Supporting International Students

International Education for F–1 Students at Santa Monica College

Elena M.Garate, Ph.D.
Dean, International Education


Community Colleges have a critical role to play in the education of international students in California. At Santa Monica College, 2,440 F-1 students currently participate in California higher education through a number of programs. The variety of course offerings include a two-year transfer option to public and private four-year schools, one or two-year certificate programs, a two-year Associate of Arts degree, a semester abroad at SMC, and short-term programs. The flexibility of educational programming, the high level academic courses that have made SMC the number one transfer school to UCLA and USC, the affordable cost, and an optimal location combine to attract the large number of international students from over 100 countries.

At SMC our goal for all students is "Student Success." We pay particular attention to the international student during the first semester. This is the most critical adjustment period for all students. We provide services to monitor our students' progress and offer options that act as a "safety net" for students who may flounder. After attending a mandatory "Information Seminar" and taking English and math placement tests, F-1 students meet individually with an International Student Counselor who maps out an academic plan with the student. International Student Counseling is unique at SMC. Counselors are faculty members who teach Human Development 11, a one-unit course designed to introduce international students to the American higher educational system as well as orient the student to American life. Counselors also provide academic counseling, cross-cultural counseling, and professional referral. Despite the efforts to anticipate problems and areas of adjustment for international students, there are never enough counselors and enough time to meet every student's needs.

Like other schools we struggle with the issue of preparing the student to be truly independent. It is a given that international students must have services that support them during their studies and help them stay in status. However, now that we have a sizable population with little increase in staff or space, we have to consider to what extent we must hold the students' hand after the first semester. Like other schools, some who have been given a charge to grow in numbers, SMC must balance the need to prepare the student academically through personal counseling, (while living up to the school's promise made during recruitment) and the need to prepare the student to make independent academic decisions. Our graduates return to us from four-year schools to tell us "no one helped us register or took care of us like SMC." This balance is perhaps the biggest challenge we at the community colleges face today, for what we do lays the groundwork for the student to succeed at the next step of his/her academic career.

We face particular challenges at SMC. These include the fact we have no housing facilities available to students, we have limited parking, and we have an overall student population of about 26,000 students year-round. The international student must be independent and resourceful to succeed at SMC.

Special Programs:

One of the steps we have taken to better prepare international students for American college life at SMC is through our "Summer Bridge Program." This program was established in 1997 to prepare students for the fall semester at SMC. English proficiency is a great concern at SMC. Students are required to have a minimum of 450 TOEFL for admission. During the Summer Bridge Program SMC provides ESL instruction according to the students' need, prepares the students for the American classroom experience, works with the students on cultural adjustment to the area, assists the students with selecting housing, and helps the students bond with SMC. Currently this program is offered to Japanese students through an ESL school in Tokyo. Part of its success is the preparation of the students while they study in Tokyo, from both a cultural and English as a Second Language perspective. Additionally, these Japanese students have chosen to go to SMC as a first step in obtaining an American education. This in itself is a strong motivating factor for student success. In summer 1997, 49 students participated in the program. Forty-seven (47) of them continued full-time in the Fall 97 semester and on in to the Spring 98 semester. In summer 1998 69
students participated with 68 continuing in the Fall 98 semester.

As we review the success of our Summer Bridge Program we are contemplating opening the program to students from other countries. A mix of students would allow for more interaction in English and provide more students an opportunity to get settled earlier. We also recognize the need for the pre-departure preparation that the Japanese students have experienced over a one-year period in the home country. It is important that the students in this program have an opportunity to understand what they will need to know prior to their arrival at SMC. Finally, we continue to struggle to keep the cost of the program affordable in order to attract students from all economic levels.

The majority of the International students at Santa Monica College are successful for a variety of reasons. SMC attempts to recruit students who will be able to adapt to the educational system, participate in student activities, and adjust to the living arrangements, in an apartment, the UCLA Coop, or living with a host family. SMC international alumni and the SMC International Parents Association throughout the world assist us in attracting students who can benefit from an American education at SMC.

The International Student for the Year 2000 and Beyond:

"Student Success" is a relative term for all students at SMC. We believe we can effectively prepare students to meet their individual academic goals. However, the original aim of international education to bring together students from diverse cultures to interact with domestic students in order to promote international understanding has shifted for several reasons. Like their American counterparts, International students and their families invest in the student's US education after carefully reviewing the marketplace of educational programs. The families, as international consumers, must weigh many factors beyond the cost of education. They must consider how the academic program will enhance the options the student will have after graduation. Further, the international investor must consider the location, housing, support services, and general safety and welfare of the student while attending the college or university.

