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Invisible at Tufts

Campus | March 3, 2014

In one of the many angular, multi-story houses on Boston Avenue in Medford, seven high school seniors are in stitches. Two of them attempt to drop a cluster of vegetables into a frying pan on the stove, quickly recoiling when the pan hisses and shoots up steam. The kids, all recent immigrants from China, are cooking up more than vegetables. Broths and meats are thrown together; chopsticks fly; the words, while I do not understand them, are quick and spirited; the smell of Chinese food—not American Chinese food, but something more genuine—suffuses the air.

While a few cook and a couple check their Sina Weibo pages (China’s Facebook), others work on their homework. They discuss it entirely in Chinese, though when I glance at it, I find it is written in English.

This comes as no surprise: these students are part of the University Preparatory Program (UPP) at Tufts, a cooperative between Tufts English Language Programs and GreatOne, a Chinese education organization. UPP is headed by Adam Cotton, the Department Director, and Kevin Paquette, the Program Director. According to Cotton, UPP’s goal is to “prepare these students for the next step” in their lives in America and their education by assisting the students with the college application process while simultaneously improving the students’ English skills and allowing them to “‘live’ the language as [they] learn it.”

This latter goal is the program’s general focus. The students’ primary course of study is English language and American culture, and UPP promises an environment in which “English is truly their common language.” Paquette hopes to provide the students with “a better understanding of themselves, American culture, and the American university system.”

Becoming a part of the Tufts University community is an important aspect of achieving those goals. Although their housing is ten minutes off campus, the UPP students are taught by Tufts professors, and many of them spend a great deal of time on the Tufts campus. Cotton and Paquette feel that integration into the Tufts community is an essential way in which the UPP students can experience this country and its people.

The students in the program tend to agree. Other than receiving acceptance letters from their chosen American universities, the students’ personal goals include improving their English skills and gaining an understanding of American culture. Out of the nine students I spoke with, representing just under a third of the program, eight felt that hands-on experience with students at Tufts is an optimal way to achieve those goals.

Their teachers, including Lynn Stevens, Andrew Creamer, and Caroline Gelmi, agree that the students get that hands-on experience in UPP. Stevens says that the UPP “makes a big effort to inform students of what’s happening on campus,” and that over the year they spend here, the students “become increasingly comfortable.” Though he supports integration, Creamer reminds me that these students are not enrolled at Tufts University, and that the distinction between UPP students and Tufts students is significant.

Creamer’s line of thought is echoed by the administrators of the program; Paquette told me that the UPP students “are not undergraduates; they are affiliates here.” Regardless, Paquette said, “The students have every opportunity to explore what they want to get involved in, and we try to help them out as best we can to get them to take part.” Paquette told me about the accessibility of on-campus clubs to the UPP students and the One with One program, in which a Chinese UPP student is paired up with a Tufts student taking classes in the Tufts Chinese program. The concept was conceived by Dr. Mingquan Wang, a senior lecturer in the Tufts Chinese program. He said the goal of the program is to “promote and facilitate both linguistic and cultural exchanges between American and Chinese students.” Through a brief application, provided to students in the Tufts Chinese program and all the UPP students, Wang matches each Tufts student with one Chinese student using a series of basic criteria. Once a match is found, the students are given each other’s email addresses and a few coupons for coffee in The Tower Café.

Cotton and Paquette both emphasize that it is very much up to the individual student whether he or she becomes involved on campus. “Autonomy is the rule,” Cotton tells me. Both Cotton and Paquette feel that the students’ current level of integration on campus is sufficient.

After interviewing nine of the students, I found that eight of the nine felt that there was room for more integration, and four felt that they lack integration altogether.

All of the students interviewed told me that the language they use most often every day is Chinese. According to one student, “We feel like we are still in China…because all our classmates are Chinese, and we speak Chinese after class.”

This comes as no surprise. The students live in two houses, and only with each other (no non-Chinese speakers live with them). Chinese is, as one would expect, their preferred language, but their close-knit environment here is too insular and ‘Chinese’ to compel them to break free of their comfort zones. Their houses on Boston Avenue are small Chinese islands in an English-speaking, Medfordian sea.

For that reason, as one student said, “The program is isolated.”  Many of them feel they have few opportunities to get outside their social norms, and four or five of the students told me that they are not entirely sure how to do so and that they are somewhat afraid of the prospect. Another student summed it up well: “When you only associate with your Chinese classmates in class, you don’t really know how to place yourself [with American students].”

While some were able to join clubs and have benefited greatly, others tried and failed. “After I went there I felt that I was the one who was left out…I couldn’t just fit in,” one girl professed. Citing a fear of social awkwardness, another student admitted, “We didn’t really dare to attend those clubs.” The students received little guidance in how to become at ease, make friends, and succeed in club settings.

The One with One program has also had varied results. The success or failure of the partnership is placed in the hands of the student partners—the success “depends on their commitment,” Wang maintained—and this seems to be where the problems arise. While some relationships have proven very successful, others were more difficult. “Some of our partners forgot about us,” one student told me. “After my first partner dumped me, I actually had another partner. And she dumped me too.”

A central issue is that the UPP and the One with One program lack recognition on campus. One UPP teacher commented that “in many ways [UPP is] invisible on campus,” which my discussions with Tufts students have verified. In fact, the UPP program goes so unnoticed that even the Tufts undergraduate One with One partners, who are paired with students from UPP, are unaware of the program’s existence. They know their partners come from China, but overall, they do not know how or why.

Yet there is a great potential for mutually beneficial relationships between Tufts students and the UPP. When asked about a possible association between the Asian-American Center and the UPP, head of the Asian-American Center Linell Yugawa declined to comment, but a representative from the Chinese Student Association (CSA) expressed interest, saying there is definitely potential for an association between the CSA and UPP.

The UPP students are an intriguing and unique part of this campus and community—they are seeing Tufts and this country through new eyes, and perhaps most importantly, they have an intimate perspective on China, a country that is a focus in the studies of international relations and political science, two of the most common majors at Tufts. I have found these students to be open to discussing ideas about this country, about China, and about the world, and they truly seek to connect with students on campus.

Cotton and Paquette’s University Preparatory Program and Mingquan Wang’s One with One program have provided an excellent foundation for these Chinese students to experience this country’s culture, education, and students, but there is still some work to be done. One UPP professor commented, “We have to have a balance where we offer a place on campus, but how much is campus willing to integrate with us?” Though it may take time and effort on the part of Tufts students—and some additional structure and encouragement from UPP—to help these students become comfortable, if we succeed, our campus could engage in one of the most intimate and exceptional cultural exchange programs in the country.

It’s waiting for us, and it’s right over the hill on Boston Ave.