Embracing International Identities

By Laura Rosche, IWP Intern, RTW MA Student

Last year, I had the incredible opportunity to teach a course called English 100, a class that’s designed in favor of one-on-one student writing instruction. For two hours every week, I worked closely with Jiang, a graduating Senior from Beijing. At first, we talked about school. He was in a poetry class and needed help writing in English the feelings that came so quickly to him in Chinese. He would get frustrated because he didn’t have the right words, but he did have the ideas. In our first session, I realized that his struggle was not with producing worthwhile content, but rather comprehensible content. His ideas were beautiful and thoughtful, but he couldn’t say them in the way his professors wanted, and he felt underestimated because of that.

His verbs were in disagreement. He rarely used commas. His brilliance was lost in his poorly constructed sentences.

However, after two weeks, I saw dramatic improvement. Jiang’s ideas became clearer on paper because we were able to talk about them out loud. He so desperately wanted to learn English from me, and I had no clue why. I struggled to explain grammatical concepts. I didn’t know how to articulate the difference between active and passive voice. But he trusted me.

In doing research for this project, I took the time to interview Jiang. I asked him why he liked me as a teacher. His response was simple, but powerful. He said:

“Laura, you make me feel supported. You are patient and kind. You make me feel welcome here.”

I continued to ask him questions about being an international student. We discussed the importance of feeling valued. He said that the classes he did best in were the ones in which he felt comfortable enough to talk to his professor. He said, “I found the biggest thing in polishing up my English writing is not actually revising, instead, it is speaking. I must be brave, and speak out in public. I must tell people what I want to write because it is a critical step for my writing process.” Jiang was able to improve his writing when he was first able to be himself. He was able to format his papers in the “American way” after he wrote them (in English) with regards to Chinese linguistic tendencies. For Jiang, comfort was key. In order to be successful as a student, he needed to feel respected. He said that the best teachers he’s had are the ones that remain open-minded when talking with him about projects. He appreciated the professors that focused on his content before his grammar and organization. He wanted to be able to write independently and successfully in the American education system, but he also wanted to feel capable of doing so. He said that takes time.

We owe students like Jiang our time.

In her article, “Academic Literacy for English Language Learners,” Mary Jane Curry addresses this idea. She discusses how important it is for educators to be sensitive to the extra time international students need to adjust to the expectations of the American university. She writes, “Although some students can rely on previous cultural capital when entering U.S. colleges, few immigrant or international students are likely to have studied academic writing, much less academic writing in English, as it is seldom an explicit part of the curriculum in other countries” (57). Curry talks about the growing interest in international education. More and more students are coming to America to study, and we must be prepared to educate them with the same confidence we have when addressing American students.

If we are to be successful in promoting independence in international students as writers, it seems that our first step, as educators, is to give them the time to develop it.

Dr. Fan Shen, a professor at the University of Rochester, wrote an article titled, “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition,” which discusses the complex nature of learning to write for the college-level classroom and the responsibility of instructors to acknowledge that challenge. Shen writes, “In order to write good English, I knew that I had to be myself, which actually meant not to be my Chinese self. It meant that I had to create an English self and be that self” (461). The article articulates the importance of exploring student identity in the classroom and how doing so can positively influence all forms of their writing. Once students feel comfortable writing as themselves, they can manipulate their work to accommodate the needs of academia.

But that’s what it is: manipulation. We ask international students to manipulate their communicative strategies to fit more appropriately into American standards.

And in a way, I understand that. International students choosing to study in the United States make a conscious decision to be a part of our education system. But that doesn’t mean we can or should ask them to completely redefine their personal identity – to build an American identity.

However, if we look at Shen’s article, we can see that he argues that successful writing is about embracing and creating complementary identities. By promoting the exploration of identity through personal writing, professors can facilitate the development of the confidence necessary for student writing improvement and success. International students are not simply learning a new language when they come to the U.S., they are learning a new way of communicating. We must be sensitive to this. We must give international students the opportunity to create an identity that can be successful in the American education system, but we cannot expect them to disregard their previous schooling. Shen writes:

Looking back, I realize that the process of learning to write in English is in fact a process of creating and defining a new identity and balancing it with the old identity. The process of learning English composition would have been easier if I had realized this earlier and consciously sought to compare the two different identities required by the two writing systems from two different cultures. (466)

We should make an effort to help our international students feel welcome to bring their cultural differences into our classrooms. International students should feel capable of being themselves while writing for the American education system. Our responsibility as educators is to be aware of the cultural challenges our international students are facing. For international students, successful writing is about more than constructing new sentences; it’s about constructing a new identity. Educators must be understanding of that. Like Jiang said: it takes time.

