Many foreign students come to this country and "ace" high school, only to find that their limited English speaking skills and knowledge of the culture don't cut it in college.
"Our Generation 1.5 students -- immigrant students who grow up between two cultures, living their native culture at home and participating in their adopted culture at school -- are somewhat familiar with contemporary American culture; however, they are often unprepared to face the academic and social challenges of the American higher education system," said Myra Goldschmidt, associate professor of English at Penn State Brandywine. "Because of their unique status -- they're not recent immigrants nor mainstream, second-generation American students -- they often fall through the cracks and find it difficult to succeed in college."
Penn State Brandywine is typically one of the most diverse among Penn State campuses, with students from more than 50 countries of origin. To aid some of these students in their quest to earn a college degree, Goldschmidt and Norma Notzold, director of the Learning Center on campus, along with a handful of students working in the Learning Center, launched the American Studies Course Cluster at Penn State Brandywine six years ago.
The American Studies Course Cluster is a six-course, for-credit program that focuses on English language skills and American culture. The overarching goal is to provide Generation 1.5 students with the tools they need to bridge their communities and mainstream American society. Once students complete the one-semester program, they matriculate as any other student would at Penn State Brandywine. However, they are not left to fend for themselves entirely.
"We have a support system in place that enables these students to go to the Learning Center throughout their time at Penn State, whether it's to brainstorm about a paper, prepare for an exam or work on homework assignments," said Goldschmidt, who has written several articles on Generation 1.5 and made presentations at conferences around the world, including Oxford University in England. "I get so excited about this program because it makes a big difference in the lives of these students. They truly believe that they can successfully complete their college education and realize their dreams."
Students who have completed the American Studies Course Cluster agree that the program has helped them succeed in college.
"I may want to learn about America and how to communicate with Americans or I might decide I don't want to, but the fact is that I have to be able to communicate with all people around me," said Kristine Quiambao, 20, a sophomore health science student from Upper Darby. She moved to the United States from the Philippines five years ago. "I know there are times when people from other countries are shy and don't want to communicate with American people because it's difficult, but this program has helped me overcome that fear."
Dong-Ya Zhou, a 19-year-old freshman business student from Philadelphia, completed the American Studies Course Cluster last fall. She said the program taught her a great deal about the American culture -- for instance, that Americans appreciate "cleanliness, convenience and comfort" -- and that the continued support she receives from the Learning Center is vital to her success.
"The Learning Center helps you with papers, and math if you're not doing so well. I use it all the time," she said. "It's great to know there are services on campus to help you if you're having a hard time."
Quiambao said the support she receives extends past any type of special treatment to a community atmosphere that exists on the Penn State Brandywine campus.
"I like the campus very much. Because you don't have many students in your classes, you can really focus and ask questions, and the professors are always willing to help," she said.
Learning about culture, of course, is a two-way street. That's why these students host a Multicultural Day on campus during the fall semester, during which they dress in clothing from their native country, provide ethnic foods, etc., so that the campus community can gain a better understanding of their cultures.
"We welcome all students with the desire to learn to our campus, and we are very proud of the diversity that exists among our students. It's critical that students learn to communicate and appreciate people from all backgrounds if they are to be successful in an increasingly global work environment," said Penn State Brandywine Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska.
Thus far, approximately 150 students have completed the American Studies Course Cluster at Penn State Brandywine, and many of them have earned bachelor's degrees. The program is being used as a prototype at Penn State York campus, as well as several out-of-state colleges.
For information, contact Myra Goldschmidt at (610) 892-1465.