Learning the American Way

Duke is unfamiliar for international students. Luckily, there’s a class to help them figure it out.
September 25, 2014

You’re an outsider who needs to operate as a n insider in a pretty confusing setting, a setting that, for a couple of years, will impose all sorts of expectations on you. Lots of obstacles for you to stumble over. Lots of rituals and routines to sort out.

If you signed on for this orientation class, you’ve been drawn to Duke from Taiwan, Indonesia, China, South Korea, the Dominican republic, or Mexico. The class is formally known as the Summer Academic Institute; it’s geared to new master’s-level Sanford School of Public Policy students in international development. Okay, you figure it’s really a class in getting started.

You’re probably older than most graduate students, since your master’s program is pitched to “mid-career professionals” from developing countries. So you may have some experience in, say, the field of auditing in the public sector. And you may find yourself here out of a conviction that you’ll go back to your home country and do some good: If you can help improve auditing procedures, that will mean more government accountability, and more government accountability will, in turn, spur your country along the path to development.

You start out early on a Monday. If you’re up on your weather and your geography, the sultry July morning is no surprise. You’re in a Sanford seminar room, and on that first day, you scoot up to a mountain of scones, a delectable sign of the abundance of America. Your professor, Dean Storelli ’86 (an apt first name for an academic, he tells you), starts with an analogy. A conventional way of thinking about education, he says, follows the banking model: Your mind is essentially at a zero balance, and the professor “deposits” knowledge. Forget that, he advises. Think of yourself as a partner in education, not as a recipient.

You’re happy to receive coffee in the classroom. The coffee cups come with an imprinted map of the world; they advertise themselves as being made from “100 percent renewable materials.” Early lessons, it seems, in what it means to be worldly and responsible.

Renewing, even reinventing, yourself is a big part of your work at Duke. You acknowledge, along with Storelli, how natural it is to feel culturally adrift. You struggle, at least now and again, with the demands of the language. You even struggle with what to have your English-speaking peers call you: You can insist on being known by your name (Jianduan, Adha, Sunhye), which seems natural enough, but might have that ring of “foreignness” to an American. That means accepting the inevitable scrambled pronunciations. Or you can accept an Americanized version of your name. Is it more satisfying to be true to yourself or to fit in?

You try to find yourself on the standard roadmap of cultural adjustment: the “Honeymoon” stage of starting a new adventure, the “Culture Shock” stage of feeling out of control and out of context, the “Initial Adjustment” stage of starting to master the new environment, the “Mental Isolation” stage of imagining that relationships should be going more smoothly than they are, and, eventually, the “Acceptance and Integration” stage of sorting it out—the good, the bad, and the formerly hopelessly confusing.

Storelli, you learn, is a cultural wanderer. After graduating from Duke, he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in teaching English to speakers of other languages. later he taught at a school in Kobe, Japan. He mentions his own challenges around cultural cues—how to signal the fact in Japan that you want a conversation to finish up, for example.

This particular class is, in part, a community formed around common concerns, a lot of which have to do with mobility. (Smart, successful students, Storelli advises you, know enough to seek help, whether from faculty mentors or peers who are perplexed in their own way.) During class breaks, there’s talk about the lack of transportation options around Durham. Is it possible to find shopping that’s just a walk away? What number of completed and signed forms will make the DMV happy? Might a scooter be a reasonable way to get around?

So much for the very American topic of why it’s hard not to be driving. Then there’s the universal topic of hard drives. You make computer comparisons with your classmates. You’re bound to have a computer stuffed with the wrong software, a computer that’s slow, or a computer that’s non-communicative. You’re constantly on the path to computer services at Best Buy. Welcome to America. Welcome to the technology-related travails of student life.

In the weeks ahead, the class encourages you to process some data points around American history. You spend time with the Declaration of Independence, and you speculate about the grand ideas—freedom from tyranny, representative government, unalienable rights—embedded in that soaring rhetoric. You plow through a history textbook, with its broad-brushstrokes image of America: values such as self-improvement, the premium on hard work and self-discipline, the seeking after material success, and (the flip side to that) the impulse for charity. You ponder the great expanse of the frontier, with its own set of related ideas—self-reliance, rugged individualism, inventiveness, the “can-do” spirit, equality of opportunity.