I asked one of my peers, Wuke, about her experience as an international student at NAU. I asked her more specific questions about writing for the academy. How did she learn to do so? What was the most helpful? I wanted to know if she had experiences similar to Jiang, or if his responses were isolated. I saw similarities in their ideas. Both students said that they learn better from patient and welcoming professors. Overall, Jiang and Wuke seemed to be able to sense their professors’ willingness to help and benefitted greatly from those who welcomed the international students into their offices for additional conversation and instruction. Both Jiang and Wuke spoke in favor of the tools already provided for them on campus, specifically the Writing Center. While they did not always feel comfortable asking for help in the classroom, they typically felt fine doing so at the Writing Center. Wuke said:

If we are talking about techniques that can help international students be self-sufficient writers, I suggest the Writing Center and librarians. When I was first an English major here at NAU, the Writing Center saved me from desperation for a long time. Even the majority helps that I got from them is grammar and syntax problems, it gradually influence my writing ability. However, there is a limitation. Your experiences with writing center highly depend on who you worked with. I believe this is the reason why some international students really love the Writing Center and some of them really hate it.

Reflecting upon Jiang’s and Wuke’s responses, I realized that in order to successfully educate our international students on the complexities of writing for American universities, there must be a balance. Professors must be sensitive to the identities their students are trying to form, and students must be willing to push past their comfort zones to form them. Professors must take responsibility for creating welcoming classroom and office environments, and students must take advantage of that. We must work together.

In her article, “Globalization and the Teaching of ‘Communication Skills,’” Deborah Cameron discusses the indisputable impact globalization is having on our American education system. As the world becomes more and more accessible through technological advances, the academy must keep up. She writes:

The relevance of the foregoing discussion to language teaching can be seen if weask how the dissemination of ‘global’ norms for ‘effective’ communication is actually accomplished […] At ground level, dissemination is accomplished through instruction and training in particular linguistic practices. Forms of instruction and training which aim to develop communication skills’, typically defined in terms of the discourse outlined above, are increasingly common in all kinds of contemporary institutions, ranging from elementary schools to multinational corporations. (70)

Cameron brings up a riveting point: we’re becoming increasingly capable of cross-cultural communication, but we expect that communication to be rooted in American linguistic practices. I see a variety of issues here. Globalization stops being about effective cross-cultural communication, and starts being about correct cross-cultural communication.

Post-secondary education embraces this idea when working with international students, and I urge educators to reconsider that. We must be conscious of the new identities our international students are creating. We must facilitate this change.

I passionately believe this will make a tremendous difference.


2 responses

  1. I honestly did not give much thought to the struggles of international students before working with the Interdisciplinary Writing Program. Your article brought up a lot of interesting points. The one that seems most obvious is that these students need more time to learn our writing standards. I can’t even imagine learning how to write in a completely different format on top of in a completely different language! I can completely understand how important a professor’s open attitude and visible support is to an international student. The professor and the student must often work together. I definitely agree with Wuke that a lot of things depend on your experiences with who you worked with. The professor’s influence is prevalent.

    The topic of identities was very surprising to me. I would have never guessed that international students would need to create a whole separate identity, to have that American state of mind, in order to write easier. I would be interested to see what Wuke and Jiang think about this concept.

    Very interesting!


    • Hi Marisa,

      Thanks again for commenting! I really enjoyed doing this research for this post. I’m so [embarrassingly] unfamiliar with working with International students in the classroom setting. I’ve tutored a bunch, but it’s not the same. Doing this research, however, made me feel much more capable of teaching international students in the future. Identity is such an important concept to American students; I can’t believe I didn’t automatically assume the same of international students.


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