The New Normal

A professor adjusts to the changing demographics of his classroom

Frank Maddox

Associate Professor of Economics, Oxford College

inside illustrationDuring my twenty-three years teaching economics Oxford College I have always benefited from the presence of international students. Their perspectives facilitate my efforts to incorporate topics on the global economy. During most of this time my expectations of and attitude toward these students and their academic performance was this: they had chosen to study abroad in the U.S., so they needed to modify/adjust in order to succeed in my classroom. 

Then came the fall of 2010. On the first day of class I assumed there was some mistake when I reviewed the class roster—I walked into the class and realized there was no mistake. More than half of the students were F-1 visa Chinese students. As I struggled to call the roll, a few students helped out by offering “English” names—most did not. I was somewhat mortified. 

We Oxford faculty had been told there would be a marked increase in the number of F-1 visa students. This phenomenon is not unique to Oxford and Emory Colleges. The mounting domestic student demand for financial aid has forced the academy to augment revenues by enrolling students who pay full tuition. What I hadn’t envisioned was that most of these students would be interested in the business curriculum—at Oxford that meant they would most all take economics. What I’m really trying to say is that what I encountered the first day of class that semester is my “new normal.” I expect for the rest of my career I will be teaching classes with a large percentage, and often a vast majority, of F-1 visa students. 

Suddenly my old attitude—that they had chosen to study abroad so they needed to adjust—was clearly inappropriate. My joy and reward over the years at Oxford had been sustained relationships with former students lasting for years after their graduation. For me, that joy felt threatened. I realized it was now my job to make adjustments, so that these students, who as a group appeared so very different from me, would not be seen by me as other. I was sincerely concerned about whether I could make the adjustments. I wrote in my annual report to my dean after that first year, “I feel strongly that the impact of the changing student demographic is adversely affecting the classroom in my discipline more than most disciplines.” 

So let’s look at how I got into the solution—how I started the legwork to alter my view of these students as other. And I’m not alone in this effort; currently Oxford College is stepping up its efforts to be responsible to the larger cohort of international students. This October I joined a team of faculty and staff to attend the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference titled Global Learning in College. The conference’s goal is to “examine campus practices that match the ambitious goals of global learning with concrete learning opportunities that help students gain the knowledge, skills, and commitments needed for global competence.” (http://www.aacu.org/meetings/global/index.cfm) Organically, accommodating a growing international cohort also guides our focus towards a more global perspective—an experience Oxford and Emory colleges share with peer institutions. 

My first step was to personally connect with these students in and out of class. In fall 2010 Ewing Lou was my perfect advocate; as president of the International Student Organization, she arranged a couple of dinners for me to spend time with international students. In spring 2011, she and I convened a party of thirty international students at my log cabin in Decatur. My partner said, “I’ve never seen a group of students more able to have a good time.” A natural extension of my increasing interest in these students was to incorporate more classroom coverage and assignments on other countries. At home I’ve added China Central Television (CCTV) to my “favorites;” CCTV is the predominant state television broadcaster in mainland China. I now read with more interest the global coverage in the Economist.

Opportunities for faculty travel to other countries also foster authentic global interests. Fifteen years ago I joined a Halle Institute-sponsored faculty trip to India. The natural result was that I integrated anecdotes and examples stemming from that trip into my lectures and discussions; I know one faculty member on that trip who shifted his entire research agenda towards issues of globalization. Such trips can be life altering. In spring 2012 I joined a group of Emory faculty for a conference in Nanjing, China, as well as a series of receptions for students who would be attending Oxford and Emory in fall 2012. We were in Beijing, Seoul, Nanjing, Suzhou, and finally Shanghai. At the reception in Nanjing a cheerful voice asked me, “Do you like Japanese food?” When I replied, “Yes,” she beamed and said, “Then you will never forget my name—I’m Suxi (pronounced “Sushi”). I loved Nanjing and promised the students to take them to see my hometown one day. 

