Over the past year senior Ramona Lin, double major in Economics and Anthropology, has been working on an Honors project that investigates how students who speak English as a second language (ESL) go through the process of acquiring academic writing skills and its impact on their future learning experiences. Lin is an ESL student from China.
Lin has been approaching her research for her project from an anthropological perspective and focusing on an individual’s experience with academic writing. In doing so, she conducted in-depth interviews with 10 ESL students from China about their personal experiences. She said she chose to focus on Chinese students because she understands their language and education system, but thinks that the project can be applied to greater groups of ESL students.
The Knox Student: What made you want to start this Honors project?
Ramona Lin: I guess just speaking from my personal experience, I wanted to go to a graduate school after Knox. … I wanted to do well in class, but because both of my majors require writing and reading a lot, I had to write and keep working on my writing. That cycle allowed me to realize how important it is to be able to write well, and it’s a really important social capital that international students can [benefit] from.
I became a writing tutor during my sophomore year for the CTL. It just came to my attention that a lot of international students have brilliant ideas, but they might not have the means yet to express the ideas. And I’m just curious [about] what happens to them afterwards, like did they get a good grade? Did they keep working on writing? So it’s a sense of curiosity. … I think that’s a meaningful way to give back, just to do an Honors project and to really explore ESL students in academic writing and see what I can find, and hopefully [that] finding would be helpful for teachers and for students and for administrations.
TKS: What has been a highlight of your project?
RL: I was really touched by my interviewees. For most of them it was our first conversation. We’ve been seeing each other on the campus, but we never talked. The topic we talked about was pretty personal: not only their achievements, but also their failures and their struggles. So they were very candid about their experience. So that was very intense and overwhelming experience emotionally. … It also makes me wonder how many of their classmates, especially American classmates, have known that. How much of their unique experiences have come across to the campus, the classmates, and to the teachers. They can contribute so much diversity of the campus.
TKS: What conclusions did you come to?
RL: I guess there are two things. First of all there’s a dialectical relationship between students’ previous experience and academic writing skills. When they first come to the states, if they know what exactly they want through this education, then they are at least mentally prepared for hardships, because it is a hard process to integrate into this community and this culture. … It’s like a feedback loop. Some of them are at the upper spiral, who came to the states prepared, and they see the results of it and that further motivates them. But for some of them, they’re at bottom spiral before they even realize it.
Another thing that I found out is that sympathy versus empathy when it comes to what the school can do for international students. For some of them, they don’t feel engaged in the college’s writing courses. They don’t think the courses were helpful. They acknowledge the helpfulness of the instructor, but they don’t necessarily think that he or she was teaching the right stuff. So there’s just a disconnection between the teachers’ catalogue to student’s self-reported needs. It’s self-reported but it’s what the students think they need. And that really affects students’ learning experiences. What I mean by sympathy is that what the school thinks they need, and how they should help them. If the students don’t think it helps them, it affects students’ motivation.
TKS: Do you have anything left to say to TKS readers?
RL: Yes. There’s one finding. What my interviewee told me … they don’t prioritize interacting with American students. They would prefer hanging out with Chinese students, that it’s a shame. But he also pointed out that American students do the same thing. That drove two groups apart. … But once you pass that stage, then you really understand that no matter where the student is from … of course we’re going to be different but all American students are different as well, so I think it’s a matter of acceptance and how willing you are to listen to each other to learn from each other. Speaking from personal experience, it’s communicable. You can talk it out. You really can learn from each other.
Correction: A quote toward the end of the article was taken out of context and may imply that all Chinese students at Knox do not prioritize interacting with their American peers; instead, Lin was quoting one of her interviewees to explain the potential misconception between Chinese and American students. The point Lin was trying to deliver is that Chinese and American students are equally likely to stay in their comfort zones, and that can drive the two groups further apart. Earlier in the article,TKS also wrote that Lin used the words “bottom spiral,” while she actually used the expression “downward spiral.”