COMMENTARY: Int’l students face unjust pressures to assimilate
Although Rutgers international students seem omnipresent on campus, many locally attending students are completely unaware of the experiences of their international peers, or the challenges they face in obtaining an American education.
To be admitted into Rutgers, students who have attended secondary school in non-English-speaking countries are required to pass an English proficiency examination. The University accepts several different proficiency exams, most of which charge considerable fees. The Test of English as a Foreign Language exam, for example (one of the most widely accepted English proficiency tests), charges an average of nearly $200 per exam depending on the testing center location. Students who do not pass this exam the first time must either sacrifice another $200 to take it again, or study for an alternate English proficiency exam, many of which are just as costly if not more.
Those who cannot pass these exams may only attend Rutgers through the Pathway Program, in which students are enrolled into a one-year program meant to help them assimilate into American culture by teaching them English and other skills, such as communication building and driver’s education.
This program requires a full-time commitment from students, including a summer English preparatory program and two semesters of “Pathway” classes. Not only is it expensive (the estimated cost being $47,000 USD), it awards participants a mere 7 to 17 credits. Upon completion, students may matriculate into only three Rutgers colleges: the School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers Business School or the School of Environmental and Biological Studies.
The problem with these policies is that they are exorbitantly expensive and foster unrealistic expectations of assimilation from foreign students. I am currently working with several students on an oral history project focused on international students, and from conducting several interviews we have found that with a degree from an American university comes many opportunities and privileges in foreign nations.
The high price of English proficiency exams and programs contributes to the existing problem of education acting as a perpetuator of class difference by barring international students with less money from receiving a prized American college degree.
Many Rutgers international students are not enrolled in English-intensive majors. Electrical engineering and computer science are the third and fourth-most popular majors among them, respectively. While proficiency in English is integral in the success of a student in an English-speaking university, students following more technical or math-related courses of study do not need exceptional language skills. But Rutgers tends to qualify only above-average English scores from prospective international students as “proficient.”
The benchmark SAT score for evidence-based reading and writing, for example, is determined by the college board as 480 (the benchmark being the score that is attributed to a 75% chance of passing a college-level class with a C or higher). But the required score by Rutgers for international students is 550, which is in the 65th percentile — significantly above average. Why is it that international students are expected to earn above-average exam grades in English, especially when so many are not pursuing language-heavy fields of study?
International students feel pressure to assimilate not only from Rutgers as an institution, but from its students. When students of different backgrounds interact, sociocultural differences are brought to light, which can incite American students to judge their international peers.
One student I interviewed from the Caribbean, for example, is often told by Americans that her demeanor is “mean,” and said, “I’ve gotten to the point where I had to be careful about who I was speaking to and what I was saying.” She proceeded to describe that, unlike in her home country, Americans seem to have boundaries that she does not understand, and it is hard for her to determine what is a joke and what is not.
Due to these experiences, she is hesitant to interact with her American peers for fear of "saying the wrong thing." This is just one example of how, when Americans react negatively to sociocultural differences with international students, they are pressured to assimilate, as failure to do so prompts judgment and potential social isolation.
When international students react to this plight by forming their own cliques, they are further judge and their actions often considered “stuck-up.” But rather than judge the interactions of their international peers, local students should try and understand them by tolerating their differences and respecting their decisions to keep to themselves. After all, sometimes this observed clique formation of international students is “just easier,” as one of my interviewees put it — befriending people who understand them eases their transition to a new environment.
Both Rutgers as an institution and students as individuals need to embrace the differences we have with international students through understanding, rather than putting so much social and through the Rutgers policy financial pressure onto them to assimilate into our culture.