When I returned from China to Oxford, Stacy Bell (an English faculty member who made a similar faculty trip to China the year before) and I decided to call upon the Oxford faculty to form an international student advocacy committee. That committee convened in fall 2012. It comprises twenty stakeholders on campus who recognize the importance of being intentional with regard to the assimilation of international students. Representatives from admissions, student life, the counseling center, and the development office currently complement the faculty membership. 

My experience is that most F-1 students are eager for opportunities to delve into an experience of our Southern culture. Last fall I invited “Sushi” into my office and asked her help to gather Nanjing students for the promised trip to my hometown of Madison. Madison is a historic town sixty miles east of Atlanta—famous for Sherman’s stay and refusal to burn the beautiful homes. I took them on a walking tour of the historic districts and wound up at the Cultural Center—an old brick schoolhouse now a lovely museum and auditorium. The docent allowed these Chinese students to ring the old school bell; this was a thrill for me since I knew my dad had been in charge of ringing the very same school bell when he was a little boy attending one of the state’s first graded schools. The adage that most education happens outside the classroom is probably even truer for international students. When Sushi and I took another group of Chinese students to hike Stone Mountain, the students were eager to talk about seeing a few people waving Confederate flags in front of the mountain’s carving of Confederate generals, juxtaposed with a predominantly African-American crowd of park visitors probably from nearby neighborhoods enjoying the park for exercise. What a rich conversation!

A surprising result I had from spending time with the students was an eagerness to learn some Mandarin. During the first session of summer school Sushi met with me regularly to practice my efforts. I have had fun this fall interjecting a phrase or two of Mandarin during class—the Chinese students often stay after class to help me learn something new or talk economics. My efforts to learn Mandarin seem to have invited the Chinese students to approach me more readily than before. For faculty interested in learning some Mandarin, the Confucius Institute at Emory is a great resource (http://confucius.emory.edu).

At Oxford, faculty members are integrated into the international students’ orientation. This fall international mentors (sophomore F-1 visa student leaders) paired with Oxford faculty to talk with the incoming students on the “ethos of liberal education,” the classroom culture, and the creating of maps for personal success during their Emory experience. The orientation, crafted by Jennifer Knupp, who directs our Office of International Affairs, represents an intentional effort by the Oxford community to insure success as we integrate larger numbers of international student into the college experience. 

The increased presence of F-1 visa students has enriched my economics classroom and the campus climate in general. The increasing diversity is helping Oxford College attract a student body eager to shed parochial perspectives for broader mindsets. This shift yields students interested in research projects with a global bend. I’m currently directing a senior’s project focusing on how perceptions and understanding of what it means to be “middle class” in the U.S. compares to the socioeconomic construct of “middle class” in China. I doubt that topic would have been broached as a student project twenty-three years ago. 

I now see the presence of a larger cohort of international students as yielding a happy result. The efforts of F-1 visa students to earn a U.S. college diploma clearly provide beneficial spillover effects for domestic faculty, staff, and students as we open ourselves to engagement with these remarkable young people and the myriad perspectives they bring to campus. 

Understanding the F-1 Visa

All foreign students who wish to attend a full-time degree or academic program at a U.S. school, college, or university require an F-1 student visa. The educational institution must be approved by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa, meaning it is issued to individuals who do not intend to stay in the U.S. permanently. (Students attending vocational or other non-academic programs require an M-1 student visa.) F-1 visas are valid for as long as it takes a student to finish their studies. They also allow students to work on campus and, in some situations, off campus. In addition, F-1 visa students are eligible to apply for employment-authorized practical training after they complete their academic program. The additional training can range from twelve months to as many as twenty-nine months for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. F-1 visa students are able to transfer schools and change their focus of study while pursuing their studies. Once students have completed their studies, they have sixty days in which to depart the U.S. In fiscal year 2012, the United States issued 486,900 F-1 visas, compared with 298,393 issuances in 2007—a jump of more than 63 percent. —S.F. 

Source: U.S. Department of State