Communicating Effectively with Chinese Students
- By Jacqueline Drouin
Since the implementation of the US-Sino Pathway Program (USPP) in 2010, a program that provides an academically rigorous pathway for talented Chinese students who want to pursue their undergraduate studies at UVM, the University of Vermont is slowly realizing its goal of building a more international student population. Within the past four years, a rather homogenous New England student population saw a gradual increase in the number of students from China, with over 75 USPP students studying at UVM this semester.
This sudden increase in USPP students added more diversity and opportunities for global friendships to develop at UVM, but concurrently a realization that sometimes cultural differences allow for moments of communication breakdowns between students, faculty and staff. The question that emerged amongst staff and faculty members was whether they were truly prepared for cross-cultural communication with Chinese students.
"The truth is," commented Professor Emeritus Juefei Wang during an EDU@UVM panel discussion, "The Chinese students at the University of Vermont feel that they are very well supported by the staff and faculty."
The audience of staff and faculty at the EDU@UVM Communicating Effectively with Chinese Students workshop looked pleased upon hearing Dr. Wang’s comment. In 1985, he himself arrived at UVM as a graduate student and was one of five international students from China at UVM. Since then, Dr. Wang noted, the number of international students from China has increased, which has resulted in a greater demand for support by staff for these students. As one of five students from China in 1985, Dr. Wang reflected that he had no choice but to integrate into UVM’s community. Presently, the incoming USPP students arrive in large groups and, in certain cases, isolated themselves as a group from UVM’s academic and social culture. "The challenge," continues Professor Wang, "will be to help these USPP students overcome the barriers that prevent them from integrating successfully as UVM students."
The EDU@UVM workshop presentation was a collaborative effort between faculty members and staff in the College of Education and Social Services and the School of Business. Jennifer Fath, a Student Service Specialist in the School of Business, works with the largest population of USPP students at the University of Vermont. Since the program inception at UVM, Jennifer has worked with the program, traveling to China to meet the incoming students and their families. “We’re learning as we go along.” Jennifer explained, noting that her years of working with the USPP program have allowed her college to collect large amounts of information on how to best support and work with USPP students.
“Academic integrity has been an issue.” explained Jennifer. “But placed in the context of Chinese culture and education, copying or replicating someone’s work is considered a sign of respect.” Another cultural challenge is the concept of FERPA and the American practice of having students meet with their academic advisor individually, as opposed to an educational culture in China that places a great emphasis on the group. Unlike the parents of American students who have no qualms about picking up the phone and calling administrators or faculty at UVM with questions about course selection, grades, and internships, in China parents will place complete trust in the education system to make the best decisions. “It’s completely against traditional Chinese culture for a parent to question the university’s decisions.”
Questions raised by audience members during the panel ranged from understanding more about why Chinese students prefer to be in groups, and practices of speaking English very quickly when speaking to student service specialists. As an English language teacher in China, Visiting Scholar Wang Ping offered some insight as to why Chinese students may choose to speak extra fast when communicating with a native English speaker.
"This is their way of showing the listener that they understand the language." explained Wang Ping. In her presentation, Wang Ping noted that this generation of students on campus are from the “one-child generation”, meaning that they are the center of attention at home and are being given ample opportunities in order for them to reach the high academic expectations set for them by their parents. “But because they are the center of attention, some of them have hardly any life skills, such as managing money, daily life, or interpersonal skills.”
Wang Ping shared with the audience key aspects of Chinese culture that transcend into communication patterns. Face saving, Wang Ping noted, is an important feature in Chinese culture, explaining that multiple approaches will be taken by a student in order to “save face” for all. The use of indirect speech is another important concept, as students will refrain from saying what they really think because they are concerned with whether or not his or her words are correct.
As the session drew to a close, Dr. Wang noted that when a USPP student comes to a staff member to ask for help, whether they speak fast or slow, whether they arrive for help by themselves or in a group, to remember that USPP students, like all students, are sensitive to being addressed harshly. “Even if they don’t show it in their face, in their hearts they will hurt.” If the student can tell that the staff member is making an effort to communicate with them kindly, then the student knows that good quanxi, the Chinese word for “connections”, are being built between the student and the university.