Business schools are serving more international student bodies and preparing their graduates to work in increasingly multicultural business environments. But, at the same time, they’re finding that students who cross an ocean or a continent to attend business classes often face a multitude of linguistic, cultural, social, and academic barriers.
To help foreign nationals adjust and thrive, many schools have developed intensive orientations, buddy systems, and special programming. Here, three schools identify the challenges international students face and describe the systems they’ve put in place to help these students feel less like “strangers in a strange land” and more like confident citizens of a globalized environment.
Creating Cultural Ambassadors
At Sabanci School of Management in Istanbul, Turkey, we aim to educate leaders for the global economy, so it’s crucial to have a multicultural student body. Currently 16 percent of our students come from other parts of the world, and I’d like to see that number eventually rise to 25 percent. Toward that end we’ve developed a recruiting strategy that includes making visits to high schools in target countries, participating in student fairs, working with agencies, hosting an interactive website, and offering generous scholarships.
We also rely on word of mouth from international students who have enjoyed their time at our university—and in our country, which is currently a “hot” spot on the international stage. Turkey has the 17th largest economy in the world and the sixth largest in the European Union. With a population of 74 million and an average age of 29, Turkey is bustling with youth and dynamism. Its location makes it a bridge between Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and North Africa, which contributes to its unique and fascinating culture. And even students who have traveled to Paris, London, and Rome find Istanbul to be unfamiliar and out of the ordinary.
At Sabanci SOM, we currently help international students develop have 55 international students grammar and speaking skills. in our undergraduate and Of course, every semester when graduate programs. Most are students from Germany, Pakistan, France, Oman, and the U.S., and they’re almost evenly divided between full-time and exchange students. We find it somewhat easier to integrate students into the school culture because we have a longer time to do it. Since Turks value deep long-term friendships, it’s harder to break in short-term visitors.
The biggest obstacle that both full-time and exchange students face when they arrive is the language barrier. While all of our classes are delivered in English, as soon as the students step off campus, they find that many people in Turkey do not speak English. To help them overcome this challenge, we have a buddy program that matches international students with local classmates. These local students help visitors navigate daily life and give them useful information about cultural and academic aspects of the Sabanci University community. In addition, we offer basic Turkish language courses to help international students develop grammar and speaking skills.
Of course, every semester when students first arrive, we start off with an orientation program that covers Turkish culture and key elements of cross-cultural communication and effectiveness. If they feel they need more support, students may take advantage of the Center for Individual and Academic Development and the counselors there. In addition to facing language and cultural barriers, some students find themselves unprepared for Sabanci’s academic rigor, so they have a tough time in their initial weeks. Others find it challenging to work with multicultural teams on the group projects that we emphasize, particularly at the graduate level. For instance, in our MBA courses, we discuss cross-cultural issues and the theoretical underpinnings of effective teams in the core organizational behavior class, and we require students to complete a four-month group project before graduation.
I admit that it’s around team projects that we see the most conflict. But we are a small school with an open door policy, so students who are struggling with the concepts can get a great deal of support from faculty members. We find that a student’s ability to work with diverse individuals can turn a so-so project into a great one, which means that team projects are usually where we see the most learning as well.
Despite these challenges and occasional setbacks, I have high hopes for all international students who enroll at Sabanci. I hope they feel they’ve made good investments in themselves by coming to our school. I hope they will learn about themselves, their own cultures, and the best ways to communicate effectively with individuals from other cultures. I hope they will leave Turkey having made many friends with their fellow international students, as well as their Turkish classmates. Finally, I hope they will become ambassadors for both Sabanci and Turkey. I hope we will have won friends for life.
Rolling Out the Welcome Mat
Like many schools, Fordham University in New York City has seen its international student population grow appreciably in recent years, increasing by nearly 105 percent since 2006. With this growth came challenges, especially as students adjusted to the American education system and culture. To address these challenges, Ford-ham designed a smoother and less stressful orientation process for international students.
Departments from all over the university contributed: admissions, residence life, student counseling, athletics, the academic administration, and campus ministry. Because close to half of the incoming international students were enrolling in the Gabelli School of Business, representatives from the Gabelli School became an integral part of the conversation.
The result: The Global Transition Program, which aims to acclimate students to the university and head off potential problems before they even arise. The pilot program of the new orientation, which launched in fall 2012, offered a full week of events designed to help students adapt to anything that might be unfamiliar, from academic expectations to the metropolis in which Fordham sits.
