By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
10:36 PM EST, February 7, 2013
Some foreign-born students at Howard Community College enter professor Mary Beth Furst's business class, sit attentively through instruction and say next to nothing.
Furst said that when they are called upon, "You would think they were going to die, because they're really uncomfortable speaking up."
She recently discovered one of the reasons behind the silence: Some students hail from countries where it is disrespectful to ask an instructor a question.
Furst and other HCC faculty and staff are learning about the college's ever-diversifying student population — and coming up with better ways to break down cultural and communications gaps — through a professional development program called INSPIRES Global Perspectives.
The one-year instructional program encourages staff to examine and tackle global issues that affect their jobs with an eye toward solutions they can incorporate into their routine.
More than two dozen faculty and staff are currently involved with the program, which began in the fall.
They are working in groups with titles such as Financial Literacy and International Students, Critical Thinking and Educational Norms for International Students, Cuba Literacy and Historical Perspectives, and Women's Studies/Violence against Women.
"We're trying to meet students where they are," said Furst, program coordinator and a member of the Critical Thinking and Educational Norms for International Students group.
She said she wanted to be part of the group because "I hire adjunct faculty, [and] I hope to produce a handbook to help faculty work with students from different places."
"We touch the lives of students each day. We wanted to know how we can be globally competent ourselves," said Jean Svacina, an HCC professor who teaches English as a second language. "We're opening up this avenue as a way of developing our own global competencies."
Svacina is part of the group exploring Cuba, including the country's poetry, literature and dance traditions.
"We have students who come from Cuba and some from other parts of the Caribbean, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Svacina said. "There are similarities across the islands, and we wanted to know how we might bring into our teaching ways to help students from this geographical area."
Participants say they're looking forward to bringing what they've learned to the classroom.
Professor Sarah Saxer is also part of the Critical Thinking and Educational Norms for International Students group. She said members are looking at activities and assignments that students from other countries undertake as a means to see what they can accomplish here.
"When we give critical thinking assignments, we want to know how well students are prepared to do that, based on what they did in high school in India, for example," she said.
Furst said the financial literacy project was born out of concerns from staff who work in the school's financial aid office. They expressed how difficult it can be for foreign students to get financial transactions processed.
"Because we have students who come from all over the world, and they have different visas and so forth, just trying to navigate the financial aid system is insanely complicated," said Furst. "They found there were problems in delayed payments, poor communication.
"So their project was to design something," Furst said, "and in this case it turned out to be a workshop, specifically geared to the international students that they work with on a regular basis."
There are no plans to change curriculum as a result of the findings, and Furst said students from here and abroad who are being trained for the corporate world need to learn for themselves to adapt and adjust to different teachers and teaching methods.
Still, she hopes that the program makes it easier for some students to make the adjustments.
"What I hope to have as a result … [is] a better understanding of what is more appropriate and engaging to those students," Furst said. "What kind of opening and invitation do they need to feel more comfortable? It should change [the] style of teaching as much as anything."
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