Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2001
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Board: Rework ailing budget
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Anthrax is now a weapon

Economics adjusts to a global influx

New center helps international students polish their English skills
Correction -- CVC and TJ Area Chapter of United Way
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Economics adjusts to a global influx

By Joanna Gluckman

Anastasia Vishnevskaya
Jenny Gerow
Anastasia Vishnevskaya,who conducts an introductory economics class, says that teaching Americans can be intimidating no matter how fluent an international student is in English.

This spring more than 350 students will graduate from U.Va. with bachelor’s degrees in economics. For most, however, that is where their study of economics will end. Whether they begin new jobs or pursue interests in other areas, most do not seek advanced degrees in the field.

“It just seems that a smaller percentage of Americans are choosing to pursue economics programs and we really don’t know why,” said economics professor Steven Stern, director of graduate admissions in economics.

At the same time, graduate programs in economics at American universities are magnets for talented students worldwide, said David Mills, chair of U.Va.’s economics department. Ever-larger numbers of international students apply to U.S. schools because of their quality and the strength and diversity of the U.S. job market, he said.

Thus, foreign students dominate the pools of candidates applying to — and being accepted by — graduate economics programs in the U.S. The expanding proportion of international students is even more evident in America’s best programs, because much of the top talent comes from abroad, Mills said.

At Yale University — home of one of the top five graduate economics programs in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report – there was only one American student among the 21 entering the program this fall, said Truman Bewley, director of graduate studies for Yale’s economics department.

U.Va. is seeing similar statistics; last spring, only 17 percent of the students entering the graduate economics program here were from the United States.
Managing large numbers of international graduate students poses some challenges, but Mills believes the effort is worthwhile.

Since economic issues spill over national boundaries, economists typically develop expertise on issues that transcend institutions and places. International students bring a wide range of backgrounds and interests to the University, enhancing classroom teaching, enriching research and stimulating discussions among faculty members, he said. And many international graduate students go on to pursue academic careers in the U.S. — 13 of U.Va.’s 26 economics faculty members are foreign-born, Mills said.

Nonetheless, Stern noted that one of his goals is to maintain the number of American students entering the program.

“Our program gives preference to American students for several reasons,” he said. Stronger English skills and a familiarity with the American education system, which emphasizes critical thinking, tend to make American students more effective teaching assistants. They also tend to write more creative dissertations and have more success in the American job market after completing their degrees, he said.

Some graduate programs seem to be working overtime to admit American students. “At Yale, it is harder to recruit Americans, probably because other economics departments are competing for them and discriminating in their favor,” Bewley said.

As a result, the cost of attracting graduate students is growing. Though U.Va. recently increased its fellowship allotments in an effort to attract top American students, the University’s resources are not always adequate to compete with other academic programs or attractive salaries in government, business and banking, Mills said.

There are other costs — to U.Va. and to American society — of admitting large numbers of international students. Many leave the U.S. soon after receiving their degrees, taking their education with them. Some abuse the program, using admission to U.Va. as a way to obtain a student visa and gain entry to the United States, then applying to other graduate programs elsewhere in the country or leaving academe entirely and embarking on job hunts in the business sector soon after they arrive, Stern said.

Helping foreign students become acclimated to the U.S. plays a key role in their successful assimilation into U.Va.’s graduate program and may encourage them to remain here after graduation, enriching the country’s talent pool, Stern said.

Chief among the factors determining the success of individual students and the program as a whole is English. While the language of economics — namely mathematics — is an international language easily written by people in many different countries, spoken English poses more problems. Even foreign students who have studied English for years in their native countries may be daunted by the prospect of teaching American undergraduates.

And students overwhelmed with the academic demands of their graduate work often push learning English aside as a secondary concern.

Anastasia Vishnevskaya, a teaching assistant for an introductory-level economics course, came to U.Va. from Russia three months ago. In fluent English, she said that all international graduate students must pass speaking proficiency tests to be admitted into the U.S.-based programs. Most would like to further improve their language skills; the difficulty comes in finding the time to do so, she said.

“Even if you are comfortable with the language, standing in front of a classroom full of undergraduates can cause you to make nervous mistakes,” Vishnevskaya said.
For their part, undergraduates say they often have trouble understanding both the strongly accented English of their international teaching assistants and the economics principles they are trying to learn.

The problems understanding international TAs are not limited to the economics department, said Dudley Doane, director of U.Va.’s Center for American English Language and Culture, established this summer. The center administers the University’s 20-year-old English as a Second Language Program and this fall expanded its offerings to include a course on accent modification for international teaching assistants, designed in collaboration with the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

As U.Va. works to “internationalize” its curriculum and strengthen ties with overseas programs, the challenge of helping international students improve their English language skills will only grow, Doane said.

The economics department recognizes the language barrier as a problem and is working to deal with it, Mills said.

“Ideally, what we would like to do is have sufficient graduate student support to allow our students to dedicate their first year to their studies and also to some mandated activities to improve their usage of English,” Mills said. “I don’t think the solution is to reduce the number of foreign students we have, or even to reduce our reliance on them as teaching assistants. Rather, we need to try and find a way to postpone their teaching assistance to a time when they have acclimated more to America and to the University.”

The economics department this semester has also launched an experimental program to help international students improve their spoken English. A teaching assistant who is fluent in English leads optional, but highly recommended — weekly discussions with first-year graduate students, giving them a chance to practice and improve their English. Graduate students also are encouraged to take English as a Second Language classes, Stern said.

As these talented students adjust to the United States, the pool of trained economists who choose to stay likely will expand, Mills said, and American students will be the first to benefit.

“The intercultural flavor of our graduate program is an asset and an opportunity,” Mills said. “Everyone benefits from contact with bright, ambitious people from every corner of the globe.”


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