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Professors Like Good Writers, Risk-takers: 5 Questions with Dr Tobie Tondi

Dr. Tobie Tondi is a theology professor at the University of San Diego, and a Sister of the Holy Child, who has taught international students, and has been an international student herself. Our special correspondent Zuleyma Ramirez interviewed Dr. Tondi to find out what international students should know if they want to succeed in a U.S. classroom.

Writing skills, Dr. Tondi said, are still the most important skill she expects any student to have. International students should expect to be held to the same standards as domestic students when it comes to assignments, she added, but while they can’t expect leniency from their professors, what they can expect is support and assistance if they’re willing to seek it out and try their hardest.

So what else do professors expect out of their international students, and how understanding are they of the unique challenges of studying in a foreign language? Here are Zuleyma’s five questions with Dr. Tondi:

1 What are the most important academic skills for a student, particularly an international student, to have?

Dr. Tondi: I’m still a great devotee of the usual kinds of skills that every student needs. Unfortunately I think in many American institutions I think writing has been set aside, but I’m still firmly committed to writing skills.

One of the things that’s important for international students to know, and I know this from teaching international students and also being an international student, is that writing is also a skill that’s much more difficult than listening and comprehending and responding. When I’ve had international students I always take into account that their writing skills might be not as great as somebody who has studied in the United States the whole time, because they’re working usually in a second language. And yet I do understand that writing is a skill that is something that we all need to do, and if you’re able to read and write in another language, that makes you somebody that’s great for the job marketplace.

International students shouldn’t be afraid to try to do the writing assignments as best they can and to ask for help when they need it.

Hear Dr. Tondi talk more about the importance of writing in a U.S. curriculum:


2 What about class participation?

I know that doing reading assignments in a language other than your first language is difficult. I had to do that as well as an international student. And I spent hours reading articles that were in other languages because basically I couldn’t read them easily. I had to translate them, I had several dictionaries that I was always using. So I know it’s a challenge.

When I have international students in my class, I’m conscious that the reading assignments are going to be more difficult for them. But I would try to help them do that.

One of the experiences that I had was in a small college for sisters [nuns] from Tanzania and Vietnam. They were taking regular college courses and I realized that for none of them was English their first language and that the reading assignments would be tough. But I wanted them very much to participate in class. Some of course were much more at ease in doing that and would take the risk to speak out loud. Some almost never opened their mouth. But I kind of forced them to do it in the sense that I knew it would be good for them to try.

I love the international kind of experiences – it’s from the stories of other students that you learn a great deal about where they’re from, what their experience is, what their country is like.

3 What do you expect from international students when it comes to class assignments?

If a student has been accepted at USD, my expectation is that they are able to do the coursework that is given to everybody else. So I don’t make any exceptions that would say, “You have a different syllabus, you’re going to do only 2 writing assignments instead of 4.” However, as soon as I get some assignments, especially writing assignments, I can tell right off the bat whether or not a student has great difficulty in writing in another language.

In fact, last semester I had a student from Mexico whose speaking skills were fairly good but clearly the writing skills were not as good as they should have been at that level in a college. So I talked with him, I explained to him that this wasn’t a situation where he was going to fail the course or that I wouldn’t try to work with him, but that he needed to go to the campus writing center every time he had a writing assignment. He should work on it himself and then bring it to the writing center.

I think almost every campus I’m familiar with has a writing center. And they may be student tutors, but they’re certainly going to be people who are well-versed in writing in the language of the country where you’re studying, and will help you to do better in writing assignments.

Hear Dr. Tondi discuss how being in a foreign education system can stretch your mind:

4 How do things like office hours fit into what you expect from your students?

Office hours is an interesting concept, because in the United States we are expected as professors to have a certain number of office hours for each class. So there’s an expectation that you will be in your office a certain number of hours every week available to students and even beyond those hours if needed, if requested by students.

I have to tell you, when I was an international student in Rome, I was having great difficulty with a class being taught by an Italian priest - all the classes at the university I went to were taught in Italian. So I said to my fellow students, “I’m going to make an appointment with this fellow, because I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” And they said to me, “Oh, you can’t go make an appointment with a professor in this university, that’s not how it works.” And I thought, “Well, I don’t care if that’s how it works here. I need to talk to him.”

So I made an appointment and sure enough when I walked in he was very cordial, very interested to talk to me. There was nothing about the encounter that made me hesitant about it. And he kind of chuckled as I came in. I introduced myself and he said, “I know why you’re here. You can’t understand what I’m saying. I have the same problem when I study in another country.” So that automatically put me at ease and we had a great relationship from that point on.

5 Have you ever taught someone who you would consider a star pupil, and what set them apart?

A star pupil has to do with two things. One of course is academic ability.

But I would also say that another part of being a star pupil is something that each of us can work on, just like the academics, and that’s the personality skills that let you put yourself out there taking risks. Somebody who is willing to try to formulate an answer to a question even if she knows her English isn’t going to be terrific.

The other students are always very supportive and encouraging. And I always try to say to my American students, for example, “Well, think if you were trying to say this in Vietnamese.” It would be very difficult, and we need to constantly be trying to put on the shoes and hats of someone who’s doing it in a language that isn’t his or her own language.

Bonus: Dr. Tondi talks about how students can get more involved on campus