Guest Column: For International Students: Five Keys to Success in the U.S. College Classroom
For International Students: Five Keys to Success in the U.S. College Classroom
by Dr. Vivi Hua
For some of you who come from a culture that focuses a lot on student grades and rankings, you likely will have to develop new skills in order to succeed in the U.S. college classroom. While international students easily observe different students’ classroom behaviors between the U.S. and their countries, it usually takes them a while to realize “what got them here won’t get them there.” By the time they had such realization, they may have lost many opportunities to optimize their chances to succeed in the U.S. college classroom.
To sum up: American education values proactive learning.
How to be proactive about your learning as an international student in the U.S.?
There are 5 keys to success in the U.S. college classroom:
- Participate in classroom discussions. The biggest culture shock many international students experience when they first start college in the U.S. is that their American peers raise their hands a lot and are eager to share their thoughts or ask questions in class. Although international students recognize the importance of engaging in classroom discussions, more than 90-95% of the students I’ve worked with had a hard time with this. Actually, I would have been surprised if they had no issue speaking up in class. This is for the most part a consequence of how individuals in different cultures are educated differently since little. International students from certain parts of the world, such as Asia, were generally taught to behave in class, obey and listen to their teachers growing up; whereas American children are encouraged to apply their independent thinking in the learning process and express their opinions. So participating in class is not so much a question of personal ability but more of a matter of exposure and repeated practice since a young age. Reframe your thoughts about classroom participation, so that you can focus your energy on developing skills needed to optimize your chances of success in the U.S. college classroom.
- Build a relationship with your professors. Some of you may have grown up in a culture where you were taught to respect and obey your teachers. As a result, you may feel quite distant from your teachers and hesitate to approach them. Think about this: If your professors don’t know you, how would you expect them to provide you with recommendation letters that highlight your strengths and unique qualities when you compete for practicums, internships, or jobs? Just based on your good grades? It doesn’t quite work this way in the U.S. The two main ways to build a relationship with your professors would be through participating in class and seeking their advice for class-relevant questions or issues during their office hours. If you feel connected with some of them and/or appreciate their support, send them greetings on holidays such as Thanksgiving or during the winter holiday season. I’m sure they won’t mind hearing from you! Overall, professors in the U.S. want to know that students are actively engaged in their learning process and value initiatives from students. So don’t be afraid to approach them. Some of them may be helpful with class specific questions, while others, with a deeper relationship built, may play a critical role in supporting you through your time in school and even well into your career development.
- Befriend your American peers. International students usually feel most comfortable hanging out with peers from the same country or similar cultures because it provides ease and a sense of belonging when living in a foreign country. However, you likely didn’t come to the U.S. just to study or hang out with your country fellows. It would be valuable to experience American culture firsthand and think about what you can learn from it. Making friends with American peers is a direct conduit to this purpose. Your American peers can play an important role in your college experience where classes feel more enjoyable to you. You can ask questions about things you may have missed in class, collaborate on projects, meet other local people, learn how Americans celebrate important holidays or life events, etc. They are likely to be an important part of your professional network as you start building your career after graduation. You may even become lifetime friends with some of them!
• Work on your presentation skills. Presentations are an important way to share your knowledge with your professors and peers. It can also be a great way to showcase your creativity and thought process. International students can sometimes feel uncomfortable when under the spotlight, fearing that they might freeze in front of the class or “blank out” in the middle of their presentations. Some may even try to avoid giving presentations if possible. Know that you are not alone in this—many American students have similar worries and experience. Repeated practice considering feedback from your professors and peers can often improve your skills over time. In my work with international students, I often recommend that they focus on the “purpose” of their presentations, rather than on their performance itself. Ask yourself “What do I want the audience to take away from my presentation?” rather than worry about what people might think about your English skills, your accent, your delivery, etc.
- Keep improving your English skills. Your English skills are likely good enough to meet requirements of U.S. college admissions. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you feel equipped to engage in activities outlined above. If you came from a country where English is not used on a regular basis, chances are it will take you some time to become comfortable with it. It took me a couple of years to start feeling comfortable conversing in English without having to pause in the middle of a sentence. So don’t get discouraged if this is an area of challenge for you. Instead, focus on how you can improve your English skills. Expose yourself to settings where English is the only language you can use. Therefore, interacting with local Americans and/or people who don’t speak the same native language as you would be critical. Know that you’ll likely feel quite uncomfortable in this immersion experience, but do it anyway! It’s okay to take a break from it when you feel exhausted. Recharge your batteries and get back into practice when you’re ready.
These five keys to success in the U.S. college classroom may sound daunting to many of you. It’s okay to feel challenged. A good way to stretch your comfort zone, and hence to grow, is to “experiment” with things you haven’t tried before, things that intimidate you somehow. If you like what you learn about yourself when trying out something new, keep doing it. Little by little, you’re on your way to success not only in the U.S. college classroom but your life in America!
Vivi W. Hua, Psy.D., helps international students succeed in the U.S. Informed by her training as a psychologist, her coaching work with international students focuses on the academic, social, career, and personal aspects of their life in the U.S. She’s worked with students from New York University (NYU), Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), Parsons School of Design at the New School, Manhattan School of Music, United Nations International School, as well as elite schools in the U.S. Northeast region. In addition to coaching, Vivi has a successful psychology practice in NYC and provides clinical supervision to doctoral-level psychology students. She received her Doctor of Psychology degree from Yeshiva University and served leadership roles in multiple psychological associations over the past several years. Originally from Taiwan, Vivi’s fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and English.
+1 (201) 844-8988