President Jim Tressel greets international students at International Coffee Hour. Photo by Jordan Unger.

Breaking Language and Cultural Barriers

Featured image courtesy of Jordan Unger.

By Jordan Unger

Manssor Al Jazzir, a student from Saudi Arabia, knew his best chance to pursue an engineering career was to attend college in the United States. Universities in Saudi Arabia were difficult to get into at the time, and most did not offer an engineering degree.

A friend of his recommended investigating The College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Youngstown State University. From then, studying at YSU became his g oal. Al Jazzir came to the United States 10 years ago. He first attended the American English Institute at the University of Oregon to learn the language before studying engineering, and quickly realized the style of English he was learning was much different from what he had learned in high school in Saudi Arabia.

After about a year and a half of writing essays, listening intently and learning grammar, Al Jazzir completed the program and then went to YSU.

In his current engineering program at YSU, he uses English daily and the language comes easily to him. However, even though Al Jazzir’s friends are able to clearly understand him, the same cannot be said for others.

“When I would speak, [my adviser] would find some difficulty understanding [what I say] because my accent is ‘broken’ somehow,” Al Jazzir says.

This is something Al Jazzir has experienced over the course of the past decade. He has heard people mispronounce his name and often has had to repeat sentences two or three times before classmates can understand him.

Similar struggles are faced by many international students when they come to the United States, particularly those whose first language is not English. From language barriers to cultural differences, some of these newcomers to the country find it difficult to fit in with traditional students as they become immersed in college life at YSU.

President Jim Tressel greets international students at International Coffee Hour. Photo by Jordan Unger

Recognizing the Challenges

According to an article in Inquiries Journal by Glory Gatwiri, language fluency is key in determining how successful or traumatic immersing oneself into a new culture will be. Gatwiri says many international students lack self-confidence, keeping them from communicating with natives and consequently, they do not learn the language as effectively.

It does not help their confidence either when some native students, and the country as a whole, may be less accepting of international students.

In 2017, The Institute of International Education conducted a survey with 500 colleges across the United States, and found that the intake of new international students dropped by 7 percent in the fall. The findings were reported in an article in the New York Times, and college administrators credited this drop to the negative perspective on foreigners from the new U.S. Presidential Administration under Donald Trump.

Article author Stephanie Saul states that “The Trump administration is more closely scrutinizing visa applications, indefinitely banning travel from some countries and making it harder for foreign students to remain in the United States after graduation.”

Alena Kirova, a foreign language professor at YSU, says it is common for people from all cultures to be close-minded toward those who speak differently than them.

“It’s a part of human nature that we always compare our group to a different group. We always polarize the two,” Kirova says. “That was probably evolutionary because ‘I want my group to be successful’.”

Although these challenges for foreigners are not new, the rising numbers of international students at YSU draws many of these challenges into the limelight.

International Programs Office Associate Provost Nathan Myers says when he came to YSU two years ago, there were about 200 international graduate students and less than 40 international undergraduate students. Now, the university has 342 undergraduate international students alone – an increase of more than 750 percent.

Myers credits the exponential rise in international undergraduates to an experienced IPO staff and the university’s recent investment into international recruitment. Another factor is YSU professors’ research and global experiences, which gives the university global recognition.

He says the increase is beyond exciting for not only the university, but the Youngstown area as a whole, as well.

“In this new metamorphosis that we’re seeing now, Youngstown and YSU is coming back to its roots through growth fueled by a diverse population of folks who see their future success as tied to Youngstown’s success,” Myers said.

Myers says while international graduate students are more focused on receiving their degrees as fast as possible, international undergraduates have a different mindset.

“They are coming in here saying, ‘This is going to be my home, a place that I care about, live in and make friendships,’” Myers says. “They are much more interested in living in the community.”

To accommodate these changes, IPO works with international students to make them feel more welcome on campus, hosting gatherings like International Coffee Hour bimonthly and teaching students through the English Language Institute (ELI).

YSU has English proficiency requirements that students must meet in order to take classes at the university. If someone from another country takes an exam and does not meet those requirements, that international student must complete the ELI program in order to study at the university to improve their English comprehension and usage.  

