Eighteen years ago I graduated from a law school in Spain, my mother country. Those were years of routine drives to the campus for attending class, taking notes, and physically interacting with other students and instructors. At that time my “only” occupation was being a student, which helped me attending classes on campus without the hindrance of other obligations.
With the passage of years my life has become progressively more complex. Despite this I have always felt that the learning process should be dynamic, not static. What I mean is that, in my opinion, life is a continuous learning process and it is never too late to gain new and enriching knowledge. When I applied to Penn State through its virtual campus, the World Campus, I did it keeping in mind that online learning might be the only solution that allowed me to find the proper balance between my professional and family duties on the one hand and my academic aims on the other.
In my particular case, the fact that English was not my native language contributed to make things even a bit more complicated and overwhelming prima facie. After several semesters and on the verge of graduation, I look back with pride for the academic goals achieved during this period in an educational environment that was completely unknown to me until the time of my admission to Penn State. Out of my experience as an international learner studying at a college located in a different country, I would suggest the following tips I deem useful for other students who might eventually be in the same or a similar situation:
Your adviser: A multipurpose tool in your academic path.
If you do not understand some aspect regarding the University methodology do not hesitate to get in touch with your adviser as often as necessary. Your adviser is a highly committed professional who will try to ensure at all times that your adaptation to the University dynamics and mechanisms is as fitting as possible, taking into consideration the many challenges students in a virtual environment have to face. My adviser has saved me countless times from a vast array of problems with her tireless and invaluable help throughout the semesters (thanks Jane Ireland and Beth Brown for your support and dedication!).
Instructor: The importance of a fluent communication.
Your instructors obviously play key roles in your college experience. As previously noted, one the most challenging things for me has been the proper use of a foreign language. I was deeply concerned that some of my ideas were not properly understood, that I was unable to get a good grasp of the materials due to those language shortcommings, or that the fact of making grammatical errors might hinder my performance and eventually my grade. I have tried to make each of my instructors aware of those concerns from the very first lesson. I think it is very important that the instructor can address those concerns at an early stage by creating and fostering a friendly environment that helps the foreign student to feel less pressure placed upon his or her shoulders.
Due to the fact that in an online environment the interaction between instructor and student is basically virtual, I deem it very necessary that both actors inspire confidence mutually to the other. For that purpose constant communication is pivotal especially during the first weeks. For example, when the first submitted assignments are graded the student should pay much atention to the reasons and comments provided by the instructor for determining the grade. Those usually suggest the course of action the student should further implement for improving his or her academic performance in later assignments.
Fellow students: Fostering Collaborative Efforts
The fact that some of the students live in foreign countries might make interaction very challenging, especially when it comes to group or team assignments. Again, I think that communication and collaborative efforts can help overcome those difficulties by letting team members adjust their schedules accordingly. If this is not possible the instructor would have the final word trying to harmonize the different sensibilities and needs.
Other issues: Dealing with imponderable factors
There are particular circumstances that a student living overseas must face, which rarely will be experienced by the rest of the class. Thus, I have suffered some issues with my textbooks, which due to problems with their shipping, or even with the Spanish national customs, arrived very late to my despair and frustration. On one of those awful occasions my instructor decided to scan some of the materials sending them to me by email so I could be able to submit my homework in a timely manner. That was a good example of the flexibility that ultimately has made my student experience as a Penn Stater much easier and valuable.