International Students Build Communication Confidence at CMU-SV Summer Program -Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

International Students Build Communication Confidence at CMU-SV Summer Program -Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, September 5, 2013

International Students Build Communication Confidence at CMU-SV Summer Program

CMU-SV language specialist Kristopher Geda reviews some American terms with ACC students on the final day of the summer program.
CMU-SV language specialist Kristopher Geda reviews some American terms with ACC students on the final day of the summer program.

When Orientation began last week at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus (CMU-SV), they were more than 60 international students in the record-breaking class. Students from more than a dozen countries are learning more than just a new schedule and campus shortcuts, they’re learning a whole new culture.

It’s a big adjustment — though for some students, it’s quite a bit smaller after getting a head start earlier in the summer with the Academic Culture and Communication (ACC) program at the Silicon Valley campus, an intensive summer session to prepare international students for the demands of graduate school in America.

The ACC program has been available for graduate students at the Pittsburgh campus for many years through the Intercultural Communications Center.  In 2013, a customized version of the ACC program was offered for the first time on the Silicon Valley campus, intended to give nonnative English speakers a way to increase their fluency and confidence and decrease the adjustment period that can make graduate school more difficult for an international student. It’s also tailored to the intense, team-based nature of CMU-SV’s  degree programs.

"It's great that we were able to expand this program to students on our campus," said Gerry Panelo Elizondo, director of Student Affairs at CMU-SV. "The unique challenges of CMU's graduate programs can be overwhelming even for native speakers, so we wanted to help students from other countries prepare for success in a new academic and social environment."

Five Silicon Valley students attended CMU-SV’s inaugural program, three entering the MS Software Engineering program, one a Electrical and Computer Engineering master’s student and one joining the campus as a Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Linda Bickham led the effort to set up the six-week program, modeled on Pittsburgh’s program, with extensive support from Peggy Heidish and staff at the ICC. Language specialists Kristopher Geda and Jennifer Wolfeld partnered with Bickham in customizing and teaching the program.

“Inspired by the enthusiasm of the ICC staff in Pittsburgh, I was hoping for great results for our students from the ACC program," Bickham said. "As I watched the skills and confidence of each student grow each week, I became certain that this program is a tremendous boon to students – and our campus.” 

Nonnative English speakers must complete the required Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to be admitted to Carnegie Mellon, but even those with adequate scores may still have gaps in fluency, cultural understanding and confidence that can create big barriers to success in graduate school.

American graduate programs require a specific type of fluency that goes beyond conversational, particularly in the demanding fields of computer and software engineering. Students are expected to get their ideas across in clear and concise writing, collaborate in teams, speak up and think critically and make persuasive, focused presentations throughout their time at CMU-SV, Bickham explained. The ACC program provides strategies and techniques, combined with extensive practice, that help students more effectively use the language they already have to express themselves with confidence.

The ACC students met for writing, speaking, and special topics classes every weekday. In the daily writing sessions, they learned to write for clarity and conciseness, to analyze information and to describe problems and pose and support solutions, while improving the grammar and flow of their writing.

Daily speaking sessions covered how to both structure and deliver compelling presentations while improving pronunciation and use of American idioms. Because so much communication in the graduate school setting happens informally and on teams, students also learned to “think on their feet” through exercises, collaborative discussion and impromptu presentations.

In addition to language proficiency, ACC provides an overview of the culture in American universities, and at CMU-SV in particular, which may be more informal than some students are accustomed to. Students met with faculty, heard from previous CMU-SV students, viewed videos and practiced their burgeoning language skills through sessions on small talk, critical thinking and cross-cultural communication.

Even daily decisions became lessons, from how to negotiate with a landlord to agreeing on a group lunch menu. “If we could turn it into a lesson, we did,” Bickham said, adding that these everyday interactions are effective preparation for daily life in both school and the workplace.

ACC students had many opportunities to experience the entrepreneurial environment that is a hallmark of Silicon Valley and the CMU-SV campus. They attended campus events including a presentation from the student team behind Coco Dojo and the 2013 Tech Showcase, and observed student team product pitches to a VC panel in one of the summer classes for current students. They were also treated to a tour of Google’s Mountain View headquarters, with CMU-SV alumnus Juan David Trujillo, and a visit to Mountain View-based startup Quixey, to give them a feel for the large and small companies that call Silicon Valley home.

Bo Liu said ACC was “the best program I’ve experienced,” giving him not only stronger English skills but increased confidence in his ability to communicate with classmates and the community.

Practicing and improving communication skills can translate to success beyond CMU as well, especially in an area like Silicon Valley. This diverse environment draws talent from across the globe. In graduate school, students are already working with faculty, students and industry experts from numerous countries. Entering the high-tech industry, they will work on teams with colleagues from around the world as well. The lessons learned from the ACC program will be invaluable in both graduate school and beyond, Bickham said.

At the conclusion of the program in August, all of the students noted greater comfort and confidence in English, and said they were looking forward to a successful year.