Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Struggling to Make the Grade

Going abroad to study may seem like a good thing, but is your child prepared?
A few days ago late at night my cell phone rang with a China number showing up on the screen. I took it and on the other line was a distant relative I'd met a few times before in Jiangmen, which is near Guangzhou and Zhuhai.

He didn't know I was in Vancouver and apologized for calling at 12.50am my time. Then he got to the point of his call. His 17-year-old daughter Candy recently met up with a childhood friend who is now going to high school in Burnaby, a municipality near Vancouver and wondered if there were good schools there.

In the last few years many countries around the world are receiving more mainland Chinese students going abroad to study. Their parents have a perception the domestic education system is flawed, that their child spends all his or her time studying for the one big exam, the gaokao or national university entrance exams.

Money is almost no hindrance -- with the one-child policy, parents dote on their son or daughter and are willing to give them whatever they want, particularly in the case of education.

What could I tell him? A few weeks ago I met an academic from my alma mater. He wasn't my professor but joined the university just as I graduated. I asked him how mainland Chinese students were doing, and he surprisingly gave an honest answer.

In a word he said they were struggling. This was because the university (and practically every other post-secondary institution is guilty of this) didn't prepare these ESL students how to academically prepare, particularly in terms of English skills, critical thinking, adapting to a western lifestyle and living independently.

Elementary and high schools in Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby are flooded with mainland Chinese students who congregate together and don't take the opportunity to learn English outside of the classroom. Part of it is them not being easily integrated into the class because they are such a big visible ethnic group, part of it is their choice to be among their own culture which is understandable being far from home and feeling alone.

And so I told this father in his mid-40s that many of the schools in here already have lots of Chinese students and his daughter's chances of learning English was not very good, and suggested it would be better for her to go where there were less mainland Chinese students, like schools in Victoria, about an hour and a half away from Vancouver by ferry.

I admitted she may not like the place because it was populated by mostly seniors, but it was a good environment for her to learn English. He worried there weren't good schools there, but I assured him there were. But what about Burnaby? he asked again.

Again I repeated there were many mainland Chinese students in Burnaby and if he wanted Candy to learn English, Burnaby was not the place to go.

Part of him was listening to reason and part of him wanted to indulge his daughter. He reiterated his daughter's friend started studying in Burnaby in September and was enjoying it because it wasn't so stressful and that she was second in the class. I commented she was probably second in mathematics, but not overall.

Another aspect I touched on was that the schools here would definitely accept her, but it did not mean that she would get into university, hinting about her elementary English skills. She talked to me briefly on the phone and when I asked her if she could write a paragraph in English, say a few hundred words, she said no.

The provincial government is pushing students through the system without really ensuring they have the proper skills for tertiary education. I know this from the professor and my friends who are high school teachers, many of whom are forced to pass students, both ESL and not, in order to make the high school graduation rate look good for the province.

And so there are many ESL students who either get into university but fail because they are completely overwhelmed by what professors are asking them to do -- write analytical papers or even having trouble just keeping up with the readings and even understanding what is taught in the lectures.

There are also those who don't get into university and are stuck in colleges to try to bump up their academic standing to get into post-secondary education, but because their English is weak they cannot move up any further.

These were the two scenarios in my head that Candy could experience but I didn't tell her father that. It was already too much information for him to process. He said the application deadline for entering high school for September was in February so they had some time to think about it.

But really it's not that much time at all considering all the information they need to put together in the application. More importantly this is an important life decision they need to make that affects not only Candy's life but her parents too.

The father says he understands it will be tough for her (academically) and so she will have to study hard, but studying hard is not enough -- it takes determination and also a willingness to be independent and open to trying new things.

Candy is a sweet girl, but in the handful of times I've met her she has been too shy to speak to me, let alone practice her English. For her to all of a sudden want to go to Vancouver to study demonstrates her keenness to be with her friend and not the implications of studying abroad. Yes it can be a benefit to open the mind to new ideas and a new way of thinking, but is she prepared for that and the sacrifices she and her parents will have to make?

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