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Increasing number of MU international students brings both benefits, challenges

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 4:13 p.m. CDT; updated 12:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 29, 2012
More international students are coming to MU. For the fall 2011 semester, the most popular degree programs included economics, journalism, computer science and business administration. The number of international undergraduates for nondegree programs rose to 124 in 2011 from 56 in 2010.

*Clarification. Minimum numbers for the speaking section of the TOEFL  and IELTS recently have been added for the School of Journalism, but overall scores for all sections have long been used. Also, the numbers for students in journalism and economics is for those both as the primary and non-primary degrees.

COLUMBIA — Early this semester, Charles Davis, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, passed his cellphone around and "built in" each student as a video clip. 

Davis did this for a class that includes six international students, one-third of the total students. It helps him remember each student’s name and face within two weeks, he said.
After that, he can more easily prompt answers from his international students. He has found in his years of teaching that international students are more reserved about speaking up at the start of the semester. 
"They are intimidated, but after a couple of times, I rarely need to do it again," said Davis, who teaches undergraduate and graduate level students. "Once you come to a comfort zone, everybody likes to share."

MU has more international students now than it has had since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led to a decline lasting several years. This past fall, total international student enrollment increased by about 14 percent over fall 2010, for a total of 1,917 international students, according the University Registrar. 

Almost 900 of them come from China. Next are South Korea with 208 students and India with 195.

Faculty members say having more international students comes with benefits such as richer classroom experiences, but it also presents challenges in fully communicating the curriculum.

This academic year, the most popular degree programs for international undergraduates are economics, journalism and engineering. Economics and journalism programs continue to see steady growth in numbers of international students:

  • The number of students in primary and non-primary journalism majors was 33 in the fall, up from 13 in 2008. 
  • The number of students in primary and non-primary economics majors was 50 in the fall, up from 32 in 2008.

The fall bump is in nondegree undergraduate programs, in which the number of international undergraduates rose to 124 from 56 a year earlier.

The rise came mostly from a new transfer program in the College of Engineering, which accepted 44 undergraduates from China when it started in the fall, said Rebecca Brandt, associate director of admissions for MU.

Davis said he wouldn't mind if, one day, half or even two-thirds of his students come from foreign countries because they enrich his classes.

"It's incredibly helpful to a bunch of middle-class, suburban Midwesterners to surround them with people with different backgrounds," Davis said. "The world is becoming more interconnected out there."

Peter Mueser, who teaches undergraduate capstone courses in economics, said international students sometimes bring more depth to his economics lectures.

"Chinese students are more aware of the China’s economic development and trade patterns," he said.

Mueser said he is not feeling the presence of more international students in his classes, but regardless, the curriculum should not be changed to accommodate them.

"The international students are here because of the kind of education we are providing," he said.

Markita Price teaches a large beginning programming class for undergraduates in the Department of Computer Science, and Karon Speckman teaches an undergraduate fundamental news writing class in the School of Journalism. Both said that some international students have difficulty meeting academic requirements and that it's hard for professors to make changes without support from the administration.

Price said many transfer students studying engineering are not fully informed about the language proficiency requirements of classes needed to earn a major. They usually have to take two or three more semesters for language training before they are qualified to take fundamental major courses. 

Price said she sometimes has trouble communicating with international students. Her biggest concern is that she doesn't know whether the students fully comprehend what she is talking about.

"It's very difficult to know whether the comprehension is there," Price said. "In some cases, the student doesn't want to reveal that there is some misunderstanding."

Price said she posts her slides and notes more often than in the past, and she is going to record lectures. She already maintains more than eight office hours per week.

If MU could test students' verbal communication ability before admission, it would give the school a better idea of the students' qualifications, Price said. 

"Online chatting is a wonderful idea," she said. Price noted that colleges and universities across the country do this.

Speckman said that international students are generally not ready to learn deadline writing when they arrive at MU and that the school administration needs to do something about it. 

"The administration doesn't tell us we should treat international students any differently," Speckman said. "They tell us we need to bring them up to the same level. That's easy for them to say. They are not teaching the class."

"That puts the international students in a very bad position."

Speckman suggested the administration add a prewriting course into international students' curriculum that has a slower pace and smaller settings. 

The school administrators really need to think about how to balance the needs of maintaining traditional values of accuracy and speed and the needs of international students, Speckman said.

"We are not going to bring students in, take their money, but not give them what they need to get out of here," Speckman said. "It's unethical."

The Journalism School recently set up the minimum requirements of TOEFL and IELTS speaking test scores sections for graduate-level applicants. *Applicants who do not meet these criteria are not considered. In the past, the school set TOEFL criteria only for combined scores. The test has four sections: listening, reading, speaking and writing.

This spring, the College of Engineering started a seminar meant to help international students feel more comfortable communicating with U.S. students, Jill Ford, international program director of the college, said. More than 35 American students were invited to the workshop, joining the international students in small groups for better conversation and interactivity, Ford said.

"This welcoming event is a positive move we've done to help international students," Ford said. "This also gives American students opportunities to get involved in this effort."


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