A recent half-day workshop hosted by the Office of International Students and Scholars illuminated a variety of issues surrounding this international community at UC Santa Barbara, from adaptation and employment challenges to mobility and enrollment trends.
The annual OISS event aims to inform campus administrators, faculty and staff about new developments to assist them in serving the growing UCSB community of international students and scholars.
“We really need to understand and value the diversity and the richness that the international students and scholars bring to us,” Dr. Claudine Michel, OISS director and assistant vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, told the group in welcoming them to the workshop. “It makes us a better campus, it makes us a stronger campus, it enriches the intellectual exchanges and the perspective and ideas that our campus is able to engage with.”
The three-part workshop consisted of overviews of trends, challenges and regulations, followed by breakout sessions on individual topics and concluded with a presentation and question-and-answer session featuring a panel of international students.
Dr. Garay Menicucci, associate director of OISS, presented the latest statistics — national, state and specifically at UCSB — on international students and scholars.
Last year, Menicucci said, there were a record number of international students coming to the United States. The U.S. Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs reported that the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States in 2011-12 rose 5.7 percent to 764,495. China is the top sender country for students and scholars to the United States, which also holds true for UCSB, he said.
For 2011-12, 194,029 Chinese students were studying in the United States. That’s almost double the next largest sender country — India — at 100,270 students.
Noting a “striking trend,” Menicucci said that for the last few years there has been on average an annual increase of 23 percent to 29 percent over the previous year of Chinese students coming to the United States. This trend, he said, “is going to affect higher education in every institution in the U.S.”
He said California hosted the largest number of international students in the country, at 102,789.
Of note in the accompanying chart is the 50.4 percent increase in students from Saudi Arabia to the United States, to 34,139 for 2011-12.
“Their students are fully funded through government scholarships,” Menicucci said. “That’s different from any other country in the world.”
At UCSB, there is a negligible increase in the number of Saudi students, he said. The traditional sending countries (Japan, Taiwan and Canada) are all in decline, said Menicucci, who added that the only rising countries are China, Vietnam and Iran.
Menicucci said UCSB’s largest single group of international students from the Middle East come from Iran.
“This may seem counterintuitive,” he added, “because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran and there is also an economic embargo. And it means that very simple international transactions like bank transfers are forbidden.”
As with international students, China is also the largest sending country of visiting scholars to the U.S. It sends almost three times as many scholars as the next largest visiting scholar country, India, Menicucci said. California hosted the largest number of visiting scholars in the country, and at UCSB, there are on average about 800 visiting scholars during the course of the year.
The largest receiving institutions in California in 2012 were USC, 9,269; UCLA, 6,703; UC Berkeley, 5,004; Stanford, 4,426; and the Academy of Art (San Francisco), 4,414. UCSB — at 1,584 visiting scholars — is in the midlevel range of receiving institutions both in California and nationally.
Menicucci projected these 2013 trends for UCSB: 50 percent of all international students are coming from China; 84 percent of all incoming international undergrads are from China; and 40 percent of all international graduate students are from China.
As of late August, Menicucci said, there were a total of 361 incoming undergraduate international students to UCSB, up 13 percent from the previous year; and 181 graduate students, no increase.
UC Santa Barbara’s reputation as a highly regarded and highly ranked research institution plays a big role in rising enrollments of international students and scholars, Menicucci said.
“There’s a buzz about UCSB among international students, especially from China,” he said, adding that spreading the word through informal student and alumni social networks creates a “snowball effect.”
“For example, there is a special Mandarin-language social network site just for people who want to come to UCSB," he said. "Most of us don’t know about that because we don’t speak Mandarin. But there are these hidden networks that increase our enrollments that we don’t even know about.”
To meet some of the challenges facing international students and scholars, OISS initiated a program four years ago called the English Oral Proficiency and American Culture Workshop, held in the month of August, Menicucci said.
“We found that especially graduate students from non-English-speaking countries were often failing their oral proficiency exams that guaranteed their funding as TAs,” he said. “So we began our own program to try to get them a jump-start on English before they come in the fall.”
Because of the large numbers of Chinese international students and scholars at UCSB, the next portion of the workshop addressed adaptation challenges that this community faces.
Dr. Isabella Lin-Roark, a native of Taiwan who has worked at UCSB for two years as a psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), discussed the common stressors experienced by all international students. They include accommodation difficulties, dietary concerns, homesickness, lack of social support, perceived discrimination, academic pressures and English-language difficulties.
In a campus survey conducted last year by Lin-Roark and Dr. Jeremy Roark, also a psychologist at CAPS, they found these major stressors identified by UCSB international students: difficulties in social integration, cultural adaptation and language.
