This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

International student gets her words' worth with winning essay

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For more than four centuries, an ancient library in southern China— one of three surviving private book repositories that are considered the oldest in the world — has managed to resurface from the wreckage of crippling wars, social upheaval, thefts of its books, aerial bombing and natural disasters.
 
Founded during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century by a government official with a passion for books, the Tianyige Library represents to Mengqing Shang, a third-year UCLA student, a cultural wonder that stands as a testament to the tenacity of her countrymen to safeguard this symbol of their rich culture against all odds. Tianyige is now a research center, National Heritage Site and tourist attraction in 21st century China.
 
Shangqing
Mengqing Shang, a third-year student in anthropology, is the first international student for whom English is a second language to win the Peter Rotter writing award giving annually to undergraduates in the humanities.
“Thanks to their efforts and cultural consciousness … Tianyige became a symbol of how generations of Chinese people preserved and passed on their culture, and how sacred and difficult this process is,” Shang said.
 
Telling the story of Tianyige Library to fulfill a classroom assignment in her English Composition 3 class gave Shang a chance to not only learn for the first time about the library but to demonstrate her writing chops.
 
With her essay, Shang became the first international student in memory — for whom English is a second language (ESL) — to win an annual prize honoring excellence in undergraduate student writing produced for lower- and upper-division humanities courses in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
 
“I was surprised because I could hardly imagine that I could win an essay prize at UCLA as an international student,” said Shang, who is majoring in cultural anthropology. “I realized that the language barrier is not as big a problem as I thought, so I need to be determined to pursue my dream in the study of humanities.”
 
Shang, who was nominated for the 2013 Peter Rotter Award by UCLA Writing Programs lecturer Jennifer Westbay, is the first to acknowledge that learning to write a research paper to UCLA’s high standards wasn’t a solo venture. She spent hours at the Undergraduate Writing Center working with peer learning facilitators, undergraduates with advanced writing skills who are hired to painstakingly teach students the strategies they need to do well — one-on-one, essay-by-essay.
 
Also, said Shang, “English 2i (a writing course specifically designed for ESL students) was incredibly helpful for me.”  It eased her transition from the stiff rote writing style she was taught in China primarily to pass exams to the kind of expository writing and critical thinking she needed to do well at UCLA.
 
“She’s one of these students who really wants to push the envelope in terms of what she can do,” said Christine Holten, a lecturer in Writing Programs who taught Shang in English 2i. Shang’s goal is to become as skilled a writer in English as she is in Chinese, her teacher said. “She’s a stickler for getting it right, especially at the place where vocabulary and grammar meet.”
 
With the influx of international students entering UCLA in recent years, the classes and services offered in writing as well as rhetoric have expanded to address their specific needs, said Bruce Beiderwell, director of Writing Programs, which includes the ESL program, English composition and the writing center.
 
“Approximately 45 percent of UCLA’s international students use the writing center,” he said, a peer tutorial directed by Holten. Some 1,700 students currently seek help from peer learning facilitators at three locations: the Humanities Building, Powell Library and Rieber Hall.
 
The wide array of programs and services offered at UCLA to provide a welcoming environment for international students and prepare them to excel has been a big factor in making the campus a draw for international students.
 
Global education
UCLA was recently ranked third among public universities for enrolling international students. One factor that draws them here is the extensive support services offered on campus.
Released Monday, the latest Open Doors report, an annual round-up published by the Institute of International Education, the leading not-for-profit educational and cultural exchange organization in the United States, placed UCLA third among the nation's public universities, and sixth overall, in enrolling international students. During the 2012-13 academic year, nearly 8,500 international students called UCLA home.
 
UCLA's academic reputation as well as its diversity and support services make the campus a top choice for thousands of international students, university officials said.
 
International students who enroll in UCLA’s ESL classes, for example, can take three different levels of writing courses even before they enroll in the English composition 3 course required for first-year students. That’s useful, instructors said, because it’s often difficult to predict whether an international student is ready to take that course, even if he or she satisfies the entry-level writing requirement by getting a high score on the writing portion of the SAT.
 
“Because many of these students undergo highly test-centered instruction in their native countries, the scores on the SAT exams don’t necessarily predict the same facility with language that native English speakers have,” said George Gadda, assistant director of Writing Programs. So it’s important that international students have the option to take preparatory courses.
 
“We want to bring international students fully into what UCLA is all about,” Beiderwell said.
 
To help do that, a new oral skills course has been created to increase students’ fluency in English, teach them communication strategies and introduce them to student life — clearing up such mysteries as how to ask questions in class, how to participate in class discussions and what happens during office hours.
 
For those who scratch their heads when it comes to understanding certain aspects of American culture, peer learning facilitators in the class cover everything from what makes a person a celebrity and cellphone etiquette to why nobody seems to be in their dorm rooms on Thursday nights.  "International students feel more comfortable asking these peer learning facilitators certain questions they would never ask us because we’re not part of the youth culture,” Beiderwell said.
 
“We’ve tweaked and redefined the course specifically to address this population,” said Holten. “They need to know that college is much more than just taking courses. It’s acculturation and socialization, and that’s where they will pick up a lot of the language. Don’t just take 24 units and stay in your dorm. Get out, meet and mingle.”
 
What’s helped immensely in strengthening the program for international students is a move in 2010 that brought ESL instructors from the Department of Applied Linguistics into the Writing Programs, both in the College of Letters and Science.
 
“People whose background is in composition, rhetoric or another academic discipline are seeing how their ESL colleagues are dealing with students’ language issue,” Gadda said. “On the other side, people whose specific expertise is in working with non-native speakers and their language problems are seeing how their colleagues are dealing with students’ reading and rhetorical issues. We can help each other.”       
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