ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Marc Mason, Library Undergraduate Services Associate at Arizona State University Libraries.
I had one of those days today. One of those rare ones, the kind of day where you walk around with a little more bounce in your step, your chin tilted a bit higher. It was a day where – hallelujah! – validation rained down upon my shoulders and washed away some of the frustrations I’ve felt lately on the job.
We could all use a few more of those days. Mine came about courtesy of our university’s International Students and Scholar Center. Prior to school starting, they held a day-long conference for all incoming international graduate students. This is the second time that the ISSC has put on this conference, and they have generously included me as a breakout session speaker each time. Last time out, around 20 students came to my talk, which I will admit was disappointing. I suppose the competition during that time slot was fierce, but my library-guy pride to this day still kind of believes it can’t have been that fierce and more students should have come to see me.
Arrogance? Sure. But I think libraries could use a little more swagger.
Because of that tiny turnout last time, I had little in the way of expectations going into this second conference. So it was more than a bit shocking when I arrived at my room to set up and saw that there were 240 chairs arranged in the audience. I can take a joke at my expense, but this had the look of something that was going to be embarrassing. I swear I felt my sense of pride start to shrivel. The time ticked down. The previous session finished. I held my breath.
A flood of people poured into my room. 180 of them as a matter of fact.
Floating on air, I did my thing, offering up the library services I wanted them to know about, and keeping them laughing all the way through. When I was done, over two dozen stayed to talk to me further. Like I said: it was incredibly validating. May each and every one of you have a day like that, and soon – that’s my wish for you.
I’ve been working with the international population for over seven years now, and in general, it is always my favorite part of my job (even when it isn’t one of “those” days). The opportunity to meet and teach people from all over the world is truly a gift. It has also put me in a position to speak at conferences on international student topics and to meet amazing colleagues from across the country in the process. It has given me the opportunity to see humanity in an incredible light, and to truly take a stand for tolerance. I would not trade it for anything. My job gives me the chance to continuously learn, both on an academic and on a cultural level.
I have occasionally been asked about best practices for working with international students, and with that in mind, I decided to put into words how I go about working with these student populations and their extraordinary cultural differences. I call it “Test for E.C.H.O.”
E stands for Empathy: The first thing you can do is show your capability for understanding. These folks have traveled thousands upon thousands of miles to be at your institution. Sometimes they have traveled for almost three days depending on long layovers. They’re far from home, they cannot get home easily, and everything is somewhat scary. The signage is in a second language. The odds of any random cashier speaking their native tongue is slim. Local foods may not sit well with their digestive systems for a while and they may get sick for the first few weeks of being here. Oh, and they may not see their families for a year or better. The whole process can be wildly intimidating, and all it takes is one bad interaction with a local to make them question their life decisions.
Don’t be that local. Keep some of the above in your mind and let it guide you in how you approach working with these students.
C stands for Care: After you have shown empathy, follow that up by demonstrating that you believe that they matter. That you care about them as fellow human beings. Don’t allow that physical distance they’ve traveled to become an emotional one as well. (Life need not always batter us with metaphors.) I can’t even begin to tell you how many students I have worked with over the last few years who responded to simple moments of genuine caring. Creating that connection grounds that student to the university and provides them a human connection to their educational experience.
Be that connection. It’s great for them, and I promise it’s great for you as well.
H stands for Humor: Different cultures have different senses of humor, that much is certain. But laughter creates a bond between you and the international student that will be of enormous benefit.
There is a tendency among many in our profession to take themselves very, very seriously. And I get that – we are the gatekeepers for information, freedom fighters against the tyranny of government overreach, yadda yadda yadda. However, that seriousness can also be rather intimidating, not just for our international students, but for all students. This sometimes places our expectations for students far out of reach for where their real capabilities lie. If and when that happens, students start avoiding the library, seeing it as a foreboding place where they do not belong.
We never want them to feel like they don’t belong. Right? So be silly. Tell a joke that revolves around a pop cultural artifact that has worldwide appeal. No matter where we are from, certain things are popular. Star Wars, Beyonce, Harry Potter… it isn’t difficult to find common ground. Use it to get some laughs, put their minds at ease, and create a learning experience they will never forget.
O stands for Optimism: And finally, help these students believe. When you are working and learning in a second language, particularly one as difficult as English, confidence is a fragile thing. Setbacks can be crippling, and doubts about one’s ability to succeed (not to mention the time and money put into coming to the U.S.) can set in quickly. Numerous students have shared their “I almost quit” stories with me since I started working with this population, and they all have pretty much the same plot: a failure of some sort, painful phone calls to friends/confidants expressing regret and fear, worries about how family may react when they go home in “disgrace,” and (for those who stuck it out) a eureka moment where they got the right help to carry them through their struggles.
A librarian can be that help. Be that help.
When working with an international learner, using phrases like “yes, you’ve got this” or “I can tell you understand this stuff” can make a massive difference as that student continues working through their assignments. The reassurance of an expert goes a long way towards solidifying confidence and building a strong mindset for success. And they’ll remember the part you played in that success, I promise you.
The world isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and neither is the influx of international students to U.S. schools. Cultural literacy and competency is going to become one of the most critical skills our library staff can possess. So as you find yourself working with this population – whether individually or whole classes – take just a moment to remind yourself to test for E.C.H.O. Trust me – you’ll be glad you did. And you’ll have more than a few of those kinds of days.