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J.T. Zhang shares food with classmates in Prof. Breck Speers Advanced Composition class in May.

J.T. Zhang shares food with classmates in Prof. Breck Speers Advanced Composition class in May.

It’s a ritual more than one course at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has likely practiced: The end of semester “food day.”

It usually goes something like this: Students (maybe even the professor) host a bit of a potluck as students or teams hunker down and deliver final papers and presentations to peers. There is a table. It’s loaded with pizzas, potato chips and dips. There is usually a small Crock-Pot or two. These makeshift buffets are finish-line celebrations of the hard work and knowledge gained over a course’s many weeks.

In spring 2014, students in two of UW Oshkosh English Professor Breck Speers’ classes enjoyed what he described as “an international flavor.”

While Speers’ spring Advanced Composition and spring interim Business English courses are not designed around an international curriculum or theme, both courses deeply benefitted from something UW Oshkosh prides itself on: A natural, inclusive learning environment where the experience of international students fuels a cross-cultural exchange just as valuable as the course’s content.

“Most in the class are business majors,” Speers said, referring to his spring Advanced Composition course, “but other students are enrolled as well, including an art major, a music major and two journalism majors… One such student, Jiangteng Zhang (or “J.T.,” as he prefers) is a native of China whose father a Chinese business leader. Despite a marked language barrier, J.T. managed to wade his way through the rigors of a business degree in three and a half years. Though not a native English speaker, J.T. never backed away from challenging assignments. I was gratified, for example, that on a major group oral presentation project, several students reached out to include J.T. in their group.”

Speers said Zhang’s experience proved valuable to his team, whose topic was “The Value of Social Media in Business.” Zhang welcomed the role of educator, explaining Chinese business models and the vast differences in social media in China, where Facebook and Twitter are forbidden and where alternative internal versions of the platforms are used.

Speers said Zhang sought out support to help him on his journey toward a degree. And, along the way, he continued sharing his experiences in China with other students in Speers’ class.

And that wasn’t the only cross-cultural exchange. The course also benefitted from a native-French speaker from Burkina Faso who even “addressed the class in French on one occasion,” Speers said. “Two Hmong students reported on growth and decline implications of their Hmong/Lutheran church in Appleton, WI,” and a student from Mexico reported on “ways to improve coverage of ESPN Desportes, a Spanish sports news outlet.”

Then came Speers’ “Semester Snack Day” on May 8. There was nary a burger to be found… but the day was, nevertheless, a whopper.

“A human resources management major graduating in May, volunteered to help organize the snack extravaganza; I agreed to provide pizza… J.T. volunteered to contribute to the Snack Day in grand fashion, offering to provide native Chinese cuisine for the entire class.”

Speers said Zhang, with the cooperation two local Chinese and Japanese restaurants, graciously provided a full meal for each student. The class also shared the feast–one that introduced many students who had never sampled Asian cuisine to sushi, hibachi chicken, orange chicken, sesame chicken and other delicacies–with custodial staff in their academic building.

Speers

Speers

“We ate as students summarized their research findings,” Speers said. “J.T.’s brief report to the class included a summary of his travel to America, his education here and his father’s need that he depart a week prior to graduation. He was not present at the ceremony, but many of us will long remember his hospitality to our class.”

UW Oshkosh Director of the Office of International Education Jenna Graff said the impact international students have on a course is significant, even if the time, experience and knowledge they share with classmates as they concentrate on grades and degrees is relatively minor.

“We have had domestic students come in who want to join the International Student Association, or they will go on and pursue an international study abroad program,” Graff said.

She said UW Oshkosh already has 48 students, in both undergraduate and graduate programs, admitted for fall 2014. Another 46 international students are currently in the enrollment pipeline. The students hail from countries around the globe, including China, Germany, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Speers would argue the more, the merrier. In his spring interim Business English course–a high-impact class compressed into the three-week span after the conclusion of UW Oshkosh’s spring semester and the start of its mid-June summer session–students enjoyed yet another cross-cultural bonus.

“I felt good and proud to know that now they know a little bit more about (my culture),” said Choua Thao, one of Speers’ students from Fond du Lac, who shared background about her family’s refugee experience and Hmong culture with the class.

“One thing I did say to the class is what I like about Oshkosh,” Thao said. “Everyone here I have met is very open to my culture and every other culture. That’s something that’s really good to have. You don’t always get that everywhere growing up.”

Junior Supply Chain Economics major Josh Dean, from Manchester in the United Kingdom, also had a chance to share a bit about his heritage.

“I think it’s important to share a bit of culture that people really haven’t been exposed to much of,” Dean said. “I think it promotes open-mindedness.”

He said even though the cultural gap between the U.S. and U.K. isn’t as wide, he appreciated the chance to share his experience. It’s a facet of education at UW Oshkosh that Dean said he sees more and more common in most courses.

“I’ve noticed that more and more classes have put an emphasis on international students, on diversity and on recognizing its importance,” he said.

Graff said, often, international students “are making an impact even if they don’t realize it.”

“They don’t know how little they have to say before they realize people are learning from them,” she said.

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