Cutting foreign students some slack

A student from China recently sent me an email. “In this summer I enjoy your lecture,” she wrote, “and I know that you care about every student. However, I have to consider withdrawing myself.” She then explained that in order to transfer to Georgia Tech she had to maintain a high GPA.

I was almost certain I knew what was coming next, and sure enough there it was. “I really want to get an A or at least a B in the English course.”

The percentage of foreign students at the community college where I teach is quite high — about 9 percent are Asian, 7 percent Hispanic, while many others come from countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Most of these students must take one or more ESL class before moving on to college English.

The transition for many of them is anything but smooth. Some expect to be treated differently than native English speakers and gravitate to instructors known to be more lenient when it comes to grades.

Few Asian students enroll in my classes anymore. I assume word has gotten around that I hold all students to the same standards no matter their background, but this isn’t always easy.

Most of the Asian students in my classes over the past few years have been so far superior, as students, to their native English-speaking classmates that I often wonder if I’m doing the right thing.

Maybe I should cut them some slack.

The student from China writes and speaks English with a moderate degree of proficiency, and she knows this. “If I withdraw, I will study hard in the vacation,” she wrote in that email.

But when I couldn’t assure her of an A or a B in the class, she withdrew from my class. Next semester she will no doubt enroll in a class taught by an instructor with a reputation for using two sets of standards, one for foreign students and one for native English speakers.

As much as I disagree with the practice, I have come to accept it as a byproduct of globalization.

The English language spread throughout the world principally as a byproduct of British and American imperialism. Our interests abroad have been driven in large part by the pursuit of cheap natural resources as well as cheap labor.

Along the way we have touted the virtues of democracy, but in the end our economic relationships — especially in places like Africa, Asia and the Middle East — have been exploitative.

Under these circumstances I can’t fault foreign students for viewing America’s system of higher education as an exploitable resource. Many come from countries where access to a college degree is prohibitively expensive if attainable at all.

They are driven to our shores because we have an abundant supply of colleges and universities. To frustrate their educational aspirations because their command of the English language is less developed than I would like it to be borders on the xenophobic. Additionally, few of them plan to major in English.

Some of my colleagues may wonder why it has taken me so long to come to such a benign realization. Others may dismiss me as yet another convert to the dark side of deteriorating standards.

I can live with both assessments. Or as my foreign and domestic students tell me all the time these days, it is what it is.

Rick Diguette is an Atlanta-area writer who also teaches English at a local college.

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