LAWRENCE — Making it through higher education and graduate school can feel like navigating a foreign country. Thousands of students from around the world are making that journey in the United States, pursuing a degree while learning in an additional language. A new book from University of Kansas authors documents the stories of these students studying in the United States to be English teachers and suggests how their stories can improve education for others.
“Transnational Language Teacher Identities in TESOL: Identity Construction Among Female International Students in the U.S.” follows the stories of 13 women studying to be teachers of English to speakers of other languages at universities across the country. Their experiences with sexism, racism and assumptions about their supposed linguistic deficiencies made for challenging times but helped lead to recommendations on appreciating the value such unique students bring to the table.
“All of us are former international students, so we wanted to discuss the unique experience we had in American higher education,” said Hyesun Cho, associate professor of curriculum & teaching at KU and the book’s lead author. “In the book we use the term transnational students instead of international students. It indicates more complex, fluid and ‘in-between’ identities of people who cross borders and are not just foreign sojourners in one other country. We wanted to demonstrate the wide range of experiences and diverse goals of these students.”
The book, published by Routledge, was co-written with Reem Al-Samiri, of the University of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Junfu Gao of Nova Southeastern University. Al-Samiri and Gao are former doctoral students of the TESOL program in curriculum & teaching.
The text establishes that transnational students are not a monolith. They come from countries around the world with a wealth of language and life experiences. Some are parents with established professional careers who will continue to work in the United States, while others return to their native countries or work abroad. The enrollment number of these students is expected to increase as pandemic-induced international travel restrictions are lifted. At KU alone, there are roughly 1,700 transnational students from 110 countries, Cho said.
The 13 participants in the book hailed from China, Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia and learned English as a foreign language in their home country. The Saudi students had completed their graduate studies and returned to careers in their home country, while the others were still in U.S. graduate programs at the time of their interviews. All were studying teaching English to speakers of other languages, or TESOL, and several are now working in the United States. While education was what brought them to American institutions, it was far from their only concern.
“One of the eye-opening experiences for our participants was about their identity shift. They grew up with a majority identity in their home countries. And when they came to the United States, they had a minority identity imposed on them by others,” Cho said. “They felt marginalized because of their language backgrounds. Along with racism and sexism, there were assumptions about their language skills not being sufficient for graduate studies and teaching English. But they challenged those reductionist labels in their stories.”
In addition to sharing their experiences, the book examines how the students navigated intersectional identities and were able to use their experiences to their advantage. Several of the students were mothers, and what they learned from having their children in the American school system provided lessons they could use in their own work as future educators. Also, their experiences with largely Eurocentric curriculum often fed a desire to help diversify educational offerings, both in higher education and in K-12 schools. “Transnational Language Teacher Identities” discusses how the students are making that goal happen as TESOL teachers, higher education faculty, policymakers and administrators, both in the United States and in their home nations.
Several of the book’s participants reported being overlooked for graduate teaching positions because it was assumed their English was not sufficient to work with American students. Those who did get the opportunity uniformly reported how beneficial it was for them. Such opportunities are not only beneficial for the future teachers by providing them with real-life teaching experience but can be good for the students in the classroom as well, who learn from a diverse body of teachers with a wealth of diverse perspectives, Cho said.
That shared experience leads to the book’s recommendation for universities to form more partnerships with K-12 schools to provide student teaching experiences for transnational higher ed students. Cho, Al-Samiri and Gao make several other recommendations as well, for higher education faculty, administrators and policymakers. Among them, faculty should view transnational students as assets with a wealth of diverse experience who can enrich classes at all levels and should not be viewed as deficits or liabilities. University administrations could help by diversifying faculty who share similar life experiences with transnational students and by providing more social support as well, such as affordable child care on campus.
“As faculty, we must resist labeling transnational students just as 'foreign students' and assuming they’re all the same, or on similar career paths,” Cho said. “We should also provide opportunities for them to share their experiences with us to strengthen our educational curriculum and instruction. We need to make sure no one is excluded in learning and contest the deficit-oriented rhetoric in higher education. That was something all of our participants were very passionate about.”