Leah Stauffer, YSU graduate assistant at ELI, began teaching students in the program last semester.

“A lot of the things we cover are reading, writing, listening, speaking and grammar,” Stauffer says. “Those are the five classes and the students are given many different opportunities to practice authentic English and really just be immersed in English and American culture.”

The program has six levels of instruction, which vary based on the student’s English comprehension. There are five terms per year, each lasting approximately half a semester, or eight weeks. Myers says people who complete the program are sometimes more prepared academically than those who passed the proficiency requirements.

By the end of the program, Stauffer says not only does she notice an improvement in the students’ English, but also in their confidence.

Sabin Maharden, a freshman computer science major from Nepal, says he has been speaking English in his home country since fifth grade, making it easier for him than some international students who are just recently learning the language. Challenges, however, still exist.

“Whenever I talk with people from America, they pronounce things a little bit differently from what we learned in Nepal, so we [international students] talk slowly,” Maharden says.

Maharden says people have been friendly and patient with him as a student, but he has seen a much different attitude toward foreign professors. Before taking a microeconomics class with a professor from China, he glanced through online reviews at

“There were complaints about his pronunciations being wrong and his accent being not clear. Whenever I was in his class, I think we connected

to each other because our accents are a little bit similar because we are [from] neighboring countries.”

According to Akbar Marvasti’s article, “U.S. Academic Institutions and Perceived Effectiveness of Foreign-Born Faculty,” foreign-born faculty are often seen to be underqualified in communicating the English language, leaving the perception they are not as effective in the classroom as faculty born in the United States.

However, Marvasti says student opinion surveys are often criticized for unfair perceptions and cultural biases. Student opinion survey results may not suggest poor teaching so much as cultural discontent.

Kirova says she has not seen this issue in her department, but she knows it occurs elsewhere on campus. She says a student who gave a bad review online might not have been trying hard enough or not doing all of the assignments, thus receiving a poor grade in the class.

“Since there’s always this perception of a person who has an accent as a foreigner, they will blame their personal failure in that class on the accent of the professor.”

Language barriers are not the only obstacle faced by international students and professors. Cultural differences can be a common challenge, as well.

Kirova came to the United States from Russia, so some of the cultural differences are relatable to her. She says American culture is more indirect as opposed to Russian culture. In Russia, people are more direct; they tell people what they think more often than people do here.

She has experienced this cultural difference when teaching as well. In the past, Kirova says she would tell students directly their answers were wrong rather than indirectly correcting them. Now that she has adapted to students’ cultural expectations, rather than tell students outright they are incorrect, she instead lets them know that something might be an interesting idea or that they are on the right track, but that they have not given her the exact answer she is looking for.


Breaking Barriers

According to Myers, one of the things that makes IPO so effective is that the office staff have expertise dealing with similar cultural struggles when crossing national boundaries.

“Most of the people in the office have lived in a different country at one point or another,” Myers says. “We all have that sense of being like the outsider and trying to break in, and we know it’s very difficult.”

Myers lived in Taiwan for a year as a visiting professor. He quickly learned that the cultural triggers that work in the United States, such as smiling or having a small chat with the cashier in a department store, do not work everywhere.

“Those are the kind of cues that we use and we respond to really, just to validate ourselves as human beings… but those things don’t necessarily work in East Asia. You have to find new ways at accessing culture that are going to be different than they are here.”

He learned that in East Asian culture, students tend to build the basis of their friendships around school rather than clubs or extracurricular activities. He says some students will come to realize that, in American culture, just because they sit next someone in class does not mean they will get coffee together and study.

“One of the mysteries that I think international students have to unravel coming into the U.S. is how to make relationships here,” Myers says.

This unraveling is something Stauffer has seen as a heightened challenge for her ELI students. Thus, she believes it is up to American students at YSU to befriend international students.

“I noticed that some of the international students had never been invited into an American home before,” Stauffer says. “Say you’re at YSU and your family’s local. It would be a really great idea to invite [an international student] to your family holiday celebrations just so that the students feel welcome in our town.”

