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Wake Forest Advantage

Bridging the gap between Chinese college-hopefuls and U.S. admissions offices

By Kim McGrath Office of Communications and External Relations
Xizi Liao (blue blazer) competes with friends in a game of Jenga on Hearn Plaza.
Xizi Liao (blue blazer) competes with friends in a game of Jenga on Hearn Plaza.

“My name is ‘Sheetza,’” Shanghai native Xizi Liao says when introducing herself. “It rhymes with pizza.”

With support from her professors and friends, Liao has embraced her American education and is well known around the Wake Forest campus. The senior has held several leadership positions during her four years of college, including president of the Resident Student Association. This fall, she will attend graduate school to study college student development.

But not all international students are as determined to get through the challenges of adjusting to college life in America as Liao, nor do they all find the support they need when they arrive on campus.

Liao, a business and enterprise management major, is one of 143 international undergraduate students who call Wake Forest home, and one of nearly 200,000 students from China enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.

“From my first days on campus, faculty mentors have helped me conquer my fears and acclimate to my new environment. But it’s not the same for every Chinese student in the U.S.,” says Liao. “If you want to be immersed in the academic and social culture here, you have to speak English and learn to ask questions.”

Addressing the so-called “China conundrum”

There are significant differences between Chinese and American education systems that create challenges for Chinese students. In addition to the inherent language difficulties, the Chinese high school curriculum is designed to prepare students for the high stakes national exam where answers come from memorization. That focus lacks opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving, creative expression, and collaboration—skills that are critical for academic and social success in the U.S.

“At Wake Forest, it’s the student’s responsibility to do much of the learning outside of class time. Discussions take place in class, and if you don’t ask questions, your professors and peers assume you know the answers. In China, students depend on the teacher for information. The teacher helps the student walk the walk. It’s a very different style.”

To help bridge the academic and cultural differences between educational experiences in their home country and those in the U.S., Wake Forest is introducing the Wake Forest Advantage program. The initiative is designed to help international students prepare for higher education in the U.S. before they arrive on campus.

Piloted and rolling out first in China, the program is designed to benefit both the students who complete the program and the institutions that enroll them.

Liao was introduced to American culture before starting at Wake Forest — attending summer programs and competitions in the U.S. But many Chinese students apply to American colleges and universities having little or no understanding of English and American culture.

Chinese students sometimes struggle academically and socially once they arrive in the U.S., in part because admissions offices lack the information or validation they need to choose among Chinese applicants. In addition to language and cultural barriers, challenges arise from a significant number of falsified application documents, letters of recommendation and high school transcripts submitted by prospective students.

Wake Forest Advantage is the only program of its kind to address the challenges higher education faces in determining which international applicants are prepared for study in the U.S. and which may have trouble adjusting.

Wake Forest Advantage highlights

The goals for the curriculum, designed by Wake Forest faculty and developed collaboratively with EdisonLearning, are to help improve oral and written English skills while increasing students’ awareness and understanding of performance expectations in American college classrooms. Sessions include lessons on academic research, writing, and speaking and provide students with practice working collaboratively with their peers. The activities include content that helps Chinese students understand American culture and history.

There are three models available to Chinese families:

The first model, the traditional Wake Forest Advantage program, is an after school supplementary model with teachers employed and trained by Wake Forest. The program runs in collaboration with partner high schools. Students and teachers meet once a week for three hours — providing Chinese students with approximately 90 hours of educational and cultural training.

The second model for the program is the embedded Wake Forest Advantage, where schools in China use the traditional Wake Forest-designed curriculum within the regular school day. These schools have their own expat instructors who are trained by Wake Forest to deliver 90 hours of training during normal instructional hours.

Finally, the Wake Forest Summer Academy incorporates much of the content and methodology from the traditional and embedded models delivered in a shorter time frame (72 contact hours). Wake Forest professors, alumni from the Wake Forest Teacher Education programs, and students currently enrolled in Wake Forest Teacher Education programs deliver the instruction.

Students in the traditional and embedded programs create a Digital Portfolio — a video-based reflection that combines student performance in class with video reflections composed by and delivered orally on camera by the student.

Created by the student in China, evaluated at Wake Forest University, and mailed directly from Wake Forest to the colleges and universities where program participants apply for admission in the United States, this validation of students’ abilities provides admissions officers with incontrovertible visual and audio confirmation about their Chinese applicants’ readiness.

Each student’s application arrives at U.S. college admissions offices in a distinctive package, with a Wake Forest Advantage logo and a gold, silver or bronze seal. Gold signifies that the student presented in the portfolio is ready for the most challenging undergraduate institution. Silver and bronze indicate progressively lower levels of readiness, but in every case admissions officers will know that the student applying has been through a rigorous preparation program and is familiar with what is expected for study in the U.S.

A global education: Why preparedness matters

In our increasingly global society, international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities continues to increase. The more quickly international students are able to become acclimated and engaged in their education, the more quickly the campus community benefits from the global experience of international education.

In her role as a campus life residence hall advisor, Liao says she sees first-hand the communication challenges between American and Chinese students.

“American students are scared of what to say to international students, but they are definitely curious. We can build community faster if international students come to campus already familiar with the American culture. Even something as simple as responding to “What’s up?” can be uncomfortable if you don’t know that’s a typical greeting.”

“Chinese students who come to the U.S. have both academic and social challenges,” says Associate Provost for Global Affairs Kline Harrison. “In order for Wake Forest students to enjoy the benefits of a global educational experience, it is important for Chinese students to feel confident in their academic abilities and confident about interacting with American peers. Students coming to Wake Forest with the Wake Forest Advantage experience are more likely to fully benefit from their college years as true Demon Deacons and are also much more likely to reach their potential as sources of enrichment for the university community as a whole.”

To learn more, visit the Wake Forest Advantage website.

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