Nurturing and Problem-Solving: Focusing on the Needs of International and Minority Graduate Students

The majority of my classroom teaching has been as an ESL/EFL instructor. I teach undergrads and grad students. How well all of my students perform in their content courses has been my primary concern, lately. My concern arises from not really knowing what goes on with my students when they take other courses outside of the TESOL or language and literatures department. In addition, I am writing curricula that is heavy on content in order to demonstrate breadth. When not teaching a language arts class, I intend to remain mindful of the language and communication needs of students.

Content courses differ from ESL/EFL courses. The latter focus on the four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking in the target language, English. A content course is not necessarily a language course. Rather, a content course usually is upper-level and pertains to the relevant theory for the field of study. Of course a purist will say, it’s all about l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e, and I am not one to disagree.

But the main difference between a foreign language class and a content class is that in an ESL/EFL class, I provide multiple opportunities for students to practice language skills designed to build fluency and confidence. In a content course, students are immersed in the language and the practice of their targeted field of study, but their instructor is not necessarily well-versed in language-teaching techniques. Therefore, in a content course, the expectation is that students interact with their peers, and their professor, as though they were professionals in the field. In a language classroom, there is room for silence while students grasp the nuances of the target language. There is also plenty of time for talking, too, but the goal of the foreign language immersion experience is mastery and sometimes that means lots of emphasis on listening. When students listen to each other and to the professor, and the professor listens to students, there is great opportunity to address needs that have gone unnoticed, in the past.

Review of literature

A brief review of the literature shows there is a need for better mentoring of minority and international graduate students, many of whom are female. A search of the literature reveals that Great Britain appears to lead the way in providing written materials designed to help minority and foreign graduate students succeed when it comes to conducting academic research (Dedrick & Watson, 2002). In general, international students may look to their professors, or another kind of academic mentor, for support in developing their linguistic fluency (Rose, 2005). This tendency for international students to turn toward their professors for mentoring and language support is also noted by other researchers such as Belcher (1994), who studied how students may thrive at academic research when professors take on a nurturing role.

Boosting the confidence of students for whom English is not a first language may be a role that content instructors need to add to their repertoire. Often, especially in humanities courses, students must master the art of large-group and small-group communication, and mastery of these skills may boost students’ confidence. International students perceive class participation and class presentations as important indicators of fluency in Academic English (Kim, 2006).

According to research by (Kim, 2006) graduate students for whom academic English is not the first language may find presenting new ideas in front of a class of native-English speakers challenging. Small group discussions are also challenging, according to the results of research conducted by Kim, but listening to class lectures, or discussions, was not perceived to be as difficult as giving verbal responses to a large classroom discussion.

About Kim’s study

Kim sought to survey more than 200 East Asian graduate students in non-STEM fields, however, the response rate was below anticipation (70 respondents). The survey showed that when instructors stated there would be a grade for class participation, students were more likely to think that they were expected to do well at leading in-class and participating in small group discussions.


International and minority graduate students may need more personal attention when it comes to sharpening their speaking and listening skills, and providing feedback on their research projects. Focusing on the needs of academic English learners and minority students in the graduate learning environment may be challenging for professors and mentors who are not used to working with students who have needs. However, professors and mentors need not see such students as departures from the status quo. Rather, students for whom the traditional American academic environment is a new context, may be seen as part of a rising trend. Thus, one solution to the problem of the needs of academic English learners, and minority students, is recognition that international and minority graduate students do exist in American institutions of higher learning. Knowing that international and minority students exist is one step toward addressing their concerns and expectations.

Another solution is patience. As students feel comfortable making their concerns known, professors and mentors may give students extra time in order to devise solutions to problems that they may encounter. The emphasis is on creating solutions. Also, professors and mentors may perfect skills that will lead to nurturing relationships with international and minority students. The emphasis is on nurturing.


Professors and mentors of international graduate students and minority graduate students may consider the language and communication needs of their students. Also, the expectations students have of professors and mentors ought to be known and discussed by all parties in a consultative manner. International students equate class participation with English-language fluency, therefore, students may need extra guidance on preparing a successful class presentation, and students may need tips on how to contribute to small-group discussions. Finally, research has shown that when it comes to conducting dissertation research, international and minority graduate students generally expect an apprentice-style relationship with a professor. Professors who focus on the language and communication needs of students may play an active role in the academic success of their students. Academic success is one goal educators can agree is important.

What are your thoughts?


Belcher, D. (1994). The apprenticeship approach to advanced academic literacy: Graduate students and their mentors. English for Specific Purposes. 13(1). 23-34.

Dedrick, R.F. & Watson, F. (2002) Mentoring needs of female, minority, and international graduate students: A content analysis of academic research guides and related print material. Mentoring and Tutoring. 10(3), 275-289.

Kim, S. (2006). Academic oral communication needs of East Asian international graduate students in non-science and non-engineering fields. English for Specific Purposes, 25(4). 479-489.

Rose, G.L. (2005). Group differences in graduate students’ concepts of the ideal mentor. Research in Higher Education, 46(1), 56-80.