When Sultan Alsagabi, a Saudi Arabian international student, came to the University of Idaho to pursue post-secondary education, he thought it was strange that his teacher called on him more often than other students in the class, he said. Now he believes the teacher was helping him develop in-class participation skills, he said, and he freely voices his thoughts in school.
He said the scholastic structure in his country isn’t focused on student thought like the one here.
“I finished my bachelor’s degree without learning how to critique a paper,” Alsagabi said.
UI Academic Affairs sponsored panel discussions Tuesday and Wednesday to help educate people about cultural and scholastic difficulties for international students. Tuesday’s event was a presentation about issues relevant to Chinese international students, followed by questions for such students who comprised the panel. Wednesday’s was a similar panel discussion with students from Saudi Arabia.
Meshari Almotairi, co-panelist with Alsagabi, said his country’s educational system emphasizes the teacher’s knowledge and the students’ memorization skills. Though it may open up in the near future, access to the Internet has historically been limited, he said, and students aren’t expected to use sources beyond the textbook and in-class materials for homework. He said Saudi students’ cultural attitude of humility can also make the transition to a more involved system difficult.
“The integration process for me and for other Saudis is very difficult and should be addressed in (the American Language and Culture Program),” Almotairi said.
Ashley Ding, senior international student and scholar adviser with the International Programs Office, said a cultural penchant for quietness and observation can hinder the classroom experience for Chinese international students.
“It’s hard for them to get out of their comfort zone,” she said. “In China we’re told to observe, to study things, to think before talking. It can make it harder to socialize for them than for American students.”
Ding said Tuesday’s panel was aimed at UI faculty and staff, though students were welcomed. Of the university’s more than 600 international students, 200 hail from China. She said the people who work with them need to be aware of the inherent challenges.
“The panel (was) mostly to help people understand why Chinese students act the way they do,” she said.
Ding said she’d like to see a similar panel held at least once a year.
Alsagabi said he thinks Saudis and students from regions such as Eastern Asia share a cultural experience of minimal exposure to individual thought and involvement in pre-secondary education. The resources available at UI need to be shown to them, he said.
“My educational experience is limited to classrooms,” he said. “Other resources need to be pointed out to these students, especially from (around Saudi Arabia).”
Matt Maw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org