The clear purpose and direction international students possess greatly affects their ability to interact with domestic students. Depending upon their linguistic competence and academic preparation, some international students become isolated from the mainstream and confine their activities to study and comfortable interaction among students from their own countries. In many cases, the students may interact solely within a transplanted family, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, who proceeded them to the area. The economics of purchasing housing for the family members who are studying in the area serves to further isolate the student.

Socially we have learned over the past few years that the concept of International Day has become an anathema to modern international students. When they learn they are expected to dress up in their ethnic costumes, dance traditional dances, and serve their ethnic foods to the campus, most refuse. Today's international student dresses like most Americans and is primarily interested in blending in with others. International students are aware of the cultural differences from their American counterparts. However, they have also come to realize the similarities they share with all
students, not only clothes and music, but also educational and career goals. International and domestic programs that can shift their focus from "how we are different" to "what do we have in common" can begin to capture the interest of international students and their fellow domestic students.

In a recent academic paper, Mr. Gordon Dossett, a veteran SMC English teacher and Ph.D. in International Education graduate student at USC, discussed the results of his interviews of a sampling of SMC international students. He based his hypothesis on the assumption that "the stronger a student feels ties to the college culture, the greater the levels of satisfaction and academic success he or she will experience." He cited the work of George Wood, who believes that schools develop a group spirit that in turn leads to a community that embraces the student. Also cited is
Vincent Tinto and his theory that an institution's teaching and social situations are inseparable and thus "the academic occurs within the broader social system that pervades the campus." Finally, Mr. Dossett referred to Alexander Astin, who argues that "the student's peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years."

The findings of Mr. Dossett's informal interviews serve to confirm the work of Klineberg and Hull, who are famous for identifying a "foreign student ghetto" pattern. Indeed, the SMC students related their disappointment in not forming lasting relationships with American students, even when they lived with them. These American roommates, and other students, were deemed rather superficial. "Today they hug you; tomorrow they don't know you." The students found some of their American counterparts were not academically motivated. As a result, these and other international students at SMC form close relationships with other foreign students, many of whom shared their experiences. All of those interviewed had visited the United States several times before they chose to study at SMC. Some have intercultural parents (Danish and Iranian), have lived in many other countries, and speak English as a third or fourth language.

Concerns for Teaching:

In the area of teaching, large populations of F-1 students who possess a range of linguistic skills in English clearly affect the dynamics of the learning environment. Many international students who can afford the tuition come from higher socioeconomic levels and are better academically prepared than their American counterparts. These factors, as well as the faculty member's attitude toward and preparation for differing levels of English proficiency and academic foundation in any given class, provide a continuing dilemma for class lesson plans, teacher preparation, and academic outcomes.
Providing faculty access to the profiles of the SMC international student, such as Mr. Dossett has begun to do, will assist faculty in becoming more effective in meeting the academic needs of the students.

Further, utilizing the vast cultural and academic experience our international students bring to SMC will introduce American students, who are isolated within the greater Los Angeles area, to broaden their perspective on the world. The most recent Open Doors results for Overseas Studies by American students reported that less than 1% of all American students in higher education today seek to study abroad. This stunning figure helps us to understand the limited vision international students encounter in their new American classmates.

Dispelling stereotypes is a worthwhile exercise for faculty and staff as well as the students. We are now educating students who will lead interdependent global societies. A US education is prized by the world because of its broad-based, flexible, practical nature. Faculty who teach the curriculum and the staff who support the students must understand the educational and career goals of the students if they are to prepare students adequately.

Next Steps:

There is much work to do. First, we must shift our view of international education and the students who come to us. Gone are the days of the third world student on US government scholarship who was grateful to learn modern methods to help his nation out of poverty. Today's student wants to learn "American" methods of addressing issues that affect the entire world. This is not to say we should abandon the idealistic charge to further cross-cultural understanding we held when we started international educational exchange after the Second World War. Cross-cultural understanding can be achieved through better understanding of the shared goals all students hold.

Secondly, we must assist our faculty in meeting their challenges with foreign-born and domestic students. We can provide workshops, internships, and study-abroad for our faculty. At SMC our International Student Speakers' Forum members make presentations about their home country's economy and culture to the classes. These presentations evoke discussion and provide information no textbook can rival.

Finally, we can treat our international students with respect as young adults, provide them with the tools they need to succeed as students, and prepare them to be adult members of this interdependent global society.