The following is in response to the opinion piece “Internationalizing the Canadian campus: ESL students and the erosion of higher education” by Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney.
When I first read the commentary by Drs. Friesen and Keeney on “ESL students and the erosion of higher education,” I was astounded and in disbelief. As an English-as-a-second-language student, I could not but feel offended. Yet, the more I reflected on their sentiments the more I came to see a much broader issue than xenophobia, linguicism or simple ignorance as suggested in some of the reader comments. Internationalizing the Canadian campus is not simply a matter of recruiting more international students. It is also a matter of providing the facilities that are needed to cater to new needs while not only profiting financially but also academically from an increasingly diverse community of students and faculty alike.
I came to Canada after completing my undergraduate and first graduate degrees, in English, in the U.K. and in Japan. I had been raised in German in Germany. My English was good enough to get accepted into an English degree program, but not to inevitably succeed in it. The challenges of higher education were multiplied – not only did I have to learn to think academically, but I had to do so in a foreign language and in a cultural environment that I was barely familiar with.
I was lucky. My university was committed to ESL students and to quality education. Language support and training in academic writing (and culture) were quintessential components of any ESL student’s experience there. Already after the first semester my ESL colleagues and I were succeeding. We had surpassed many native English-speaking students in our ability to express ourselves academically, orally and in writing, and many of us were ranking at the top of our classes. Some native speakers, on the other hand, were left behind. They were simply assumed to know. Many, especially first-generation students, did not.
Today, several years later, I am not only an ESL student but also an instructor, at least in training. I know of the challenges that come with a multilingual, multicultural classroom. I see why teachers (and students alike) can, at times, be frustrated with linguistic inadequacies, diverging expectations and different knowledge bases. Perhaps even more so, I can agree with Drs. Friesen and Keeney that the presence of ESL students “fundamentally changes teaching and learning.” However, I unequivocally reject the directions they take and their trenchant disregard for the tremendous benefits of the international campus.
Higher education is Canada’s most profitable export to China and is its eighth-largest export sector overall. As such, it is here to stay, but not to guarantee quality education. My own experience suggests that without a comprehensive approach to ESL and higher education the challenges may outweigh the benefits, especially for students. Therefore, if internationalizing the Canadian campus is to be more than a short-term financial goal, if the long-term vision is to move beyond localized knowledge towards an integration of broader experiences within international/global knowledge production, then we should listen to the frustrations of Drs. Friesen and Keeney. These issues need to be addressed at their roots and not simply to be brushed away as some form of “-ism.”
International students are always catered to. International student offices provide special classes and trips to help these students get to know local customs and the language. They prepare students for culture shock and recommend making local friends. They serve students’ social lives and bureaucratic needs. Academic writing and conversation, on the other hand, are too often secondary. Not everyone is as lucky as I was.
International student support networks too often lose track of the academic needs of ESL students, and most certainly they barely reach the teachers. Academic teaching is still mostly at the purview of faculty only. I have, voluntarily, participated in many of the teacher training programs offered at my Canadian institution, and I continue to be baffled. Considerations about the multilingual and multicultural classroom commonly take a backseat to broader educational concerns. The assumption seems to persist: the campus is still internationalizing yet not international and, even more so, teaching is business as usual. Teaching and learning have not fundamentally changed.
It should not come as a surprise that faculty can find it difficult to cope, to teach across cultures and across language barriers while maintaining a primary focus on academic training. Their concerns should not be dismissed and, most of all, neither should the concerns of ESL students. They, I, are in Canada because the Canadian educational system has something to offer. A comprehensive approach to the international campus should be at the heart of it.
Stephanie Hobbis is the recipient of a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and is a co-supervised PhD student in social and cultural analysis at Concordia University and in social anthropology and ethnology at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.