Since students helping students is often the most effective approach, the first step was recruiting juniors and seniors to act as peer liaisons. These ambassadors, a mix of American students and international students who had already been on campus for a couple of years, met the new students at the airport and stayed with them throughout orientation.
Together they attended movies, watched athletic events, visited the Bronx Zoo, and went sightseeing and shopping in New York City. The international students also became more familiar with Ford-ham itself: They toured the Bronx and Lincoln Center campuses, discovered which resources were available to them, and got to check out every residence hall.
Once the students were comfortable in their surroundings, it was time to prepare them for their coursework. This was particularly necessary for the business students, who would take a slate of core business courses as well as Fordham’s Jesuit-inspired liberal arts core. Because Gabelli’s goal is to replicate today’s business environment, business students work in teams—which is often a new learning style for international students. The Global Transition Program covered how to collaborate successfully, how the various business courses interconnect, what deadlines mean and how tardiness is handled, and where students could go for academic advising. It also emphasized how seriously Fordham views academic integrity and how plagiarism is addressed at our school and in American culture.
During orientation week, all incoming international students also took the university’s foreign-language competency test. Both the business and liberal arts cores at Fordham require a great deal of writing, especially among first-year students. This exam helped identify students who might need extra academic support through English as a Second Language classes. It also spurred a change in the sequence of courses that international students take: It was decided that they should enroll in writing-intensive philosophy, theology, and history coursework after they had adequate time to improve their English language and academic writing skills.
Overall, the Global Transition Program was extremely effective and saw few logistical problems. A few weeks into the semester, business school class deans and professors reported a drastic reduction in the issues they normally see with international students. For example, in prior years, English instructors routinely identified international students as being enrolled in composition courses beyond their skill levels; in fall 2012, none were identified. Far fewer international students dropped a class in fall 2012 than in previous fall semesters.
One reason the program worked so well was because it was campus-wide. Educating international students is a university issue, even if those students are on hand to attend the business school. It’s best to work with all the departments of the university and draw on the particular expertise of each.
Another reason the program was successful was because of the hard work of our student volunteers. International students learned the most by hanging out with current students, finding out where they liked to eat in the Bronx, where they shopped in the city, and how they navigated Fordham’s campuses. Administrators presented overall guidance, but students always speak best to fellow students.
An orientation program like this one needs to strike a fine balance, giving students enough information to avoid problems, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed. It also needs to offer just the right combination of fun and education. Fordham found that balance in the first year and looks forward to doing so again in the fall.
What’s in a Name?
For international students enrolled at business schools far from home, sometimes the most unfamiliar part of the experience is something they should know best: the sounds of their own names, which are often hopelessly mangled by teachers and classmates unfamiliar with their language.
At the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, we’re addressing this problem with new workshops designed to teach faculty and staff how to properly pronounce Chinese names. Currently, about 412 of Tippie’s 497 international students are from China. Xi Ma, a program associate in the UI Confucius Institute in International Programs, conducted the workshops this spring, and about 50 faculty, staff, and administrators attended.
“When you see a Chinese name and you don’t understand Chinese, you have no idea how to pronounce the letters, even if they’re in English,” says Ma. For instance, in Chinese the letter “x” sounds like “she,” and the letter “i” sounds like “ee.” Pronunciations are complicated by the fact that the Chinese language contains more tonal variations than English.
“Tone is very important, and subtlety of pronunciation is important,” notes Ma, who was trained as a Chinese-English translator and now works as a foreign language instructor. To get the tones right, she says, Westerners have to open their mouths wider than they’re used to and force their tongues into unfamiliar movements.
The workshop was part of an initiative Tippie undertook this year to make our international students from all countries feel more comfortable. We also added extra staff to the Frank Business Communications Center to help Chinese students learn to write and speak English more fluently; began offering an international student orientation program; and beefed up our cultural competency workshops.
We also build a sense of community among Chinese and American students through “discussion circles,” which give Chinese students chances to converse in English with native speakers, and through events like trivia contests and business fairs. In addition, we’ve launched a global pen pals program, spearheaded by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment. It pairs a first-year Tippie student with an international student who will start at UI next year. This introduces foreign nationals to U.S. and UI culture before they even arrive.
More information about our initiatives and the Chinese language workshops—including audio files offering the correct pronunciation of certain Chinese names—can be found at now.uiowa.edu/2013/02/gettingtheir-names-right.
Nakiye Boyacigiller is dean of the School of Management at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey.
Michael Polito is assistant dean, director of international programs, at Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York City.
Tom Snee writes about the Tippie College of Business for the University of Iowa News Service.