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May 01, 2003

Program helps students navigate other cultures

The popular reality TV shows “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” challenge participants who find themselves dropped off in a foreign land, forced to navigate a culture that is very different from their own – a task that results in many of them saying “I want to go home!”

Some of those same challenges face many international students at CSUS, who find themselves unaware of many cultural practices so familiar to their American counterparts, and hesitant to interact with American students because of their lack of knowledge about their peers.

But the same hesitancy plagues American students as well, according to English professor Cynthia Linville, who has noticed in her experience teaching both international and American students that there wasn’t much interaction between the two groups.

This cultural gap was bothersome to Linville, who ultimately shifted the theme of her English 20 class to “Cross Cultural Perspectives.” As part of the class, students are offered the option to participate in the Cross Cultural Exchange Partner Program, which pairs international and American students for 10 weeks of hour-long meetings aimed at helping both understand a culture different from their own.

Ironically, Linville began the program in fall 2001, and had no idea how timely the project would be for her students. “September 11 hit and the program became even more important,” Linville says.

Linville finds that students who join the program hoping to learn about their partner and their partner’s culture, often end up learning as much, if not more, about themselves. “Their own cultural perspectives tend to be invisible until placed side by side with another culture,” Linville says.

That was certainly the case for American student Shannon Croft, who participated in the program last semester and found it to be a lot more interesting than the alternative – hours in the library doing “book” research on other cultures.

“I find I can learn more by doing something and I felt that meeting someone would give me more insight because of non-verbal communication,” Croft says. “My partner, who was from Vietnam, cleared up a lot of stereotypes and offered more knowledge than could be found in books.”

Heather Judy, an American student who also participated in the program last semester, agrees. Judy was paired with a student from Japan, who was happy to share elements of her culture. “I learned how their school system works, how the government works and about family structure,” Judy says. “We worked well through the program and had a good time too.” The two even went to the movies outside of their scheduled meetings during the semester they were paired together.

Although Judy felt her partner already had an understanding of American culture because she had visited the United States prior to being a student here, that’s not the case for every international student.

Coming to America was a culture shock for Pratik Patel, a student from India, who found life to be very different from his own country. “I have found most
Americans to be open-minded and friendly, while people in India are somewhat conservative,” Patel says.

Patel, who admits that even though he lives in America he still spends most of his free time with other Indian students, says he ultimately decided to participate in the program because he not only wanted to learn more about American culture, but because “I wanted to make American friends and improve my communication skills.”

According to Linville, the program seems to be working. “There’s nothing like putting course content into practice to improve understanding,” she says. “And most students have really enjoyed this focus, and their grades have reflected that.”

Linville has monitored the program over the past few years and has made a few changes, including increasing the language-level requirements for international students, and providing more written information to the international students so they could better prepare for the meetings. She gives American students a list of suggested questions to discuss, and makes those available to the international students as well.

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