A Whole New World: The Experience of International Students in Regular English Class

The Scarlet Letter was the first book I read in regular English class, and let’s just say that the translator and I spent a considerable amount of time together. I would read at break, on the bus from tennis practice, before I went to sleep, and right when I opened my eyes in the morning. The book was waiting for me on the nightstand next to my bed. With every page that I read, I could feel my confidence dropping. Even worse, after putting all of that effort into the reading, I would come to class the next day and not participate because I was embarrassed. 

In most classes, English is a challenging skill for international students, but in English class, language is the core. International students are tested and graded based on how skilled they are in a language that they did not grow up speaking. International students often quiet themselves in class due to fear of embarrassment, inability to think of the right word, or lack of cultural references.

Gathering the courage to speak is one thing, but actually knowing what to say is even more difficult. International students often find themselves unable to turn a thought into words. “Sometimes there are things that I want to say but I don’t necessarily know how to express them,” says Chloe Zhang (‘20). “I listen to my classmates more often than I speak.” There is a deep frustration that comes with having a great thought that you know could benefit the class and not being able to express it. Not only it is a moment of self-doubt, but it can also hurt a student’s grade and their will to engage in future discussions. 

Many international students arrive in the United States without the knowledge of American cultural references, which makes it difficult for them to be involved in discussions in and outside of class. The effort to relate aspects of English class to culture and history is necessary. However, much of the history and culture that is being taught is either about America or from an American perspective. 

Miriam, an English teacher at Friends Select School, used her tenth-grade class to showcase the America-centric nature of English classes in the United States. During a discussion about gender, she noticed that all the examples given by students were American. Quickly, the discussion transformed into a conversation about gender in America, which Miriam thought had “silenced the international perspectives in the room.” 

ESL (English as a Second Language) is a program that was developed to make it easier for international students to adjust to English classes. Up until 2018, Friends Select provided high school students with the option to take ELL classes instead of the regular English class. This program no longer exists at Friends Select, and as a result, students are automatically enrolled in regular English classes. This has both benefits and shortcomings. 

Chloe was in ELL class in her first year at FSS, and she feels as though it only pushed her backward in terms of how much she could have learned in ninth grade. She believes the way she was taught in ELL was not “helpful for later education” and that it should have been on a more “matched level” to the course taken by the domestic students. Still, Chloe views ELL as a good environment for international students to support each other.

Similarly to Chloe, Miriam can see the positive in having ELL classes when it is taught correctly: She says that “when it is done well, it offers students an unbelievable opportunity to be vulnerable.” Having a place where everyone else understands your experiences can provide an international student with space to express their thoughts, ask a question, or even to just have an hour in a day where they feel on a similar level as all the other students in the class.

ELL is not the only way to help international students improve and feel comfortable in class. Chloe remembers that during her first day at school, Erin, her former math teacher, helped her with math terms that she did not recognize. “She is really warm-hearted. She helped me out with a lot of questions.” From her experience with Erin and other teachers, Chloe believes that having teachers “reach out” could help international students who are too shy to ask for help.

Miriam views providing students with opportunities to reveal their knowledge and uniqueness outside of class as an important step in making international students feel included and understood: “it would be really valuable to do more outreach and more scaffolding of opportunities for international students to showcase their wisdom.” Like Chloe, Miriam touches on the point that reaching out to international students is at times necessary because many of them do not ask for help even when they need it.

Being an international student can be hard and demanding. Work might take twice as long as it takes other students, and mistakes happen often. Nevertheless, international students are unique and they bring a new way to view the world whenever they walk into a room. When asked if she thinks international students have advantages in class, Miriam could not have answered ‘yes’ faster. “Living in a country that is not your own forces you to mature and to be self-sufficient,” Miriam explained. This maturity is reflected in terms of international students’ familiarity with risks and failures at a young age: “Having the identity of a risk-taker is a really exciting thing in a classroom.” Knowing failures and taking risks that were proven unsuccessful are two things that build a person, and the younger you are when you encounter them, the more likely you are to accept and survive them when they come in the future, which they inevitably will.

Being an international student and having to socialize and learn in English can make you feel exposed, as though you are allowing the whole world a view into your greatest insecurity. In some way, it is like what Pearl was to Hester in The Scarlet Letter: a constant reminder of her weaknesses and parts of her that she did not want to be seen by others. Even though it is not easy, the unbelievable amount of learning and experience that you gain from an opportunity to learn a new culture in a different language makes all the challenges and hardships seem like a grain of salt. More than anything, being an international student in the United States, or even just at Friends Select, allows you to educate and open people’s eyes to the endless variety of cultures that exist outside of America.