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Monday, September 20, 2021

Language barriers separate student body

UW-Madison international student Xiaofei Xu struggled to integrate with the local community on campus—until he studied abroad in Paris with roughly 30 other students during the fall semester of his junior year.

Xu grew up in a city near Hong Kong and decided to attend UW-Madison in 2013, without ever visiting the campus.

Both the school’s history and journalism programs were ideal for him, Xu said.

There are more than 4,000 international students from roughly 130 countries currently enrolled at UW-Madison, though most are from China.

According to Xu, academic programs for international students at UW-Madison are geared toward students in science or engineering majors, which covers most of the students. 

But Xu, however, studies in the humanities, saying he hopes to graduate with a double major in history and journalism, while also learning French.

Students applying from non-English speaking countries are required to submit either a TOEFL or IELTS score in their applications to ensure their English writing is proficient.

Following their admittance, international students then need to take an English as a Second Language Placement Test to determine their placement for ESL courses.

Upon his arrival at Madison, Xu had to complete three courses to finish his ESL 118 requirement.

In his first year at UW-Madison, Xu also took classes to begin his studies in history and journalism, which were mostly writing-intensive courses.

While being graded on papers in history and journalism classes to pursue his degree, Xu was still taking the required ESL classes to learn and improve academic reading, writing and grammar in English.

“To some extent [ESL] did prepare me, but sometimes it doesn’t makes sense to me,” Xu said. “It’s a little bit too late for me because my case is kind of unique, because I’m taking history and journalism classes.”

Bomi Kim, an international student who earned her Ph.D. in social work from UW-Madison, said that even though the Writing Center can be a great resource for many students on campus, it falls short in some areas.

“It’s kind of notorious around international students because they don’t correct any grammatical errors at all,” Kim said.

Though many of his classes were writing intensive, Xu said speaking is also an important component of many humanities classes.

Classes in the humanities often have a discussion or participation proponent to the course, which hinders international students like Xu who are not entirely confident in their English proficiency.

His uneasiness in classroom discussions paralleled his attempts to intermingle with local students. He said he did not feel confident in either his cultural awareness or English proficiency.

Xu said through his first two years at UW-Madison, he practically only made friends with other international students, who were mostly from China, even though they were not in any of his classes.

“[In Madison] you share similarities with your fellow Chinese students,” Xu said. “Which is what enables those friendships to grow.”

According to Xu, UW-Madison’s programs provided for international students are adequate for academic preparations, but the programs did not help him integrate socially or culturally on campus.

He said he felt as if he was not involved in an international program, because he only surrounded himself with other international students.

Two years after his arrival at UW-Madison, Xu left for Paris for a study abroad program with about 30 other students.

He was the only international student on the trip.

“American students aren’t really trying to reach out to other international students. But in Paris, they became the minority,” Xu said. “You could see how different they behaved, how they became more open-minded. They became more open to the society when they were in my position.”

Xu said his time abroad was the experience that ultimately made him feel comfortable as an international student.

“Now that they understand what I felt back in the States, we have something to talk about,” Xu said. “That’s important too because you can’t make friends that you don’t even share anything with. But this thing in Paris is something we can share.”

Xu said he feels more comfortable talking to people outside of his bubble and joining discussion in class after returning from Paris.

While Xu’s experience was invaluable for his social integration, he said most international students at UW-Madison do not take the opportunity of studying abroad in another country.

According to Xu, UW-Madison’s international population could be of great advantage for the school; however, the student body tends to culturally segregate.

“It’s not really international, it’s just some bubbles. You have the Chinese bubble, you have the U.S. bubble, the Japanese bubble, the Korean bubble,” Xu said. “The sense of international that I understand is that you destroy these bubbles and you mix people together. You make them communicate with each other. That’s the way you can destroy persistent stereotypes.” 

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