There is a huge difference in communication styles between Chinese and Americans, Dr. Lin-Roark noted. She said Chinese communication style is very philosophical, holistic, and contextual; there is less emphasis on being scientific, analytical, or logical. Also, being reserved and polite are highly valued traits in China, she said, but here in the U.S. that behavior can have negative connotations.
There are times, she said, when Americans overestimate the ability of Chinese students to speak or understand English. The Chinese student may not understand what is being said, but because they show respect through a reserved demeanor, they may appear to understand.
To help in these situations, Dr. Lin-Roark suggested, look for cues of misunderstanding. Check the accuracy of understanding or interpretation. And if problems persist, consult or use a competent translator.
OISS immigration counselor Tanya Plant told the workshop participants how the Supreme Court’s ruling in June striking down the Defense of Marriage Act affects international students and scholars. The same day of this ruling, she said, Immigration issued a directive stating that it would immediately recognize same-sex marriages for immigration purposes. All that is needed for immigration is a legal marriage document from the jurisdiction in which the marriage took place, she said.
In an informal breakout session conversation, topics ranged from socialization efforts to mentoring opportunities.
A representative from Housing & Residential Services told participants about its annual Thanksgiving get-together for those who remain on campus through the holiday. He also talked about its iBuddy (for International Buddy) program, which pairs a domestic student with an international student. The buddies meet throughout the quarters for group events (such as visits to Solvang, the Butterfly Preserve, and the June Festival) as well as study and language sessions.
Menicucci says for the past 30 years OISS has held English Conversation classes, where students, scholars, spouses, and others may improve their conversation skills. The program also includes regular monthly social activities to assist in cultural immersion.
On the topic of psychological and mental health services, UCSB staff members said they have noticed reluctance on the part of international students and scholars, particularly the Chinese, to seek help.
Menicucci said China lacks a developed public mental health system, so “the idea of going to a counselor is an alien concept” for some Chinese students. If a student is perceived to be in physical or mental distress, Menicucci said, one of the OISS staff members will accompany the student to get help.
With Drs. Lin-Roark and Roark on staff at CAPS, students may take advantage of their ability to speak Mandarin Chinese.
“Our campus is light years ahead of other campuses in the U.S. in having Mandarin-speaking psychologists,” Menicucci said. “There’s almost no other campus in the U.S. that has a team like we have in our counseling services.”
In the final portion of the workshop, participants heard from a panel of three international students: Yingying Wang, a second-year undergrad majoring in math in the College of Creative Studies, who is from China; Ali Abbasinasab, a second-year Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering, who is from Iran; and Jian Zhen, a fifth-year ECE Ph.D. student from China.
Yingying talked about the difficulties of having to move into other housing during holiday breaks, when regular housing closes; and the challenges of getting around without a car.
Ali said Iranian students face many obstacles. Gaining admission is the first challenge, he said, because professors hesitate to get involved with students from a country facing religious and other issues.
After gaining admission, he said, “getting a visa is the most challenging and difficult thing.” To get a visa to the U.S. he said, the Iranian student must go to a third country, generally Turkey, Dubai, or Pakistan.
The process, Ali said, can be time-consuming and expensive. And it’s also not guaranteed because background checks are done. The student usually receives a single-entry visa, Ali said. What this means is that the student isn’t able to travel out of the U.S. until he graduates. If he does so before graduating, he would need to reapply for the visa, which could potentially be denied.
Even inviting family to visit him here has been a challenge. Ali’s mother applied for a visa in Dubai and six months later, she’s still waiting to be granted one.
Other stressors for Iranian students, Ali said, are the difficulty in transferring funds and not having financial support from Iran.
Ali said he even lost out on a career opportunity to visit Apple. A required “export license,” in which the individual agrees not to steal technology, took three months, so he missed the chance.
Jian explained that in China, students live together for all of their college years, “like a fraternity but on a bigger scale.” This creates social support for students, something he said doesn’t exist here.
Jian said Chinese Ph.D. students doing research here are financially dependent on funding from professors and departments, so they work long and hard.
“They have less time and energy to adapt to the new environment,” Jian said. “So there is even less chance to integrate into the larger context.”
His advice to UCSB faculty and staff: Be patient and provide as much information as possible to international students.
A couple of other resources and activities for international students and scholars mentioned by Menicucci are an OISS coffee hour on the first and third Fridays of every month for international scholars, and the International Graduate Student Orientation held Tuesday.
Menicucci expressed his hopes for outcomes from the OISS workshop.
“One of the things that we would like to encourage as part of this workshop," he said, "is a cross-campus discussion and dialogue about how to meet some of these challenges and for us to cooperate with each other to devise new programs and delivery services to meet the needs of our international students and scholars.”
Michel called these students and scholars “an integral part of our university” whose presence “makes all of us better human beings.”