Despite Challenges, International Students Offer Diverse Perspectives and Unique Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Learning
Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2011 by Allison Byers
International students gather during orientation.
The number of international students at California College of the Arts has significantly increased in the past few years. For the fall 2011 semester alone, the college welcomed 123 new degree-seeking international students, and seven exchange students.
For some of these students, English is not their first language, they have never set foot in San Francisco, and are completely foreign to the culture typically found at an American art college. These students come to CCA to learn English as a second language (ESL), engage, and create, but often must overcome quite a few daunting challenges.
Lost in Translation
One of the most obvious challenges that international ESL students face when arriving at CCA is learning how to effectively communicate with their professors and classmates. Chiripat “Mon” Vorratnchaiphan, (MBA in Design Strategy, 2011) recalled how difficult it was during his first semester at CCA: “Because English is my second language, it [was] hard for me to transfer my thoughts and ideas clearly to my classmates.”
Not only does language itself pose a problem but also the cultural differences in communication are apparent when transitioning to the United States. Vorratnchaiphan, originally from Bangkok, conveyed that even when he understood the ideas of his classmates and wanted to express his own, it was difficult to know when was the appropriate time to speak. “By concerning too much about the appropriate time, it made me miss the moment to share and express my ideas.”
The differences in culture within an art college environment present additional significant difficulties for international students. The critique culture at CCA was particularly challenging for student Mutsumi Kanzawa (Illustration, 2011), who was raised in Hawaii and Tokyo: “In classes, I was expected to have my own opinions on my peers’ artworks, my own artworks, and other subject matters discussed. I can’t say for sure I was not accustomed to forming and speaking my opinions because I grew up in an Asian household, but CCA’s environment which encourages individuality was completely new to me.”
CCA’s student orientation, a standard requirement for every in-coming student, includes a mock critique session, but Charlotte Crane, senior international student advisor, sees a growing need for more international American classroom culture training.
“We really have to work together -- faculty, staff, and students -- to make sure that these international students are given the resources and the support they need so that they can jump off on the right foot and contribute to our community to learn and grow.”
Classroom culture in the United States is vastly different from that of most international students’ home countries. For example, in most Asian countries, students are unaccustomed to having to approach and seek out faculty in and outside the classroom.
The notion of self-advocacy is very difficult for international students since in some Asian countries it is not acceptable to speak in class or even to engage the professor outside of class.
While CCA’s international student orientation includes a presentation that addresses culture shock, it is impossible to address all existing challenges, because even the smallest cultural differences can have a sizeable impact when transitioning to the American art school culture.
The students face these challenges on a daily basis, and Crane insists, “The international students are so valuable for our community, we can’t let them get lost.”
Practical & Cultural Immersion
CCA’s international student body has a unique set of needs and interests. The Office of International Student Affairs and Programs (ISAP) strives to provide comprehensive support for international students through a wide range of services, from addressing students’ immigration issues to developing the international community at the college.
By working with the Learning Resource Center to offer workshops to improve pronunciation and English speaking and writing skills, ISAP is committed to ensuring students are given the necessary tools to succeed while studying in the United States. While their English-speaking skills may develop more quickly, it is far more challenging for international students to familiarize themselves with the formal-paper writing style of some of the more intensive writing courses here at CCA.
However, more must be addressed other than just the international students’ practical needs. It is also vital to ensure the students are given the opportunities to engage and immerse themselves in the community.
One of the ways in which ISAP strives to cultivate a sense of community is through the annual International Student Exchange Exhibition, which includes exchange students as well as domestic students who have studied abroad.
Through other programming such as International Education Week, international film nights, and international dinners, ISAP “encourages domestic students to participate and learn a little bit more about the cultures their classmates are coming from,” says Crane. “When someone comes from a different place, they can challenge our ideologies and assumptions; artists need that constant creative challenge to force them to look outside the box.”
Taking a Look from the Outside
International students at CCA can also gain a better understanding of their native culture. Kanzawa recognizes she began to reflect upon her Japanese heritage. “I rarely thought about my Japanese heritage. However, at CCA, my peers and faculties [sic] are from various backgrounds, and often times I was asked to explain about my culture.”
Recalling an instance in which a fellow student asked her about the importance in Japanese literature of cherry blossoms, Kanzawa says that though she was not able to fully answer the question on the spot, it forced her to take an outsider’s look at her own culture. “I have a deeper understanding and pride in my heritage, and as a result I gained self-confidence.”
This self-confidence and self-awareness projected itself into Kanzawa’s artwork, which explores the traditional art style and subjects related to Japan and other Asian countries. She says that one of the more valuable experiences of her time at CCA was a lecture given by illustrator Yuko Shimuzu. “Yuko shared her experience as a Japanese art student and was trying to create traditional ‘Western-style’ paintings to be more accepted in a school in United States. But eventually she realized her cultural roots, and began to embrace the Japanese influence on her art. I realized I was going through a similar experience.”
Kanzawa credits much of her cultural adjustment and growth to the notably supportive and accepting environment of the Illustration Program, in which “peers and faculties [sic] support our individual choices and goals.”
According to Crane, such diverse backgrounds are what make the experience at CCA so rewarding. “Our students bring their own cultural and personal life experiences, and they bring that to the classroom and to their own work.” She believes the artistic community at CCA benefits greatly from the growing number of international students of our student body.
Crane further explains, “When you add students from a completely different cultural background into the mix, especially when the creative process varies so much from country to country, the students can bring new ways of creating and new studio practices, so our domestic and international students can learn so much from each other. The more diversified a student’s background is, the more we can inspire and learn from each other, and it makes for a more exciting and enriching experience for our students.”
Cross-Cultural Learning at CCA and Beyond
This kind of cross-cultural learning has a significant inspirational impact on our students’ work -- not only during their time at CCA but also after graduation. Vorratnchaiphan has recently been working on the online project breesee, a creative community hosted on Facebook that includes artists and designers from around the world. “We recognize the gaps between people, cultures, and languages in different countries. We want to transform these gaps into roads made from inspiration and meaningful experience to users.”
Both domestic and international students have several responsibilities to keep in mind as they go through the semester. All students are expected to learn, engage, create, and push the envelope just a little bit farther. Yet one of a student’s most important responsibilities -- often overlooked -- is to teach one another.
We are here to learn not only from our faculty but also from each other. Every language barrier and cultural challenge is an opportunity to learn, a chance to look at the world from a completely different viewpoint. CCA is so lucky to have such a diverse student population, and we can learn so much from each other and our unique perspectives, and this opportunity should never be taken for granted.
Here’s a warm welcome from CCA to all our international students.
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