Last April, five international faculty members participated in an AHSS panel discussion during DU’s International Week. The panelists shared stories of their own adjustments to living and teaching in the U.S. and at DU. They talked about their journeys, their struggles and their successes with a roomful of international and domestic students and faculty.
Nearly 17 percent of AHSS faculty members are from countries outside of the U.S. With the beginning of a new school year, this month we asked three of the former panelists to share their perspectives on adapting to a U.S. university. Pilyoung Kim (South Korea), assistant professor of psychology, joined DU in 2012. Maik Nwosu (Nigeria), associate professor in the department of English, has been with DU since 2006. Yavuz Yasar (Turkey), associate professor in the economics department, has been teaching at DU since 2003.
Read what they have to say…
Please explain the differences in higher education between your country of origin and the U.S.
Kim: South Korea has a relatively more conservative society that also emphasizes harmonious interpersonal relationships in all contexts. This is reflected in higher education systems – for example, there is a more strict hierarchical structure between professors and students. There are discussions between them, but it is rare that students would explicitly challenge their professors’ ideas or teaching styles. There is also a strict hierarchical structure among students. Lower-year students show a lot of respect to upper-year students; and in return, upper-year students are very willing to take care of lower-year students and mentor them in their studies and career plans. This creates very close and tight relationships among students in various group sizes and contexts, although the relationships among students and professors tend to be more formal. Also in Korea it’s typically very difficult to get any research experience as an undergraduate student (reserved for master’s or doctoral students), so very selective students tend to get such opportunities.
Nwosu: Nigerian higher education is mostly modeled after the British system, or rather after both the British and the American system, and is quite international in character.
Yasar: Thanks to what some call “globalization,” the differences between higher education systems in different countries have been narrowing, if not becoming “uniform.” But in those days when I was studying (the mid-1980s and the early 1990s), there were three major aspects that are worth mentioning. First, the educational resources (e.g., computers, labs, textbooks, dorms, etc.) were relatively scarce and low quality in comparison with the U.S. universities. Second, there was an absolute and unquestionable authority of the faculty members. It was almost impossible to question and/or challenge their beliefs and the material that they used to teach. On the other hand, what we have here in the U.S. is, in a sense, just the opposite. It seems to me that the students in the U.S., whether it makes sense or not, think that they can question and challenge everything, even those well-established facts (e.g., the world is round). Finally, the student body then and now in Turkey was and still is politicized and very active in reacting to political and social affairs. This is something that we do not see much in the U.S.
What have been your biggest challenges in adapting to the U.S. and DU?
Kim: In terms of adapting to the U.S., it would be language and cultural differences.
Nwosu: I went to school in Syracuse (N.Y.), and I initially had a difficult time getting used to the weather.
Yasar: Initially, my major challenge in adapting to the U.S. was language, since I came here with very limited English. In addition, it was difficult to decipher and accept some of the cultural codes and norms, such as the boundaries of personal distance and degree of individualism. I have to admit that I am still struggling with the relatively strong individualism aspect of the U.S. culture. As for DU, I would like say that I really like my department and what I teach there. Yet, after 10 years, I still feel that I do not know many of my colleagues except for those in the department.
What advice do you have for international students at DU?
Kim: My advice for international students is not to focus solely on difficulties they are facing, such as difficulties in language and cultural adaptation. I fully empathize with their challenging experience as being international students on campus. However, focusing on difficulties may create negative and/or inaccurate ideas on self-image and competence level. Instead, I would like to encourage them to focus on their strengths: unique and diverse perspectives from different experiences and insights that they have and also to find ways to best utilize those strengths in their fields of studies and experiences of being at DU.
Nwosu: International students should strive to properly understand or master the DU and the American system without necessarily turning their back on their core cultural values. It’s important to note that true diversity is reasonably inclusive, including the differences that make us international or human.
Yasar: My first advice would be “don’t give up.” If they make it that far, the rest is easy. Neither language nor the subject matter they study should be seen as an obstacle. Just give it time and ask questions. Never stop asking questions. I also strongly suggest cooperation rather than competition. (And please notice that I am advising cooperation over competition as an economist). Help each other and study together. Things they do together (e.g., studying or going to a movie) would be more productive, more memorable, and meaningful.
Get more information about the office of internationalization at DU.