by Brian Short | Read the complete article on LSA Today

Studying abroad can be tough, even in Ann Arbor. Two international students talk about the tests and triumphs of living in the States, including how resources—such as LSA’s Sweetland Center for Writing—are important for personal and academic success.

For people who have studied or lived abroad, getting lost is a rite of passage. Whether you’ve been flabbergasted by a subway map in Tokyo or abandoned on a dirt road in rural France, you know the particular and peculiar type of panic that you feel when you’re surrounded by thousands of miles of land inhabited by people who speak a language you might not speak as well as you’d like to.

For student Xiaoman Gan, that moment occurred just a few miles outside of Ann Arbor. Gan got a ride from a friend to another friend’s house and was planning to catch a bus back to campus. Gan is from Shendong Province in China and was accustomed to buses running regularly almost every day of the year. But this was Labor Day in Ann Arbor, and no matter how long Gan sat at the bus stop, nobody was coming to get her.

“I was really, really surprised,” Gan says. “A lot of people have cars, so the bus system isn’t as important, I think. Now, I check the schedule before I go out.”

But for many international students like Gan, knowing the bus schedule and how to find the right building for orientation are small potatoes compared to the bigger challenges of studying abroad: understanding the homework and finding friends.

Making the Grade

International students take the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test, a standardized test measuring some English abilities, before they matriculate at Michigan. But even with a good TOEFL score, students have very different comfort levels when it comes to speaking and understanding spoken English. Gan, for example, takes copious notes, which she reviews after class is over, to make sure she understood everything.

Many international students use the resources of the Sweetland Center for Writing to master the nuances of speaking and writing a second language. Sweetland offers classes, free tutoring, and conversation groups designed to help multilingual students make the most of their education abroad. Scott Beal, a Sweetland lecturer, says the academic obstacles that international students face can’t be overstated.

“It’s not uncommon for international students to put in twice as much work as a student who has spoken English every day of their lives,” says Beal, who teaches courses for international students and for English conversation group leaders. “Reading assignments take twice as long. A five-page draft, which a native English speaker might finish in a couple of hours, might take an international student a couple of nights to get through.

“I have a class full of international students right now, and they’re often just exhausted,” Beal says. “It’s the equivalent of 30 credit-hours of work. I think a lot of people don’t think about how hard it is.”

Sweetland assumed responsibility for multilingual students in the fall of 2013, originally offering an introductory writing course specifically designed to meet the needs of students who spoke English as a second language. But based on research about where multilingual students struggle, Sweetland quickly added more learning opportunities, including a class on understanding lectures and giving presentations; a class that prepares multilingual students to meet LSA’s upper-level writing requirement; and a series of conversation groups so students can practice their English and ask each other questions.

“We talk a lot about the differences between America and wherever the different participants came from,” says Gan, who attends a weekly discussion group. “We talk about our experience on campus. We ask questions about things we want to know about in Ann Arbor. And of course,” Gan says, “we talk about our social lives.”

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photo by Natalie Condon