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As director of the English Language Support Office at Cornell, Michelle Cox has a lot of expertise teaching international students and nonnative English speakers. Even so, when the university switched to online learning in the spring, Cox realized these students face additional complications in virtual classrooms. “The challenges are immense,” she said.

With borders closed and consulates shuttered, almost all of her new international students would be taking classes remotely from their home countries, so Cox opted to teach online for fall. I talked with her and others about their biggest challenges and best advice.

For starters, it’s important to remember that for many of these students, Zoom is the first time they’re in an American classroom. It takes time to learn how to be a college student, but typically, international students have resources to help them learn the ropes that might not be readily apparent to an instructor. Often, international students rely on each other for help, such as checking to make sure they correctly understood an assignment. They are also constantly observing their American classmates to model their behavior, Cox said.

It can be harder to form support networks online, and professors may inadvertently make the virtual-learning experience tougher for international students. For example, Cox said that her university’s online-learning platform has an option to prevent students from seeing others’ responses before they submit their own answer to a question. That can cut down on copying and cheating, but international students who are unfamiliar with American-style class discussion may then not know how to respond.

It can be especially difficult to know if a student is lost when courses are held asynchronously. International students may be hesitant to ask for help, said Levin Arnsperger, associate director for English language learning at Emory’s writing center. “They don’t want to rock the boat.” Faculty members need to emphasize the availability of office hours and be proactive in reaching out. In her classes, Cox has a weekly check in and took the time to meet with each student at the start of the semester.

When students come to the United States, they are thrust into an all-English world. Immersion has its challenges, but the unavoidable need to speak English can help students learn faster and pick up colloquial and social language. By contrast, students studying remotely are living their lives in their native tongue, using English only during class sessions and on assignments.

Cox recommends giving students a reference, even something as simple as a Wikipedia article or a video that could help reinforce important vocabulary and ideas and serve as an ongoing resource. “When you learn a new topic you also need to learn new language connected to the new topic,” she said.

The primary method of communication in online courses, writing, can also be an obstacle for international students, many of whom are more comfortable speaking English. “All your vulnerability is shown in your writing,” Cox said. Critiques and corrections can cause students to regress, retreating to more simplistic language. Professors should focus more on the substance of students’ responses than on grammar or word usage, Cox recommends, and fellow students should be encouraged to do the same in online discussions.

Finally, time differences do handicap international students. “I live on Atlanta time in Beijing,” one student told Arnsperger’s colleague Hong Li, a professor and the former director of the Emory College Language Center. It’s not just their academic lives but their whole lives that are upended by the need to time shift, Li points out, and their family can be affected.

Even if courses are offered asynchronously, the rest of the academic experience, including office hours and deadlines, frequently hews to an American schedule. Instructors need to be more aware of these time differences when setting deadlines or in communicating with students, Li said, and when possible, they should be more flexible.

In the current climate, all students can use extra understanding and support, Arnsperger said. “When you take time to support international students in the classroom, it’s usually good for all students.”

For more advice on working with international students who are overseas during the pandemic, Cox and her colleagues at Cornell have some great guidance here and here.

What’s your experience? Send me your insights to or post them on Twitter. I’ll share them in a future newsletter. Meanwhile…

When the pandemic struck last spring, as many as nine in 10 current international students did not — or were unable to — return home, according to estimates by the Institute of International Education. With so many students stuck behind in the U.S., there are a whole new set of academic, cultural, social, economic, and mental-health challenges. The American College Health Association calls international students one of the “vulnerable” populations in the wake of the pandemic.

I’m working on an article about these “stranded” students, and I want to hear your stories. Colleges, what are you doing to provide these students with the support they need? Students, how are you coping with being so far from home during a global health crisis? Tell me more at

Report Warns of Chinese ‘Ecosystem’

A new report from a congressionally-appointed commission warns that China has sought to use students and researchers who go overseas to gain scientific knowledge to advance its military and geopolitical interests.

“China’s government has built a sprawling ecosystem of structures, programs, and incentives to coopt and exploit Chinese students and scholars for the S&T they acquire abroad,” the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission states. The Chinese strategy is to “leverage” American universities to build up technology and talent — which it then uses to compete with the United States.

Among the report’s findings and recommendations:

  • Outdated laws governing research and technology transfer haven’t kept pace with current challenges. The U.S. government has stepped up its scrutiny of higher ed’s ties with China. But American laws fail to account for the involvement of universities in both countries in sensitive research and for the integration between the Chinese military and academe, the commission writes.
  • Government screening may be partly to blame for admitting scientists who pose a risk. Fewer than five percent of visa applications flagged as technology transfer risks are ultimately denied, the report finds. Part of the reason is analyst shortages and a high backlogs of reviews. But flags indicating a risk of future technology transfer are not always a legal basis for denying a visa application.
  • In acting to curb Chinese theft of intellectual property, the U.S. must still be welcoming to Chinese students. The commission notes most Chinese students and scholars come to the U.S. for legitimate academic reasons and shouldn’t be dogged by suspicion. “The idea that the U.S. must either bar all Chinese students from studying STEM fields or welcome them into every laboratory is a false choice,” it states. There is a spectrum of policy options the government can pursue without making students into collateral damage.

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Around the Globe

A Harvard professor charged with hiding his ties to China is suing the university for not paying his legal fees. Authorities say Charles Lieber was paid $50,000 a month as part of a Chinese talent-recruitment program.

The European Union’s highest court ruled that Hungary violated EU law when it changed its higher-education law to effectively force Central European University out of the country.

The Trump administration will tighten visa rules for skilled workers that would, among other things, require workers to have a degree in the “specialty occupation” they apply for.

Australian universities will get a $1 billion research bailout to help offset the collapse of international enrollments.

Universities in Ireland may not have the capacity to accommodate all the students affected by errors in the country’s college-entrance exam.

Japan is the latest country to increase vetting of visas for Chinese students and scientists amid growing worries about academic espionage and foreign interference.

Japan’s new prime minister is challenging appointments to the governing body of the country’s leading academic council.

Taiwan plans to dramatically increase the number of courses taught in English.

A French-Iranian professor detained in Iran on national-security charges has been temporarily released.

Government officials in Malaysia abruptly called for postponing the start of the academic year because of an uptick in covid cases even though student registrations have already begun.

College dropout rates in Gaza have increased sharply in the wake of pandemic-related lockdowns and deteriorating economic conditions.

Hackers stole wages from several Swiss universities.

Germany will fund a network of global centers to tackle worldwide challenges like climate change and global health.

A new global engagement index is designed to help British universities benchmark their international work on indicators that go beyond student recruitment.

Student journalists in Hong Kong fear censorship under a new national-security law.

And finally…

They lost their daughter in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Now these parents wrestle with sending their only surviving child back to school during a pandemic. I can’t get this Washington Post story out of my head.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.