University of Iowa China-U.S. student workshop aims to ID, address tensions

UI's international student population has almost doubled since 2007

University of Iowa senior Lu Shen works at her computer in the University of Iowa International Programs department at the University Capitol Centre in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
University of Iowa senior Lu Shen works at her computer in the University of Iowa International Programs department at the University Capitol Centre in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

It was in fall 2011, as an exchange student at the University of Central Arkansas, that Lu Shen decided she wanted the full American college experience.

Interested in journalism and art, Shen transferred to the University of Iowa in January 2012 – a decision she recalled as “scary.”

“But I didn’t want to go back to China,” said the now 23-year-old UI junior who grew up in Hangzhou, on the mainland’s southeast coast.

Today, Shen is on track to graduate in December and said she’s gotten much out of her Iowa education – beyond classroom material and academic work. She has stretched herself socially and grown culturally.

By learning in a foreign environment and interacting with domestic students, Shen said, she has become more engaged and gained a more global perspective.

“It’s better to know what people from another culture like to do and what values they have,” Shen said. “It makes you more open-minded.”

But not all UI international students have had the same experience. As their numbers have continued to swell on campus – especially those coming from China – it’s become easier and more tempting for international students to limit interactions to like-minded and like-cultured peers, Shen said.

“There tends to be cultural segregation between Chinese and domestic students,” she said. “It’s comfortable to stay with people of similar backgrounds.”

Those divisions are among the emerging issues and tensions that both international students and their domestic counterparts are facing on an increasingly diverse UI campus.

In hopes of addressing those issues and identifying others, the UI Center for Asian and Pacific Studies next week will lead a first-ever U.S.-China student workshop on the undergraduate experience at Iowa.

The pilot program will involve 50 undergraduate students – both international and domestic – who have been invited to discuss with faculty, staff and graduate students the issues they face and thoughts on how to address them.

“The workshop aims to foster conversation, connection, collaboration, constructive comment and creative action,” according to event organizers.

International boom

Iowa has seen an increase of international students from around the globe, but – mirroring the rest of the United States – much of the influx has come from East, Southeast and South Asia. Undergraduate students from mainland China specifically are changing the academic landscape, according to event organizers.

And Iowa is a prime example.

Of the 4,049 international students on the UI campus in 2013, more than half – 2,266 students – came from the People’s Republic of China. Of the Chinese total, 1,430 were enrolled in undergraduate programs, according to the UI International Programs department.

The next largest nation represented was the Republic of Korea at 414 students, followed by India with 343 students, according to UI statistics.

In total, the UI’s international student population has almost doubled since 2007, when 2,153 were counted on campus. At that time, 537 of the university’s international students came from China, including just 68 undergraduates.

Improved living and academic standards are partly behind the Chinese push to study abroad – along with U.S. recruiting aimed at boosting tuition revenue and fostering internationalism.

“A lot of these students from China come from middle-class families that have invested a great deal in their hopes and dreams,” said Judy Polumbaum, a UI journalism professor with a research focus in Chinese journalism and media.

Next week’s workshop was her brainchild.

“It’s important that these students are really benefiting as much as possible from their experience here,” Polumbaum said. “And domestic students should be grabbing the opportunity to connect with people who will become their peer on the other side of the globe.”

But some tensions and problems – some obvious and others subtle – have emerged.

UI officials and departments have attempted to address concerns by creating new positions, adjusting course requirements, developing specialized programs and expanding resources, according to workshop organizers. But most of those efforts have been initiated by administrators and reactive.

Polumbaum said the workshop aims to bring students into the conversation and move the discussion beyond “the usual suspects” to parts of campus community “where the idea of working globally is important but not so obvious.”

“We want more talk,” she said. “We want more action items.”

‘There is bound to be some rub’

The challenges that have accompanied the international boost in diversity and global understanding on campus range from personal struggles for students far from home to student life quandaries and language and academic issues.

International enrollments have put pressure on admissions, orientation, advising, English-as-a-second-language instruction and other general education requirements, according to event organizers.

Jean Florman, director for the UI Center for Teaching, said Iowa’s international bump has forced faculty and instructors to address language and cultural differences in their classrooms.

“When you have new students coming from all over the world with different backgrounds and different educational styles, there is bound to be some rub there,” Florman said. “On the faculty side, that is where it hits the pavement.”

International students, in some cases, have different ideas of how to interact with professors or how to do group work, Florman said. Cheating and plagiarism are topics that might be viewed and addressed different in another culture, she said.

“So we are helping those students adjust and saying, ‘This is how we do education,’” Florman said. “But that requires a lot of work and effort by faculty members.”

Staff members also strive to connect domestic and international students in and outside class.

“And the language challenge is another piece,” she said. “How do you balance the assessment of writing and assignments and design assignments the same way you did before?”

Florman and Morten Schlutter, associate UI professor of Chinese religion and director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, said they think the UI’s growing international profile is a wonderful thing and a “great benefit to everyone.”

But Schlutter said there are so many international students now that some are missing important aspects of the study abroad experience.

“More interactions with other students and with the wider community would be a good thing,” he said.

Through the workshop, Schlutter said, students and faculty will identify novel issues and solutions in hopes of reaping the most possible benefit from the international growth on campus. Outcomes could include actions at the institutional and individual level.

“We hope this will be the start of something that will continue over the years,” he said. “This is not something we do once, and that’s it.”

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