December 19, 2014
For the third part of our series “Tips for Applying to US Colleges” we visited Shenandoah University. Shenandoah University is named for the scenic Shenandoah Valley in the US state of Virginia. It is a private institution with about 4,000 students from 55 countries. It blends “liberal arts with professional experiences.” The university is perhaps best known for its music conservatory. We spoke with Andrew Woodall, Executive Director of Recruitment and Admissions, and Bethany Galipeau-Konate, Director of International Programs. We asked them some of your questions about adapting to American culture and writing admissions essays.
Why should I study abroad?
I think everyone should travel and live and work and study abroad. I think it’s great for a lot of reasons. One—of course you’re going to learn something about other people. And that’s good, we should know about other people because we live in what is called a “globalized world.” Right? But I think, more importantly, is you’re going to learn something about yourself. You’re going to learn about how strong you really are. You’re going to learn that you have capabilities that you never knew you had. When you’re in another place and maybe you don’t even speak the language very well, you’re gonna find that you still figure a way to communicate.
And you find out that things aren’t as scary as you thought, and the things that you thought to be scary turn out to be—to be fun actually. So I think it’s really great not just in terms of meeting new people, learning new cultures, but learning about yourself and learning to have confidence in yourself and know, once you’ve done that—Oh I did that--and it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was good. Maybe I can do something even bigger and even more, a little more scary and challenging. And I think it builds on itself.
What are some academic difficulties foreign students face?
Students often misunderstand plagiarism policies that we have here in place. And I think sometimes that can get students into trouble. I think we have had some issues with students who have worked a little too closely together for our professors’ comfort level, and so that has created some challenges at times for those students. In terms of that, kind of, power structure between a professor and a student here, I would say our environment, our culture here at Shenandoah, there’s not a whole lot of that. I mean it’s very much of an environment where the professor, because they know you, because they’re close, because the classes are so small, that sort-of barrier between professor and student is a little less than what it might be the case at other institutions. So that part of it is not as much of an issue.
But certainly there are times where I think professors have felt uncomfortable with the level of how much students have shared work together. So I think that’s part of what our challenge is as a university coming in on the front end is to try and help international students to understand what the expectations are in the classroom. And we’re doing that, I think, fairly successfully now.
What advice do you have for writing an admission essay?
I would say the important thing is to also be authentic. Be yourself. Most admissions counselors are reading a lot of essays and after awhile they start to kind of sound the same. And so you want to give that person the curiosity to know you. And you’re special. You’re different than everybody else that’s applying. So, I think if you can try your best. Of course, there are things you think, “I need to say these things because that’s what they want to hear.” Certainly if there are topics that they are asking you to respond to, you want to do that. But, to try as much as you can to give the person who’s reading your essay an idea of who you are and what makes you unique. I think that would be my main advice.
What about religious life on campus?
We are inclusive of all religions, of all backgrounds. I mean we have a Catholic campus ministry, we have a Muslim student association, and we have a Jewish student association. We really do aim to be inclusive of all students regardless of their religious beliefs.
Students certainly feel included, they certainly feel comfortable being here, you know, they’re—regardless of whatever their religious beliefs might be and even if that’s—even if they don’t have any religious beliefs. We certainly have students who are that way too.
What are some difficulties students have adapting to US culture?
A lot of it boils down to different communication styles. So some cultures are what we would call “high context cultures.” So that means that you shouldn’t have to say what it is the problems is. Everyone should kind of know based on the situation. And some cultures like American culture is very low context. We expect you say exactly what you mean. And if you didn’t say it, we probably don’t know it’s a problem. So sometime we—I have seen some students maybe have some roommate issues because the international student is upset with something and they assume the roommate must know that they’re upset. But the roommate—the American roommate—maybe doesn’t even know that it’s a problem. So some of what we see is being able to sit down and have a conversation about what are the expectations so both of them are in the same—we would say “on the same page.” So that can be sometimes an issue.
I think that one of the things that many students find a little surprising is that Americans—as you probably know or will find—that Americans are very friendly. So when you first arrive it seems like everybody wants to be your friend and everyone is nice and “hello, how are you?” talking to you. But it can be surprising sometimes that they don’t remember you the next time they see you. So one of the things I would caution new international students is to not be hurt by that. It’s kind of an American way to be very open and friendly with everyone. But it does actually take a little while for Americans to get close to people.