Student Interview: Shenzhen – New York

This past semester, I taught the (adult) Staff here at my university.  It was an interesting and exciting 16 weeks, working on English language acquisition while also addressing issues pertaining to global educational inequalities.  Myself, as an American who had recently taught in Africa, contrasted my experiences with theirs, most of whom had undergraduate level education in China but had traveled abroad for Masters and Doctoral work.

One of my students, Sandy, approached me after class asking if I could help her son, Michael, as he was a Senior in High School exploring options for universities in the United States.  I of course welcomed the opportunity to assist him, meeting the next week to discuss the circumstances surrounding his decision.  During his high school years, Michael’s parents had taken him on an extensive tour of American universities and he had decided upon completing his tertiary education in the States.  He came to me with questions about specifics including the difference in campus culture between the University of Miami and the University of Wisconsin(?!) as well as the educational guidelines for deciding upon a major with the option to change if need be.  It was refreshing to speak with a student who viewed the university experience as a part of collective personal growth, not solely limited to what takes place inside a classroom.

One of his interests was NYU, and he was curious to learn more.  Through my networking as part of the USC Alumni Association of Shenzhen, I had come in contact with Mark, the President of the NYU Shenzhen Alumni Association, and reached out to him to see if he would be interested in sharing information with Michael.  We set up a lunch meeting, and over the best Cantonese food I have ever eaten, we discussed the cultural and educational realities of being an International Chinese student at a place like NYU.  Throughout the nearly three-hour long meeting, we touched upon issues ranging from class size to campus diversity, and from the availability of Chinese food to the safety measures implemented by the school.  Michael and his parents listened intently, asking valid questions which addressed legitimate concerns while Mark told them of the countless benefits of attending school abroad, both from an international as well as domestic perspective.

Needless to say, Michael accepted the offer to attend NYU in the Fall, and has since been involved with the university’s preparatory committees both in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  He and his parents will fly to New York in August for the welcoming convocation and begin the long (and expensive) path of university life in America.  In an effort to share his story, I interviewed Michael last week, and have now put together a 10-minute video where he talks about his decisions, the process, and his hopes for the future.  As someone who continues to have the opportunity to view education through different cultural lenses, I was grateful to have met Michael through his mom, one of my students; a testament to the global perspective I try to highlight in my classes.

If you have the time, I encourage you to watch the video, as it highlights the circumstances of a modern day young Chinese student and his understanding of international education, including the benefits of an expanded worldview which comes with studying abroad, where truly, the world is your classroom…


TOEFL: Linguistic Gateway to the World

Last year at this time, I was teaching on behalf of the U.S. Embassy’s Opportunity Fund, working with at-risk students in Ethiopia, helping them prepare for and apply to colleges and universities in the United States. This included preparation for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), Personal Statement essay writing, and of course, training for the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). All three are necessary for admittance to U.S. universities such as USC, Brown or Cornell, securing these students a path out of East Africa and paving their future with an education which will in turn help them reach their dreams.

This summer I find myself once again teaching TOEFL, this time to Chinese university students, most of whom have a vastly different set of educational realities which face them, including postgraduate degrees abroad and applications to some of the world’s leading high-tech companies.

Yet it is the same amount of motivation which I have found in classrooms around the world — students understanding the importance of English and the role it plays in acting as a gateway to global ambitions. The use of an adjective to describe a noun isn’t what will lead to aspired accomplishments, rather it is universal acceptance which comes with learning a second language and the social adaptation which underscores the importance of tests like TOEFL, measuring not only linguistic ability, but cultural understanding as well.

Two hours a day over the course of four weeks I worked with students at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) on speaking and listening skillsets associated with the TOEFL test. Contrast transition words providing clues to important shifts in the speaker’s content while intonation and variations in pitch highlight meaning and connotation.

Group Work

The topics of our listening examples shed light on Americanisms, where distance is measured in miles and where weight is abbreviated as lbs. The 30 students in our class laugh at the unfunny jokes, feign interest in the topics discussed, and gaze at words like vitriolic; the whole time understanding that this is a necessary means to an end. Intensive linguistic learning takes place on a different set of gears than in a regular 16-week semester, but still, lessons are shared by all, with myself careful to facilitate learning, not to master.

With previous experience teaching TOEFL courses in Ethiopia, and before that, South Korea, I feel confident that my practice within a Chinese context has likewise gone smoothly, encouraging student learning through cooperation, giving them ownership over materials which at times may seem as foreign to them as the idioms often mentioned in our listening exercises.

As the teacher, I am able to learn too, gaining cultural insight from my students, much as was the case in Africa, as each set of students learns differently. Grateful for these global opportunities, I hope that my instruction through TOEFL pedagogy will similarly give these students the same international prospects I have been afforded, expanding their worldview while opening a linguistic gateway to the world.