The major strength of Shepherd University’s ESL program is the commitment that its faculty members possess for its student body. Our ESL faculty is comprised of a carefully selected cadre of adjunct ESL instructors that provide the best in quality education that money can buy for every matriculated student. While always maintaining small class sizes, Shepherd University’s program completion rates and retention rates are consistently higher than the average rates of most colleges or universities that offer an ESL program as part of its curriculum.
Most people moving to a different country experience feelings that can range from excitement and interest to depression, frustration, and irritation which can later escalate into anger and aggression. The stress that is caused by these emotions has come to be known as culture shock. For ESL students, matters are more complicated because they are exposed to two unfamiliar and different cultures at the same time: the culture of the United States, their new country, and the culture of Shepherd University, their new school. This article concentrates on what is meant by culture shock in school.
Culture shock is the shock of the new and unfamiliar, and for ESL students almost everything about Shepherd University can be new and unfamiliar. The student may have come from a country where the goal of education is to teach an agreed body of knowledge and students are expected to acquire a large number of facts by rote. They will therefore be unfamiliar to learning by discovery and the amount of analysis or critical thinking that is required at Shepherd University. They may treat enjoyable class activities with suspicion, in the belief that one cannot have fun and learn at the same time. They may feel threatened by the degree of participation expected of them in class, preferring to remain silent for fear of “showing off” or, more likely, of losing face by giving the wrong answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the instructor to lose face, and they may be reluctant to ask questions for the same reason. Being praised in front of others causes some students embarrassment; others feel uncomfortable when asked to share opinions and beliefs, which they regard as private. Some ESL students may not be used to being taught by instructors of the opposite sex, or they may have come from schools where the expectations and treatment of men and women are different.
If students have arrived from an educational system where instructors are stern and aloof, they may find it difficult to come to terms with the open and friendly relations between instructors and students at Shepherd University, and with the productively noisy atmosphere in the classroom. Some school systems are based on the notion that the way to promote academic success is by fostering competition among individual students. At Shepherd University, however, instructors throughout the school foster co-operation among students, encouraging them to work together to achieve the learning goals. In many classes here, students and instructors jointly decide on the learning goals and how they are to be assessed. Some ESL students do not feel comfortable when it comes to becoming involved in what they consider to be the instructor’s job.
All of the practices of Shepherd University described above may cause ESL students some stress, but probably the most important cause of culture shock for new students is the language of the school. Everything they hear and read, everything they must write and say, is in English. For all ESL students, particularly for beginning learners, this can make every day at school a very tiring and frustrating experience. It certainly is exhausting to try and concentrate for four hours at a time learning difficult content in a new language. It is frustrating to sit in class understanding only a small part of what is going on, and it is probably even more frustrating when you have something to contribute but are unable to do so in English. Many students who did very well in their own school system temporarily lose their voice when they join Shepherd University; their natural personality becomes submerged and they may even feel themselves to be worthless or unable to learn.
As well as educational differences, ESL students coming to Shepherd University experience many social differences that may cause stress. The largest proportion of the Shepherd University population consists of students from Korea or students that are Korean-American; nevertheless, the American culture pervades all parts of the globe. It is not surprising that the dominant social culture of the school is American. Many important social events in the school calendar are American imports, such as the student orientation, the Christmas party, etc.
ESL students respond to this situation in different ways. Some may simply feel resentful that their own culture does not seem to have such a high value. For others, particularly for those from non-western cultures, matters may be a little more complicated. On the one hand, they may feel attracted by many features of American culture. (These features also include interpersonal aspects such as the equal and uncomplicated relations between the sexes, and the greater freedom and independence granted by parents to their children, as manifested for example in later curfew times or the sleep-over party.) On the other hand, they realize that their parents (and even more so their grandparents back home) may be hurt by any overt rejection of their own culture and customs. Students who are torn between two cultures may be troubled by fears of losing their identity.
Just as there are many potential causes of culture shock, so there can be as many different kinds of reactions to it. Among the more common physical reactions are tiredness, sleeplessness or oversleeping, headaches and stomach aches and susceptibility to illness. The emotional effects can include anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness, or depression. Behavioral effects can include a refusal to speak the mother tongue with their parents, especially in front of non-native friends. Some students reject native cuisines and will not wear traditional native clothes. Others may openly rebel against the traditional role expected of an individual in the native family life. When school shock is combined with the typical manifestations of adolescence, the time can be a very uncomfortable one for students.
Not all ESL students suffer from school shock as described above. Many feel comfortable at Shepherd University from the first day of school and really enjoy their classes, and most of those that do have initial problems quickly adjust to their new school and enjoy the educational and social opportunities available to them. Probably the best way to help in this adjustment is to make it clear that the University completely understands the pressures that its student body is facing. The faculty and student body often will share their own experiences in coming to terms with the American culture because it helps new students to realize that what they are feeling is a natural reaction to the huge change that has taken place in their life. The chance to live and study in a new culture is a privilege which is not given to everyone. Although you may be suffering upon your arrival to America, you will soon realize that when you look back on your time at Shepherd University it will be remembered as one of the most important and enriching experiences of your life.
For further information on culture shock and language learning, see chapter 7 of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching by H. D. Brown (1994) New Jersey Prentice Hall