Elizabeth Robb, a friend of Stauffer’s and a mathematics instructor at Eastern Gateway Community College, has been participating in international coffee hour for about 10 years. She started connecting with foreigners when her parents invited international high school students into their home through exchange programs.

She says some of the exchange students came back to the area after high school to attend YSU, which was when she started going to coffee hour and meeting other international students. In particular, she has grown close to several people from Saudi Arabia and Middle Eastern countries.

“They’re a hospitable culture, so they want to show hospitality to anyone who will accept it, and I think a lot of times Americans are a little bit unaccepting of that because they don’t know what to expect.”

Robb says it’s important to make new international friends because it builds trust among cultures and it can be a learning experience for both parties. For example, Robb invites them to do things she views as part of her culture, like playing games or taking day trips out of the city. At the same time, Robb says she becomes exposed to their culture as well.

“I’ve seen the world open up and become a lot smaller,” Robb says. “I’ve had out-of-country experiences in the United States that I may not get if I travel as a tourist to one of their countries.”

It has become a routine for Robb and Stauffer to get to know international students away from the university in this manner.

It is not only American students who need to engage in these conversations. As an international student himself, Maharden says it is the responsibility of people from other countries to start these friendships as well. Making friends and working closely with professors has been a great help for him to understand the language and feel welcomed in an environment far from home.

“Don’t try to be alone. Try to communicate with [American students]. Try to speak English as much as you can,” Maharden says.

Kirova says education is a pivotal tool in opening minds as well. She taught a sociolinguistics course for the first time in the fall where more than 40 students learned the differences in dialects and language based on a series of physical and social factors. These factors include region, occupation and socioeconomic status. Although she would have liked a smaller, more personal experience, she says the class was a push in the right direction.

“There are always human biases or cultural biases and we need to overcome them to be a better and more successful society,” she says. “I thought that the students did learn a lot of things. They were accepting, they were open-minded.”

John Rozum is an education student at YSU who took the course. He did not know what to expect from the class, but says he learned how important the native language can be to someone in their culture.

“In order to respect and appreciate someone’s native culture, we have to know and be willing to understand that their native language is also a part of that,” Rozum says.

While taking the class, Rozum was working with English-learning children from Puerto Rico in Campbell City Schools. He says both experiences were beneficial to him as a future educator and broadened his perspective on diverse groups.

Other universities have adopted ACIREMA, a simulation workshop designed to educate American students on the challenges faced by international students.

According to Kent State University’s Office of Global Education webpage, “It acquaints the participants with the procedures and obstacles students must follow from the initial contact with a U.S. educational institution to their arrival on campus, and even issues that students face after arriving.”

David Di Maria, the associate vice provost of international education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has brought the simulation to all of the universities he’s taught at for the past 15 years, including Kent State University, Montana State University, St. Cloud State University and, most recently, UMBC.

“[The participants] don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into,” he says. “It’s kind of a mock process of applying for a passport, getting a visa, getting admitted to a school and all of that to arrive to the U.S.”

This simulation takes up the first hour of the event. In the second hour, Di Maria says a panel of international students will educate the participants on the actual processes and personal experiences. He says this is a great learning experience for students and faculty.

“If you have staff working at a college or university, not all of them have traveled abroad or if they have, it’s been for tourism or with a group… they haven’t gone through the student experience. The goal [of conducting the ACIREMA simulation] is, when international students arrive who are having challenges, [American students and staff] can empathize and understand ways they can… make it a smoother transition.”

The IPO at YSU has no official plans to implement ACIREMA on campus, but Myers says it is something he is willing to look into. Either way, he thinks the rising number of international students coming to Youngstown will have a positive impact on cultural appreciation.

“As this place diversifies, I think it’s going to force the issue a little bit,” he says. “All of the newcomers from different cultures are going to make us stronger and better.”

Despite challenges along the way, Al Jazzir believes that coming to the United States was the right choice, both for him and the community.

“We share the knowledge and learn from each other,” he says. “Boundaries [shrink] between cultures and bridges of friendship get extended further.”