Surviving Whatcom- Workshop Helps International Students Succeed

Story By Alix LeTouze

The International Office at Whatcom Community College established three workshops in April and May called “Survivor” to help international students who struggle in their academic studies be more successful.

Beth Robinson, the international student advisor and Iris Metzgen-Ohlswager, the community college initiative advisor, created this event to help international students “ navigate in this all-new system while [they are] learning actually new concepts and a new language,” Robinson said.

Robinson said that she is not able to experience what it is really like to be an international student in an American classroom, and that is why she and Metzgen-Ohlswager asked three international students to help them.

Those students were chosen because “they are students who are very successful at navigating the system,” Robinson said. “I think students learning from student mentors is probably some of the best assistance that they can get.”

Rania Al-Shareef, an international student who participated in the second workshop, said that she feels more “comfortable” talking to students. “They understand [my situation] better.”
Robinson said, “[academic classes are] a game, and if you know the rules of the game, you can play the game well.”

Because of this, during the first workshop on April 12, they did an overview of an American classroom’s expectations. “We talked about certain things that some people may think are obvious, but aren’t obvious to people who come from different systems,” Robinson said.

Robinson and Metzgen-Ohlswager explained to the international students how participation might affect their grades and how the grading system works. They also specified the importance of homework and study groups.

“We do a lot of study groups here in the U.S., and it’s not easy for international students because we speak a different language,” said Sonia Herman, one of the three student mentors. “But we need to be confident about ourselves to be successful.”

Dasuni Garunsinghe, another international student chosen to mentor, said that during the first workshop international students got together and formed groups of three people. They were asked to build spaghetti-marshmallow towers as a team. She said that this activity showed them how to interact with each other as well as state their opinion and politely disagree.

Polite disagreement could be really challenging for some international students since it might beconsidered rude to do so in their own country, Robinson said.

During the second workshop on April 26, the students met in a computer lab in Cascade Hall to learn how to send a professional email. Metzgen-Ohlswager gave advice such as “your subject line should be really specific.” Students had the chance directly to apply what they learned by sending an email to Robinson.

Robinson and Metzgen-Ohlswager also showed the students how to navigate the OASIS (Online Access to Student Information System) website. Then, they gave them a list of information to find on the website.
Al-Shareef said that this activity was very useful because she didn’t know how to use OASIS before.

The third workshop is planned on May 24. Robinson and Metzgen-Ohlswager will give advice to international students to help them organize their study time as well as tips for taking notes.

Kevin Lie, who is the third international student chosen as a mentor, said that everyone who participated would get a certificate. When the international students apply to university, this certificate shows that even though they had difficulties, they tried their best to succeed, Metzgen-Ohlswager said.

Besides the orientation week that the International Office puts together to welcome international students each quarter, Robinson said that she hopes to create a “community of learners” where international students can get together in an informal context and talk about issues that they are facing or simply discuss and ask questions.

“I really believe that with the right tools and understanding of the system, and the motivation to find those things, students can be successful,” Robinson said.

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