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USC offers America 101 for foreign students

A special 12-week class helps students from overseas adjust to life and lingo in L.A.

December 29, 2009|By Larry Gordon
  • Edward Roth teaches "United States: An American Culture Series," a non-credit elective course that explains cultural and social norms for overseas students at USC, helping the students feel less isolated.
Edward Roth teaches "United States: An American Culture Series,"… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The topic was baseball and the class members, foreign graduate students recently arrived in the United States to attend USC, were befuddled.

Not only were they struggling to follow the instructor's litany of batting and pitching rules, they were mystified by the title of the hallowed championship games. Why is it called the World Series, one Chinese student wondered aloud, if all the teams in it are from North America?

Instructor Edward Roth was both taken aback and pleased. The grandiose title might reflect America's arrogance about its national pastime, he acknowledged, but he also praised the question. It reflected the type of cross-cultural debate he encourages in a course aimed at helping these newcomers from overseas adjust to life in Los Angeles.

Then Roth reeled off some American sayings that spring from baseball: Step up to the plate. Knock it out of the park. Get your bases covered. Don't drop the ball.

"These are very useful English phrases and we use them quite a bit," he said. The 17 students, mainly master's degree candidates from China, dutifully took notes.

Called "The United States: An American Culture Series," the USC class is an unusual semester-long effort by the university to help its international students learn about the strange food, difficult idioms and bewildering customs that surround them.

To succeed academically, the theory goes, foreign students must also adjust culturally and socially to their new surroundings. So in Roth's class and four similar courses by other teachers, these are some of the topics: What are tailgate parties? What are baby vegetables? To whom should you give Christmas gifts? Is it an insult to call someone a couch potato? When should you call police in emergencies?

By semester's end, Jingjie "Ginger" Li, 22, a Chinese graduate student who is studying public administration, said she felt could interact more easily with Americans. "Everybody from outside the country gets culture shock and needs to get over that," said Li. The USC course, she said, gave her topics for conversations with American classmates and, more important, "taught us to express your own opinion."

After Roth's lecture about sports, Li attended a USC football game and enjoyed it, even though she did not understand much of what happened on the field. "It makes you feel that you are a member of USC, and I was proud of that," she said.

The university has reason to offer the free, non-credit courses in American culture. For the eighth consecutive year, USC last year enrolled the largest contingent of foreign students of any U.S. university: more than 7,500, or about a fifth of its enrollment. Final numbers for the current school year are expected to be even higher, with India the largest exporter of students to USC and the People's Republic of China second and growing fast, officials report.

The university has recruitment offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo, as well as in Mexico City, and it holds numerous events for prospective engineering students in India. It also has a network of 19 international alumni clubs, 16 of which are in Asia.

The culture courses began as an experiment last year with one section each semester and were expanded this fall to five sections, each meeting for two hours once a week for 12 weeks. Field trips took students to downtown Los Angeles, the California African American Museum, the Getty Center and, for gourmet tourism, an In-N-Out Burger drive-in. Total enrollment was about 60, mainly Chinese students with a sprinkling from India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Many universities offer one- or two-day orientations for foreign students at the beginning of the school year. But experts say it is rare for schools to provide courses that last beyond the initial culture shock.

"It's a very good thing that USC does this, and I hope many more schools will copy it," said Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that runs many overseas and exchange programs.

At USC, part of the goal is to ease international students' isolation. Some say they feel trapped by their heavy academic loads, strong accents, shyness and cultural confusion, while an alien universe of parties, study groups and romances swirls about them.

Ironically, it can also be tough for many Chinese and Indian students to break out of their own national circles at USC because those groups are so large and are concentrated in engineering programs.

Broadening their social experience "is a constant struggle," said USC orientation official Chrissy Roth (no relation to Edward Roth), who helped start the classes. "Hopefully, this class contributes to them meeting new people."

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