Economics adjusts to a global influx
By Joanna Gluckman
Vishnevskaya,who conducts an introductory economics class,
says that teaching Americans can be intimidating no matter
how fluent an international student is in English.
spring more than 350 students will graduate from U.Va. with bachelors
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.
just seems that a smaller percentage of Americans are choosing
to pursue economics programs and we really dont know why,
said economics professor Steven Stern, director of graduate admissions
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.
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 Americas best programs, because
much of the top talent comes from abroad, Mills said.
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 Yales economics department.
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.
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.
Stern noted that one of his goals is to maintain the number of
American students entering the program.
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
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.
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 Universitys
resources are not always adequate to compete with other academic
programs or attractive salaries in government, business and banking,
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.
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 countrys talent pool, Stern said.
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.
students overwhelmed with the academic demands of their graduate
work often push learning English aside as a secondary concern.
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.
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.
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 Universitys 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.
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.
economics department recognizes the language barrier as a problem
and is working to deal with it, Mills said.
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 dont 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
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.
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.
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.