a brief essay inspired by one of of the various pictographs on the pages before us. The pictographs were all science-y type drawings, but had no words accompanying them. We were just supposed to write spontaneously whatever came to our minds upon looking at whatever pictograph we chose. The pictograph I chose looked something like this, as best I can remember:
That is supposed to be a partially filled volumetric flask inside a square. (You can see why I did not pursue a career in the arts.) It’s possible it was not exactly like that. Perhaps there was some sort of rudimentary engine or other mechanical device inside the square. What is important is that there was a…science-y thing, and it was enclosed in a square. All the other pictographs have faded from my memory. This is partly so because I remember looking at them and thinking, “what in the hell could I possibly write about any of these silly looking pictures?”
But I seized upon this one, because for some reason, when I looked at it, the phrase “System Boundaries: Where to Draw the Line?” sprung unbidden into my mind, and I was absolutely sure I could blather my way through the requisite number of words with sufficient engineering guff with that phrase. And so I did, and so I passed MIT’s test of written English.
Looking back on that experience, I think it was a good decision for the powers-that-be in Course 22 to make everyone, not just the international students, take the test of written English. For one, it gave them some sense of everybody’s ability to produce prose. For another – and I don’t know if this was their intent – but it would seem to remove some of the stigma from the international students if everyone had to do it.
Except there was this guy. I’ll call him PWD, for Privileged White D00d. PWD and I arrived at the test site together, though he grumbled about having to go. When the test instructions and blue books were passed out, and he looked them over, he grumbled more. I could hear him grumbling and fussing as I went to work on my essay (it was a timed test). Finally he got up and announced that this was a stupid test and he was not going to participate and he didn’t care what the rules were and anybody could see from his application that he knew how to write English! And he flounced out before the exam time was over. I can only imagine what effect this performance may have had on any international students in the room.
In the end, he was awarded a failing grade on the exam, and his entry into the graduate program was jeopardized. He had to appear before the department head and appeal his failing grade. He was fortunate to have published an article in a popular science journal as an undergraduate that he could brandish as proof of his (quite formidable) writing prowess, and was granted entry to the program.
Perhaps requiring native-English speaking U.S.-born citizen students to take a test of written English was a stupid thing, and a waste of time for them and for MIT, I don’t know. I can’t help thinking, though, that PWD could have saved himself the fuss by simply executing the exam that surely would have presented no serious challenge to his writing ability. And simultaneously, his non-fussy presence in the room would have made a statement to all the international students that yes, we all do this, it’s normal, don’t feel bad about it. You are one of us, we are here with you. Instead, he was so insulted that anyone would dare put him in the same room with international students who had not “mastered the language” (I know this because he told me so) that he had to make a stink and walk out and cause himself extra grief.
If you are a U.S. student about to walk on campus this fall as a graduate student, think for a minute what your fellow international students have gone through just to get to the same place that you are. Try to be a bit sympathetic. Try to imagine yourself learning all that you are about to learn – in a foreign language, in a foreign country, where maybe you even have a hard time finding the kinds of food you are used to eating. A weekend or holiday trip back home to see the family may be completely out of the question. And remember, even if you speak the language of this foreign country reasonably well, the students you may end up having to teach are inevitably going to complain about being forced to listen to your accent.
When I went to Germany as a postdoc I spoke essentially no German at all. (Guten Tag! Ein Bier, bitte? Wo ist die Toilette?) I was welcomed by all my colleagues, helped to find an apartment, shown where and how to shop for groceries, integrated into the social life of my colleagues, assisted in learning my way around the research site, and treated with kindness at every turn. People excused my pathetic German, and begged me to let them practice their English with me. Do you think the average grad student or post doc from India or China has exactly this sort of experience here in the U.S.?
What a difference it makes when you speak the dominant language, eh?