Listening Harder to the Struggles of Diverse Students

by Guest Blogger on April 15, 2015


Guest post by Dawn Janke, Director, University Writing & Rhetoric Center

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a CTLT breakfast for newer faculty. The theme was “supporting students in distress,” and I was asked to help raise awareness of the challenges first generation students may face. My first thought was to question my ability to speak for first generation students at Cal Poly because I do not want to claim to be able to represent them all. I am first generation, but I am a white girl from the Midwest who navigated her college experience almost twenty years ago.

Nonetheless, I was happy to offer my thoughts on the topic, especially given my role on campus as co-chair for the First Generation Professional Development Group. I also serve as chair of an international student success task force, so I decided that I would seize an opportunity to consider the international student experience in my comments. While I never studied abroad, my daily interactions with international students in the Writing & Rhetoric Center has afforded me insight into some of the stressors they face.

As I understand it, underrepresented minority students in general may not reveal to faculty all the ways in which they are distressed on a day-to-day basis. In the case of first generation students particularly, they may feel like imposters and may not dare admit their struggles because they don’t want to “prove” to others that they don’t belong at college. International students may not let you know that they need help because that might suggest that you are doing a poor job of teaching them, and culturally they would never suggest such a thing to an authority. It is important to be aware in the classroom that sometimes our students struggle silently.

Another thing to remember with both first generation and international students is that their parents/caregivers may not be able to provide support, at least to the extent from which other college students benefit. By definition, first generation students’ parents did not attend college, and thus may struggle to relate to the stresses that college adds to one’s daily life. To that end, they may not be able to understand and/or offer support when their child is distressed. And, while the parents of international students may have attended college, they may have done so in a different academic setting, in a culture with different educational expectations. Again, the parents of international students may not be able to understand and/or support their children.

As I said, I am a first generation college student. I dropped out of the first university I attended because I couldn’t get any classes and thought it was useless to return. When I returned home for winter break, I decided to tell my parents that I didn’t like college and wanted to stay home rather than suffer the embarrassing truths that both I didn’t know how to navigate the registration system and they didn’t know how to help me.

I recall a fellow first generation college student once told me that it wasn’t until his senior year in college that he learned that he could ask his professors for extensions on major papers. He was so stressed out with deadlines and didn’t think he’d make it through the semester. His parents didn’t know how to help him. He then heard that a friend, who was not first generation, simply asked the professor for an extension. It’s hard not to wonder if that student’s parents, who had already navigated the stresses of multiple deadlines and knew that in some cases extensions would be granted, didn’t encourage their son to ask. First generation and international students’ parents may not encourage their children to ask, and their children may not feel privileged to do so.

DiversityLike all college students, first generation and international students learn the ins and outs of life in college. Unlike other college students, first gen and international students may not have their parents to guide them, so they may learn the hard way. What can we do? I am not suggesting that faculty take on a parental role for their first generation or international students, or for any student for that matter. But awareness of students’ struggles is the first step in providing a sensitive, supportive environment in which everyone can learn.

In the classroom, there are plenty of ways to help. For one, it is important to be aware that first generation and international students may have additional financial burdens and thus cannot afford textbooks and/or field trip like experiences outside of the classroom. For example, an instructor might casually suggest in class that students attend a certain campus or community event and write about it for extra credit, but if the event carries a cost, then some students may not have the ability to take advantage of the opportunity.

Further, the number of responsibilities that first gen and international students juggle may be more than the average student (I’d argue this is likely true for all underrepresented minority students). For example, they may have to help out at home or perform at jobs in the evenings, early in the mornings, or in another town on the weekends. How can we account for this in the classroom? I learned a trick early on that has really helped me to understand my students’ varied lived experiences. On the first day of classes, I hand out a 3×5 index card and invite students to write down any additional responsibilities/obligations they have that may get in the way of attending class on time or performing at their highest level. I give examples, such as commuting to school on public transportation, childcare, family responsibilities, or a job. This way, even students that may feel reluctant to talk about their lives outside of the classroom have an opportunity to share that their role in life is more than a college student. Honestly, as a new instructor, I at times took offense when students wandered into the classroom late; I judged students when they couldn’t get their work in on time. Thankfully, early on in my career I implemented that first-day activity. It has opened my eyes.

International students carry other kinds of stressors into the classroom too, such as not being accustomed to the performance expectations at U.S.-based institutions. In their cultures, for instance, they may not be invited to question the professor, thus engaging in discussion and challenging the instructor’s premises may be a new experience into which they need to grow. They also may not be accustomed to working in groups, and all faculty I know put their students in groups at least once throughout the quarter. Do you pay attention to who is not participating? If so, keep this kind of struggle in mind when you’re observing international students.

International students, as well, may not be as aware of the rules for plagiarism and academic integrity as domestic students. Your international students may need additional support from you in order to understand better how we incorporate others’ research into our own in the U.S. One reason for this may be because in some collectivist cultures, citing sources is unnecessary. Whatever the case, some international students may not volunteer such struggles. It is important for us to observe these silences and help when and how we can.

And by all means, we ought to remember the stresses inherent in learning in another language. Some students, because they come from different home communities with different languages and dialects, may be reluctant to talk in class because they do not sound like you or like others in the class. And they may struggle to articulate their thoughts into words when asked to complete writing assignments. Offer to work with writers, or suggest they take advantage of other resources on campus that can help. If anything, don’t assume that someone that is not participating is not prepared or that someone with a paper with language-learning type errors is a student that didn’t try. I’ll never forget the international student that came into the University Writing & Rhetoric Center for help in tears because her instructor would not grade her work but only placed a comment at the end: “I cannot understand a word of this; go get help.” The truth is that the student’s writing was indeed understandable, but it may have taken the instructor more time to understand it.listenSB

This leads me to my final suggestion: take your time with distressed students. Even if they do not come to you for help, figure out how you might help them, whether through a passing comment after class that lets them know they can ask for an extension, or a supportive comment on a paper that invites them to re-write for a better grade.

And above all, especially with our underrepresented minority students, listen harder. Listen to what they are not saying and really hear what they are. You can help them, even when they do not ask for help.

We do have resources on campus to help you learn how to listen harder. Robin in CTLT is your ally, as is the CTLT in general. The first generation professional development committee is designing online resources for faculty and staff; stay tuned in the fall. The International Center can work with you, and the Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity has the Beacon Faculty Mentors among other resources. I am certain there are plenty more individuals on this campus willing to support you as you work with students. Seek them out! And you likely have your own wildly successful approaches to working with distressed students specifically, or first generation and international students in general.

I invite you to share your strategies in the comments. Let’s grow and learn together.



From Solina Lindahl

Thank you for writing this.  I appreciate the breadth of coverage and useful applications.


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