You’re intrigued—probably owing to overexposure to vintage American movies—by the theme of Native Americans. like the other students, you’re not totally comfortable going into a lot of detail about tensions closer to home (think China and Tibet). You do find yourself, in any case, enthusiastically attentive when Storelli plays a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin luther King Jr.; its cadences are stirring even to the non-native speaker. You agree that King was smart to frame that dream as a promise embedded in American history rather than a radical re-conception.

When Storelli challenges you to broaden the list of civil rights leaders, you may be the one who responds, what about Malcolm x? Then, what about Michael Jordan? Or, you may be the one who asks whether there are pay differences between Duke’s white workers and African-American workers.

It’s the theme of cultural differences—and how they shape academic traditions— that really gets your mind working. Maybe you’re steeped in, say, the Confucianism of Asian cultures. Confucianism favors a quality of mind that puts a premium on respecting your elders; an extension of that thinking is that students are empty vessels, and so every idea formulated in their writing will derive from some authority. In a graduate-school setting, though—at least in an American graduate school—doing research means devising and defending your own analysis of a problem. In the American classroom, Storelli says, borrowing an idea without attribution constitutes a capital offense. “Professors’ hearts are broken when they even suspect someone of plagiarism. Then they get angry.”

In this class, you do so much writing that you might break something, a fragile keyboard if not a fragile heart. You write, and you rewrite. The class will culminate with your researching, writing, and presenting an “independent learning project” around some public-policy matter. You may be the Chinese student focusing on what it means for a government to take on childhood obesity as a public-health priority, or the Mexican student looking at the policy implications of legalizing marijuana, or the Korean student considering how to encourage the development of renewable energy sources.

Storelli also gives you a lot of practice in conversation, since, after all, this is a training ground for your future classes. There’s discussion one-on-one, in small groups, with the class as a whole. In a typical exercise, Storelli has you pick a slip of paper from a bowl; that slip awards you a topic that you have to present extemporaneously. Maybe it’s “hobbies,” or “trees,” or “cars,” or “smartphones.”

You probably feel smarter about life as a graduate student, if not about the capacities of your smartphone, as sultry July turns into sultry August. Soon you’ll shift from this orientation class to your classes in economics, statistics, and policy analysis. In the meantime, this class-as-community gathers to watch the Durham Bulls take on the Buffalo Bisons. Storelli has explained the iconic standing of the Bulls; they have a strong season record, and an even stronger entertainment package this Friday evening, complete with fireworks. Your Korean classmate is impressed to learn that the Bulls’ shortstop also comes from Korea.

At the stadium, the evening theme has to do with honoring the armed forces. Even beyond the fireworks, there are lots of patriotic gestures, including the on-the-field swearing-in of new U.S. Marines. The link between sports and patriotism doesn’t seem uniquely American, you and your classmates agree. Just think about the Olympics. Tonight there are interludes of seeming inaction, occasional bursts of excitement, diversions provided by the proximity of your classmates, the side attraction provided by round after round of ballpark hotdogs, and the satisfying feeling that, even with the narrow loss by the Bulls, it’s an evening well spent.

It’s an up-and-down ride. It’s a lot, as you’ve come to understand, like graduate school. Now it’s time to play ball.

Audio documentaries by freshman Diana Joseph and Wei Wang, a first-year student in the M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, produced for the class "The Short Audio Documentary" taught by John Biewen at the Center for Documentary Studies. Joseph's piece features freshmen Jin Oh and Gwen Geng analyzing the path of their language education, how they perceive their own accents, as well as how accents and culture differences have shaped their lives. Wang's first-person story explores how international students studying in the U.S. may be quiet or outgoing, but when it comes to their social lives, they may feel awkward and may not get the jokes at the party.