In a University Writing course at Columbia, a professor tells Hamza Taghy, a Columbia College junior, and his peers that they have 10 minutes to do a short writing assignment. While his peers type furiously, Taghy sits still. He has ideas, and he cares about the quality of the work. He just doesn’t have enough time to express them the way he wants to.
Taghy is from Morocco, and English is his second language after Moroccan Arabic. “Yeah, I realized there was a gap,” Taghy says as he refers to the discrepancy between his own written fluency and that of his English-speaking, often American peers.
Taghy went to a Moroccan school for his secondary education. Although he learned to write inEnglish, he explains, “the most I had to write was probably around 250 words.” I’m not sure whether he’s speaking hyperbolically or not.
Despite this, Taghy has plenty of experience with colloquial languages. Taghy tells me he speaks three languages, and that Moroccan Arabic is different enough from standard Arabic to count as a fourth. He learned English when he was younger.
I’ve learned that, for many students like Taghy—who grew up outside the United States and don’t speak English as their first language—adjusting to academic life at a writing-intensive American university differs from achieving colloquial proficiency, and it can be jarring. Indeed, Columbia’s Core Curriculum requires all undergraduate students to take courses in English reading and writing, even if English is not their first language. University Writing, in particular, requires that students read and write on complex subject matter. University Writing for International Students is meant to ease the transition to academia in English, but not all international students who speak English as a second language enroll in this section. Only four of the 75 University Writing sections offered for the spring semester of 2017 are geared towards international students, including University Writing for students at the School of General Studies.
According to a seminal 1967 study on bilingualism, the bilingual individual exists in a socially shifting language reality, moving between one language and another. Wallace E. Lambert writes that bilingual people are subjected to “various types of adjustments to the bicultural demands,” depending on the language they’re speaking.
Part of a dual-degree program, Sciences Po and Columbia College junior, and economics and political science major, Piril Ozgercin is no stranger to bicultural demands. Ozgercin is originally from Izmir, Turkey, but moved to Menton, France to study at Sciences Po’s Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Undergraduate College of Menton. Two years later, she moved to Manhattan to finish her degree. Academically speaking, her Sciences Po curriculum had “similar and shared” texts to those within Columbia’s Core.
Ozgercin was placed into UWriting for native English speakers, in a human rights section. As we sit, surrounded by noisy students on Low Steps, she speaks at a calmer but more purposeful pace than the gossiping students around us. She had to take an English placement exam in Menton to get approved for this UWriting class, even though her English is impeccable—she received high scores on her International Baccalaureate, SAT, and TOEFL tests.
Because Taghy is a math major who is comfortable with spoken English, he only needs to think about his writing proficiency when he takes Core classes.
An international student myself, I am no stranger to the cultural shifts associated with attending college far from home. I wonder how other students in my position cope with the added challenges of learning in a language that they are not used to. While some students deny the assumption that their international status interferes with their ability to thrive in English language classes here at Columbia, others acknowledge that it adds an often unseen layer of stress to what is already a notoriously stressful university experience. Columbia’s foreign ESL studentshave to adjust to not only a new country, but also a culturally new way of learning in a different language.
The Writing Center exists to to assist students—especially international students—with written work on an individual basis. Dr. Sue Mendelsohn, the director of the Writing Center and associate director of the Undergraduate Writing Program, tells me that international students comprise 25 percent of the student body and 50 percent of Writing Center’s consultations. Mendelsohn says the center offers international students a six-week standing appointment, so that each student can come in once every six weeks to check in.
Mendelsohn has also been teaching UWriting since 2011. UWriting’s purpose is to help undergraduates understand their time at Columbia, “as entering a conversation that is taking place in a larger community and not just starting with fixed positions,” she says. Each student represents a part of a dialogue; no one student’s voice stands alone.
UWriting requires that students meet with their instructors at least twice in conference to ensure consistent work is being done on writing. The 14-student cap on classes is intentional as it allows instructors to meet each student’s unique needs.
Ozgercin’s class year in Menton had only 200 students, so a small class is nothing if not familiar. “It’s not just another paper, another name on the exam,” she says of UWriting. “It’s like, you know this person, and you know their style of writing.”
School of Engineering and Applied Science sophomore Izzet Kebudi tells me he likes the UWriting’s class size too. Kebudi was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and attended a private high school there that “had an advanced English education.” Although Kebudi took Advance Placement classes in English, he decided to take International UWriting. “It was nice to be in the class especially because people were diverse,” he explains. “For my first semester, I was glad I met people from all different backgrounds.”
However, Mendelsohn says that UWriting as a whole is theoretically structured to accommodate international students, too. These sections are supposed to be sensitive to the kind of cultural and linguistic transitions that international student writers are making, according to Mendelsohn.
Still, Taghy explains that standard UWriting classes—which international students can be randomly placed in—can be inaccessible due to the pacing of the course. Taghy ultimately asked to switch into the international section because he found it difficult to keep up in the standard section. Luckily, the process to switch only required filling out a form and only took two weeks to implement, but Taghy says he wished he had been placed in the international class from the start. Even so, this seems unlikely if so few UWriting sections—only four out of 75—are international sections.
Mendelsohn points to culture as the cause for—as well as language—for the disparities between students in terms of their writing methods. But some students deny that their international status interferes with their ability to thrive in English language classes here at Columbia.
Kebudi tells me, “I am sure my English has improved, [but] I built my English in 19 years, so it is not like it is going to improve in a semester that much.” When it comes to language plain and simple, Kebudi says firmly, “Anyone who made it to Columbia certainly has an advanced English level.”
However, Kebudi discusses how culturally, he did have to go through a learning process: “What I had the most trouble with my first semester was getting used to daily slang Americans have.” When I ask him what changes UWriting for international students should make, he suggests that the course integrate curriculum on American pop culture, idioms and expressions, and slang.
When I speak with another international student, Ji Hee Yoon, a senior at Columbia College originally from Seoul, Korea, she discusses with me the assumptions typically placed on international students and their English speaking abilities. I met Yoon on the first sunny day of April. Even with an overstuffed sandwich in hand, she looked like she had stepped out of the pages of a magazine, wearing a clean-cut outfit.
“There is always that assumption that if you are an international student, you will probably be more lacking in terms of your speaking ability,” Yoon says from experience. When it comes to internships and employment, she speculates that employers see her hometown on her résumé and assume that language will be a barrier.
“In terms of the language barrier, I haven’t had basically any difficulty,” Yoon says.She spent all 12 years of her primary and secondary education in the United States at boarding schools.
Yoon has enjoyed her experiences in Columbia’s English writing courses, particularly because they have enabled her to explore the subject matter of her choice. “I thought that UWriting was fun in a way because it was the only class I got to ... write things that I personally chose to write about.”
But for Ozgercin, who spent less time than Yoon in the U.S. before coming to Columbia, shefound that she encountered linguistic conventions that contradicted those she learned in Turkey. “I was used to the formulaic. … I tried to do that, and the professor actually warned me that I should be less rigid with my writing,” she says.
Ultimately, it is up to the students themselves to figure out what UWriting class to take—Yoon, Ozgercin, and Taghy all had to self-determine what UWriting section suited them best. When I ask Taghy what changes he would like to see in UWriting, he says, “Instead of putting international students automatically in the UWriting sections, we should all be put [automatically] in the International Writing section and be allowed to switch to the normal section. That would make more sense.”
Kebudi believes that stress culture is at the heart of it all. “If the workload could be lighter that would be better for all sorts,” he explains. “For UWriting, if possible, that’s a good recommendation I could make.”
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