You Need Social Intelligence to Survive

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Two recent stories in the news focus on Chinese students encountering challenges as they seek success in the United States. It’s not about their grades, however; it’s about their ability to absorb and understand U.S. cultural and social cues.

As we say in the U.S., there’s book smart and there’s street smart. International students who are admitted to study at U.S. schools usually have plenty of the former. As this piece by Brook Larmer in the Economist-affiliated 1843 Magazine attests, students like Beijing-born Monica Futong are “study gods” who have mastered the Chinese examination system and placed themselves on the path to incredible careers if they choose to stay in their homeland. But in matters of social intelligence like interviews, conversations, and other intuitive ways of relating to others, international students like Monica find themselves at a disadvantage. The U.S. hierarchy of success — from academia to the professional world — does not reward so-called study gods who don’t have the social intelligence to match.

Consider Nikola Tesla: the Serbian inventor was an enormously influential and innovative contributor to the development of electric power and telecommunications. Yet his raw intelligence did not translate well to matters of business. He was frequently taken advantage of by American businessmen and had difficulties convincing financiers of the value of his inventions. Success is a complex phenomenon built out of relationships just as much as smarts.

To help with these extracurricular assets, Ms. Futong and her family hired Elite Scholars of China (ESC), a Beijing-based consultancy dedicated to guiding Chinese students through the U.S. college application process. The emergence in popularity of ESC coincides with the realization that Chinese students develop a limited work ethic based on their gaokao examination, a make-or-break test that determines whether or not students will enter university. By contrast, the legitimate importance American universities place on personal circumstances and accomplishments as reflected in the now-standard admissions essay is a real shock to these numbers-obsessed students. Enter ESC, who charge increasingly competitive and doting Chinese parents well over $15,000 for their support in transcending “the gaokao mentality” by helping their children broaden their horizons and pen their own essays. Tomer Rothschild of ESC explains:

Students always start out trying to find the formula to copy, but that’s precisely the wrong approach to use in the application process. They need to stand out, find something unique, but they’ve never tried to analyse themselves before.

Indeed, that need for a formula has also led to the emergence of illicit agencies that offer a “full service” admissions process for concerned Chinese families who want to assure their child’s access to American schools. That full service includes such fraudulent contributions as “manufacturing transcripts, recommendations, extra-curriculars, even personal essays,” all of which have led American universities to be wary of any application originating from China.

The cultural gaps don’t end at admissions either. According to this recent Wall Street Journal piece by Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan, many international students are having difficulty connecting with their peers and teachers. Students are reporting feeling isolated, culturally and socially. Professors are frustrated by the huge communications gap they experience with their non-English speaking peers. NYU professor Rebecca Karl says Chinese students in her Chinese history classes, “have very little idea what it means to be analytical about a text. They find it very difficult to fulfill basic requirements of analytical thinking or writing.” And yet, these same schools want to increase international student enrollment to improve their bottom line.

Graph of international students in US by country

As outlined in the WSJ report, schools like Oregon State University have been extremely pro-active in helping integrate these students, launching a pre-enrollment program called INTO designed to prepare international students for the American college experience. INTO “is housed in a $52 million state-of-the-art facility, paid for by Oregon State, which boasts a store stocked with organic and Asian food products, eco-friendly plumbing and solar panels on the roof.” The plan’s objective to increase international student enrollment was a success:

Oregon State’s international population surpassed 3,300 last fall, up from 988 in 2008, the year before INTO began operating. The revenue has enabled the university to add 300 tenure-track professors and expand overall enrollment to nearly 29,000 from about 19,000 during the same period.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether students are feeling more comfortable once they begin coursework on the main campus. Yibo Fan, an alum of the INTO program, failed an engineering class due to his faltering English and relies on other students in his classes, both Chinese and American, for help with comprehension in the classroom. He reports that not all of his instructors are patient with his challenges.

It’s not all dark out there, though: in learning how to navigate the American admissions process, Monica Futong thrived and expanded her perspective in totally unexpected ways. She learned about African art through a research project she put together based on creative expressions in the sub-Saharan region. It helped her better understand the admissions process and gain some objectivity on the military upbringing that didn’t teach her to value creativity. She also attended a liberal arts seminar in Southern China, a crash course in the kind of soft skills she’s been taught to avoid her entire academic career. Reading primary sources on the roots of communism deepened her understanding of the information she’d only previously ingested by indoctrination. Although she didn’t emerge from these experiences with certifications or scores, the diversity and critical thinking Ms. Futong was exposed to enriched her way of thinking in a way that will serve her immensely in the American classroom.

You can read the original pieces referenced here in their entirety at 1843 Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

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