EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally posted on International Student Voice Magazine. The story was written by Sirui Lu, an international student from China at Ohio University. In the article, Lu calls to attention the issues that surround conditionally accepted international graduate students at OU.
Lu is a guest writer for Speakeasy Magazine.
This story is about conditionally accepted graduate international students who said they struggled to be heard due to language barriers. According to these graduate students, they suffered because they were poorly informed by the authority and were not able to communicate with the authority in time. The authority (administrators), respond to the students’ concerns, saying steps are in place to guide these students.
Nan Xin, from China, is a first-year master’s student at the College of Business School. When I asked her if we could do an interview, she invited me to her apartment. When I first saw her room, I was shocked by its simplicity: a twin-size bed with a piece of white sheet, a blue pillow and a comforter. Alongside the bed, a table was placed with a laptop on it and a closet to the opposite. After a few seconds, I woke up from the illusion: it was not simple. Things were just so well-organized as if they were hiding from my sight.
However, her life was not in perfect order when she just arrived at Ohio University. One year ago, Xin was conditionally accepted by the College of Business School. Being drowned in the excitement of the new environment and being poorly informed by the authority, Xin missed the right time to apply for the level of English class she expected. This missing out elongates the time she spent on language program and hikes up the total amount of money for tuition fees, which entails her year-long upset about herself and also the English learning program.
“The first two weeks in the United States were crazy. Too many things going on,” Xin said. Her voice sounded as gentle as her long black hair. Xin’s new life in U.S. started with a Language placement test- TOEFL Institutional Testing Program (ITP) organized by the Ohio Program of Intensive English (OPIE).
“The ITP test is important because it decides your level in OPIE,” She said with eyes staring on the floor, recalling from the past, “but I did not do well.” After the ITP test, students would be placed to different levels of English class according to their language proficiency. It is also required that once the placement completes, students have to finish the language program level by level if students fail to use other pathways, for instance, to take another ITP test and score more than 550. So the placement mostly decides how long students will have to study in OPIE.
“I was placed at the level of full-time language study based on the ITP result. So I could not take academic classes,” Xin frowned as she added, “But if I had known earlier about the policy for graduate students, I could have started from a higher level, which would save me a lot of money and time.”
Although the placement decision for each student given by the OPIE is based on students’ ITP results, there is one policy for the graduate students that if they have multiple valid results from other legitimate language tests (IBT TOEFL, IELTS), they could select the best result for the placement, according to the OPIE Student Handbook 2013-2014.
“I do not think anyone from authority mentioned that policy to us voluntarily before the ITP, or even after it,” Xin said with a little upset, “I never thought about using other results for this placement.”
It seems like it is students’ responsibility to report to the authority if they want to use an alternative result for the placement, but students claimed that they did not report because they did not know the policy. “I didn’t even know I could select the best one for the placement. Why would I report other results for no reason,” Xin raised the volume of her voice, scratching her head with one hand.
Xin also said, “When I first came here, I was afraid to speak in English. I was afraid to ask. And I did not know whom to ask and where to start.” In addition to her language problems, Xin also said the time for her to figure things out was too short.
According to the OPIE students handbook, the placement and placement changes should be completed by the Friday of the first week. But students usually do not whom to ask about the test before they really get in touch with the OPIE advisors. Obviously, the time was too short for students to understand the process. “When I knew the policy, it was too late for the placement changes,” Xin said with a little upset.
If Xin was able to use the better result for the placement, “I could save $7400, I would also be able to take two more academic courses and graduate in the Spring 2016,” she added as she folded her fingers to show me how many things have been postponed and misplaced, “now I don’t know if I can graduate next summer.”
Xin is not a unique case. Same things happened to two other students from the College of Business, Zhengxiang Luo and Zishuo Song. Luo was placed to the full-time English study in OPIE according to the ITP results. It was also too late when he figured that he could have studied in the part-time English study which would enable him to take 9 academic hours. “I only noticed this policy at the beginning of the second semester in OPIE.”
Song had to enroll two English Language Improvement Program (ELIP) courses based on his ITP results. He also found it too late that he could actually take only one ELIP course if he used his IBT TOEFL results. “I don’t remember anyone told me before or after the ITP during the first a few weeks in the U.S., that we could use previous results for the placement.” He also recalled that when it was his turn to consult the advisors in ELIP program, he was only told he had to score higher than 80 for IBT TOEFL or 550 for the ITP, to stop taking the English courses from ELIP.
Students who did not suffer from this ill-informed situation also claimed that they never heard of this policy. “I don’t remember anyone talked to us about the criteria for placement and the related policy before or after the ITP. I just assume that if I have higher scores in ITP, I will be placed in higher level of classes.” Kan Liu said, a first year master students from the College of Business School. He also added that he did not know this policy until many of his friends realize it was too late for them to make the placement changes. Hsiu-ting Chen, a master student from the School of Music also said she did not know alternative results could be used for the placement.
Other students interviewed from countries, such as Saudi Arabic, Brazil, and Oman, did not seem to have similar concerns because they either did not have multiple results or they were able to score more than 550 in another ITP test.
Actually, this life-changing policy is quietly written in the OPIE student’s handbook and on OPIE official website. If students were able to go through the whole handbook and surfing the website for relevant information in the super busy first two weeks in the U.S., they would be able to avoid the troubles later.
However, it is ironic to expect students who already need to take language improvement courses to finish reading all the information in English in such a short time, considering there were other things going on in their life.
Although students said that they never heard anyone from authority mention this policy to them, Dawn Bikowski, the director of ELIP claimed that she makes checklists for students and tries to explain the process to students when they consult her. She said, “I always check students’ IBT results. I actually found some students and asked them, ‘are you sure you want to use your Institutional TOEFL test result?’”
Bikowski also mentioned that OU is flexible and allows students to come in lots of different ways, which makes it difficult to pinpoint at one authority that should be responsible to the graduate students in such situation. She added, “OPIE has an advisor to help students with that Kathryn Hille, I advise students who will be taking class with us, and the graduate college has to be involved to make sure their paper work taken care of. The ISFS office has to be involved to make sure their I-20 is taken care of. So we all work together to make sure.”
Having lived in several Asian countries for years, Gerard Krzic, the director of OPIE program has his own understanding of the inefficiency in communication between the program and its students. He observed that when some students are confused, they prefer to talk to their friends instead of asking for help from their advisors. He said, “I understand the students from different cultures might have different understandings towards the authority,,” he said, “But in the U.S., you will have to ask. Ask us, ask your advisors. When you come to a new environment, you will have to change your mindset.” He added, “I really suggest students to take advantage of the office hours. This could save them from a lot of troubles.”
Although Xin gradually adapted to the life and study in U.S., she still sometimes feels disturbed when she recalls the experience. She said, “I really can’t help thinking what if I was able to take one more academic class in the first semester, what I would be like now.”