Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Are we really delivering the U.S. classroom experience we promise to undergraduate Chinese international students?

by Gabriela Valdez, Ph.D, Consortium for North America Higher Education Collaboration, 
The University of Arizona 

Admission offices around the nation have discovered there is a huge demand of Chinese international students who want to study in Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) in the U.S. It was estimated that only 2% of Chinese students have access to higher education in their country (International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project, 2009), which creates a very competitive entrance process to Chinese national schools. At the same time, a large middle class who can afford to pay international student tuition paired with the perceived prestige of U.S. institutions, creates the perfect environment for U.S. recruiters targeting Chinese international students. But are we really delivering the U.S. classroom experience we promise to undergraduate Chinese international students? This was one of the questions that inspired my research around classroom experiences of Chinese international students in the U.S. and I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but no, we are not delivering what we promise, well at least according to a group of Chinese undergraduate students interviewed.

Institutions of Higher Education in the United States have gone through a series of budget cuts in recent years. Just in Arizona alone, the state cut 99 million from universities and 19 million from community colleges in 2015 (Beard Rau, 2015). This and other reasons have forced IHEs to become more and more creative about generating funds. One common practice is to attract international students, especially Chinese international students, who tend to be self-funded (China Education Online, 2012) and who now represent the largest group of international students in the U.S. with more than 300,000 students in the U.S. higher education system (Farrugia & Bhandari, 2015). As U.S. institutions continued to attract more Chinese international students, the relevance of the quality of their classroom experience and their role in that setting becomes more important.

On my quest to answer the aforementioned question, I started by conducting a synthesis of research based on 15 peer-reviewed published studies about classroom experiences of international students, in which there was an overrepresentation of Asian students. It is important to say that my intention was to focus on Chinese international students, but the lack of published studies forced me to adopt a broader scope. After analyzing reoccurring themes that included classroom differences, classroom participation expectations, and denial of equity in education, I was able to identify six classroom practices that instead of including international students into the U.S. classroom experience, excluded them from these experiences (Valdez, 2016).

On another instance, I interviewed a group of Chinese international students about their classroom experience in a specific university. While most of the participants preferred the American classroom practices over practices in China, their perceptions about the way American students and faculty perceived them were conflicting, especially in relation to profiling and attribution of stereotypes. There was also a discussion about the internal identity conflict of being Chinese, which most participants linked to negative attributes in the classroom setting, and being “Americanized” which was linked to positive attributes (Valdez, 2015).     

I was also able to conclude that there was an overall sense among Chinese students interviewed of non-membership and non-belonging to the U.S. classroom environment based mainly on perceptions of classroom exclusion, low language ability, inability to meet unfamiliar expectations and attributions of stereotypes. Something very interesting was that after hearing from students about their classroom experiences and their perceptions of not being very active, I noticed that these students were very engaged in their academic activities, but were engaged in ways not visible to the mainstream classroom environment. As an illustration, participants reported studying an average of 19.5 hours a week in order to prepare for their classes, a number that they considered to be significantly higher than their American classmates. Their invisible engagement was also illustrated by their high engagement in written discussion of academic concepts and their ability to apply their knowledge to concepts in an international and intercultural perspective.

There is no doubt that with the presence of nearly a million international students in the classrooms of U.S. colleges and universities (Farrugia & Bhandari, 2015), professors have a great opportunity to internationalize their curriculum and classroom environment. Unfortunately, it takes more than just having an internationalized curriculum and having the presence of international students in classrooms to take advantage of a truly international classroom. As we internationalize and diversify our colleges and universities in the U.S., it is also important to diversify the way we teach and the pedagogies we use. It is unrealistic and unproductive to expect every underrepresented student to engage in the U.S. mainstream classroom environment which has been historically influenced by white male values.  It is now the time to start thinking about a critical pedagogy of internationalization that goes beyond the internationalization of the curriculum and reflects the complex and diverse ways of learning that are now represented in our higher education classrooms.

The implementation of a critical pedagogy of internationalization could potentially fully incorporate Chinese and international students into the classroom environment, their perspectives and their endless contributions. This is something that will not only benefit every student involved in that classroom setting, but will contribute to creating a richer learning environment.
Gabriela Valdez, Ph.D.
Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration
The University of Arizona

Beard Rau, A. (2015, May 13). Arizona Tops Nation in College Cuts, Tuition Hikes. The Arizona Republic, Retrieved from
Farrugia, C.A., & Bhandari, R. (2015). Open Doors 2015 Report on International Education Exchange. New York: Institute of International Education.
International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project (2009). A Brief Description of the Chinese Higher Education System. Retrieved from
Valdez, G (2015). U.S. Higher Education Classroom Experiences of Undergraduate Chinese International Students. Journal of International Students, 5(2), 188-200.  
Valdez, G (2016). International Students Classroom Exclusion in U.S. Higher Education.  Campus Support Services, Programs, and Policies for International Students. (pp. 35-56) Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-9752-2.ch003

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