Bridging the Gap: Frances Li Helps International Students Adjust to UCI

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by Eliza Partika

When Frances Li smiles, she does so with confidence, underscored by a shy humility. Her handshake is firm and quick like her gaze. She has an air of command and authority about her; it’s not overwhelming, but rather a friendly assurance that gives comfort to those who come into contact with her.

Li, a third-year psychology major,   sits down at her computer to type out rosters for a trip to the Griffith Observatory that she and the students in the International Student Excellence Program (ISEP) will be taking that Saturday. Her fingers fly across the keyboard, her brown eyes examining her laptop with the same intensity and focus she gives to mentees and other international students who she manages as programs intern for the International Center, a paid position which requires her to organize events for international students and their mentors and to collaborate with other program offices at the International Center to ensure students are receiving a well-rounded experience at UCI.

She often draws on her own experiences as a Chinese international student and lessons she learned from her time as an International Peer Group (IPG) mentor last year to shape her programs and events.     Li manages constant collaboration between the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program at UCI and ISEP by fielding the feedback ESL receives from students to facilitate program improvements. The ESL program requires placement tests, after which students typically spend a year taking classes that improve their written and spoken English skills, as well as their reading comprehension. ESL also provides students with an annual culture show during winter quarter that features calligraphy, dancing, music and other cultural elements.

While Li feels that events like the ones the ESL puts on helped her come out of her shell in her first year at UCI, as an IPG mentor she had noticed that many students did not attend these events. This drove her, in her role as programs intern, to improve the connections between students through workshops and trips like the one she’s planning to the Griffith Observatory.

Last year, as an IPG mentor, Li said that almost all her international student mentees had “just wanted a degree,” and not to participate fully in campus life. This frustrated her, as she wanted to share the experiences that had helped her grow. “I had so many skills to teach them and I wanted to show them the events, but they didn’t care.”

Throughout the year, she convinced her mentees to attend programs with her and continued to share different resources, and before long, they had all opened themselves up to new opportunities, including internships and jobs.

“It’s really inspiring to see how they leapt out of their comfort zone and and went so far from what they had expected. I felt really proud, like a proud mom moment,” she laughs at the memory. “It’s been fun being the mom and watching them grow.”

Li vividly remembers her first year at UCI, when she recorded all of her psychology lectures with the professor’s permission and listened to them over and over again until she understood them. Her work helped not only with her language and reading comprehension skills, but also piqued her interest in psychology as a field of study and created good study habits she has kept to the present.

Although as programs intern, Li is no longer able to mentor students, she takes pride in seeing them bond with others. “We reinforce each other. Just seeing them grow motivates me to grow.”

Li wasn’t always so confident. In her first year at UCI, she was more reserved like her mentees.

“If you would have met me when I first came here,  I was like a mess,” said Li. “I didn’t know how to communicate with anyone; like, when people would say, ‘What’s up?’ I would say, ‘Good!’ I didn’t know the culture or the social customs.” She had never seen a vending machine and didn’t know how to get drinks from the filtered water fountains on campus. In some ways, it was a large culture shift for Li, but in many ways, she was already comfortable with Western culture.

The city in which she was born, Guangzhou, is considered a more liberal and increasingly progressive city in China, with business men and women from across the globe converging to work in the financial sector. Like other international cities, Guangzhou been influenced by Western cinema and television. Growing up, Li had watched TV shows from the United States like “Friends,” and had gone out to American movies with her high school friends.

But even with this exposure to Western culture and ideas of diversity,  there were certain things that were remarkably different between Li’s boarding school in Guangzhou and UCI.

“[Coming here], I was really nervous, because I had arrived on the first day of orientation alone. My spoken English was not good, so I was worried people were going to think, ‘It’s so hard to to communicate and I don’t want to spend that much effort.’” It was then that Li’s SPOP staffer, Eva, saw that she was alone and invited her to eat together at the dining hall.

“I had so much trouble saying what I was trying to express, but she just waited, and sometimes she guessed what I was about to say, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s the word!’ [Eva] was always there, all the time.” Li was inspired, too, by the SPOP staffers at the international student orientation for their willingness to meet and interact with students from other countries.

“I realized they weren’t intimidated by us at all. It was magical, and then one year later, I was in that role. It was so rewarding.”

Through her mentoring position, Li realized her story was similar to those of the other international students who make up 18 percent of  UCI’s student body, the majority of whom hail from China, Korea, Vietnam, India and other Asian countries. Social barriers like language and cultural differences that  Li experienced in her first days at UCI comprised some of the many reasons her mentees came to her for assistance, in addition to more specific needs. Students came to her with questions about everything from time management and study advice to more complicated mental health issues and dealing with external parental pressure.

Animesh Agrawal, a computer science major at UCI and an IPG mentor, met Li at his International Student Orientation Program his freshman year. He says she inspired him to reach new heights.

“Frances is a dedicated, hardworking and passionate person. She really cares about all her mentees and treats them as friends first and then mentees. She was my inspiration to become a mentor and she pushed me towards expanding my horizons and reaching further every day to achieve my goals.”

That passion and dedication came out in her previous role as a mentor and continues in her position as a programs intern.

Li has always approached problems with sympathetic ears and a keen understanding.

“If you advised mentees with clinical structure, I don’t think it would work that much because the student would think they’re investing so much emotion in it, but you’re not feeling it, and they might think you don’t care about them.”

Stereotyping of international students is another issue that Li believes can be addressed by increasing student awareness of international student issues and encouraging active participation in the international student community.

“I know stereotypes are very invisible and in everyone’s mind, but they’re not something you need to express because they could be hurtful to the person being stereotyped,” said Li, noting that Chinese students can be especially vulnerable to stereotypes.

To Li, it is important to understand that while there can be truth to stereotypes, there are always exceptions that must be accounted for to gain a more complete understanding of a community.

“There are some that are rich, that drive fancy sport cars and wear designer clothes, but there are also a lot of people like me who aren’t rich and are graduating in three years just to save tuition money.”

In 2017, 4,054 students were admitted to UCI from China, with the total number of international students counted at 5,297. Li has tried to improve the marketing strategies in her office to reach as many students, both international and domestic, as she can regarding the events and resources offered by the International Center. In addition to putting out flyers on social media and around campus, Li keeps in touch with counselors, campus organizations abd resident advisors, and engages the UCI student body with weekly Coffee Chats and volunteer opportunities to converse with international students in English.

“There are resources and people who can help you. You just have to let people know.”

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