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.

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.”

Sweetland conversation groups meet once a week around and even off campus, allowing students to practice language skills and get practical advice from peers.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Almost every international student wants desperately to make friends with American students, says Beal, but it isn’t always easy. There’s a lot about English that you can’t learn from a book.

“It’s hard to pick up all of the different dialects,” Beal says. “There are idioms and slang. The speed at which people talk. And then there’s the time it takes for [international students] to learn to colorfully express themselves in a language they didn’t grow up with.

“It results in this de facto segregation on campus where all of the international students interact primarily with each other,” Beal says.

Rebecca Yumba, an international student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, admits that making friends is a challenge, and that English fluency is only part of the problem.

“Hanging out with people is the hardest part of living in America,” Yumba says. “We do not always have the same interests. They want to go to the game on Saturdays, but I want to try new things. It’s my first time to see the snow. But when I wanted to go ice skating, I found that all of my American friends had already done that.”

For Gan, it’s hard just getting the nerve up to talk to someone when you don’t feel like it.

Both students have found success, though, by actively engaging with groups on and around campus. Gan volunteers with Circle K and enjoys lunch and dinner with her roommates, who are American. Yumba is active in her church, and has found friends there.

When asked what advice they had for other international students, Yumba said that you shouldn’t isolate yourself and that you need to make sure you take advantage of everything Michigan has to offer. Gan said that you have be ready to have your preconceptions about America challenged—“It’s not like it is on TV,” she says—but she had advice for American students, too.

“Sometimes, it seems like we [international students] are just being a little bit quiet in a discussion, but it’s just because we can’t find the words or because we’re a little afraid,” Gan says. “It isn’t about our knowledge of the subject. I really want people to understand that.”

Read about Sweetland’s National Science Foundation-supported work with writing-to-learn strategies in science courses.