For the life of me, I couldn't understand what they were saying. I truly wanted to contribute to my girlfriend’s conversation, and I understood all of the words she was saying to her friends, but the sentences she that came out of her mouth made almost no sense to me. What in the world is a Vera Bradley double tote with crossbody straps and a trendy clutch? How can a sundress be “crepe with a playful flutter”? And for the love of all things manly, why does everything lead back to conversations about shoes?! Despite my frustration with the current topic matter, I held in any desire I had to change the subject out of a fear of being made fun of; I didn’t want everyone to realize that I lacked any semblance of knowledge about the fashion industry. However, after 10 more minutes of listening to an argument over whether a skirt was cadet blue or turquoise, I finally jumped in, saying that I believed the skirt “would look better in ‘toke’”. The girls stared at me incredulously until they all broke out laughing. Apparently, I had butchered the pronunciation of the color “taupe” so badly that it more than unveiled my fashion ignorance, a moment that I look back on with dread anytime I see Jimmy Choo platform cork sandals. There I stood, shamed, embarrassed, exposed, and vulnerable, just because I had misused a word. International students feel any combination of these anytime they put a pen to paper; English language learners are all just boyfriends trying to figure out what a “skort” is.
Writing centers practice strategies to help international students understand how to use their technical understanding of the language in their writing. However, many practices often fail to address that American-born tutors simply cannot understand the struggle a non-native speaker faces practicing the English language in an English-speaking country. While this may seem discouraging at first, realizing this may provide an innovative way to approach international student teaching. In fact, the only students who can truly empathize with these language learners are other language learners. Helping these students by giving them access to similarly minded peers allows them a unique environment in which they can improve their English learning skills. By putting the ideas of group learning and collaborative learning into practice, writing tutors can utilize an incredibly powerful tool to help international students: the international student workshop.
Implementing a program like this is no easy task, but doing so is worth the trouble. Texas A&M University began its own international student workshop program in 2011 simply because there was a need for one. The program began as a small, open forum with only a couple students each week. Interest in the program grew, and the consultants behind the workshop continued to think about how they could use the workshop environment as a teaching advantage. This led to a set program for the workshop, where every week is dedicated to teaching a specific type of writing. For one week's meeting, the workshop leaders discussed resume building, paying special attention to aspects of the resume only international students would have. The consultants tailored their presentation to international students and the common questions they asked about the process. Then, because the consultants understood the importance of group learning in the workshop environment, the students were given an opportunity to work with their peers on writing an effective resume. The students soon began pointing out mistakes as they saw them and helped each other correct the errors. Coming from another English language learner, writing suggestions did not embarrass or discourage the students like it may have if it came from a native speaker. The consultants oversaw the interactions from a distance to ensure that accurate information was being conveyed without compromising the group learning element. In its infancy, the initial workshops saw less than 10 attendees per meeting. Now, just two years later, A&M’s international student workshop program has weekly sessions that welcome upwards of 40 students per session, and those that review the program continue to give it strong ratings for its innovative approach to international student learning.
At Texas A&M, the workshop’s leaders continue to groom the program to accommodate the feedback of the students who attend, creating a product that constantly improves and attracts new attendees. The success of the program, however, hinges not on the number of people who attend the workshop, but on how much each student gains from the unique learning environment. International student workshops may not work for all learners, specifically those who consider themselves introverts, but for those who give the workshops a shot, they are guaranteed a new perspective on the English language. And sometimes, perspective is all it takes to change “toke” to “taupe”.