The transition from high school graduate to college freshman is an exciting, challenging time for most young adults. There are new rules to play by, higher expectations to be met, and greater standards to be followed. It can be a difficult time for even the well-adapted student. But the stakes are even higher when making the transition as a foreign high school graduate to an American university student. Fortunately, some international students who choose the University of Oklahoma have the Sooner Jump Start (SJS) program to assist them with their transition into a new learning experience and a new culture.
Sooner Jump Start is a two-semester bridge program designed to support students as they transition into college in the United States. The program includes a pre-departure online orientation, new student orientation once they arrive in the States, and two full phases (semesters), which help the students get used to their new university culture while building their English proficiency. Caleb Groves, program specialist for SJS, is one of the familiar faces students come to rely on for information and support as they go through the different phases of the program.
“Going to a university from high school is a big change for American students. For an international student, it’s even harder,” Groves said. “We are here to help them transition into their university life more successfully.”
Education for the Head and the Heart
A big part of the program’s success is due to the structure and guidance the students receive immediately upon entering the program. Once students have filled out their applications, they have access to the SJS staff to help them through the process, including pre-departure arrangements. Immediately upon arriving in Oklahoma, the SJS staff is ready to help them get the basics covered: starting a checking account, getting a cell phone, and of course, a trip to Walmart for any necessities.
Next on the list is the SJS New Student Orientation. This is a great opportunity for the students to ask questions about the program, learn more about each other as individuals and classmates and meet everyone on the SJS staff, including program director, Sally Jo Blair. She has been with SJS for four years and knows the needs of international students well, as she traveled abroad while studying. One of her favorite parts of working with international students is welcoming each new group during orientation and explaining to them the benefits and great experiences they will have as Sooners.
“We find that students get a great education here at OU…not just an education for the head and for a job, but also for the heart,” Blair said. “Students learn how to serve other people and be advocates for things that are good in the world.”
When it comes time for the students to hit the books in Phase I, it is a very different experience from what the typical OU freshman might learn. While most freshmen are taking Gen Ed courses, SJS students are immersed in English language learning with the Center for English as a Second Language, where they study with students from around the world. The first phase consists of reading, writing, listening/speaking, grammar and seminar.
New Weekly Workshop
New to the Phase I curriculum this year will be a special weekly workshop in character and leadership development designed with SJS students in mind. Sally Jo, Caleb and Heather Arnett have all completed courses in the Coaches Training Institute and are eager to work that training into the SJS program.
“We are very excited about the new character development workshop. It’s going incorporate topics such as personal responsibility, perseverance, accountability, study skills, interpersonal skills…mostly things that they can build within themselves,” Groves said. “It can really help them to realize their dream and life purpose; it also can keep them motivated to do well and always have that goal they are reaching for. It helps them be successful.”
Once the students have an acceptable score on their TOEFL or IELTS exam and meet all the other qualifications, they are ready to move on to Phase II, which includes typical freshman courses: English, American History and Government and First Step, a university prep course. All of the courses are taught at Outreach’s Center for Independent and Distance Learning by OU professors.
Culture in the Classroom and Beyond
The SJS learning experience isn’t limited to English skills and college courses. The program also strives to help students understand American culture. While many students have learned some American culture in their studies back home, there are numerous things that aren’t learned until they are experienced. One challenge for the SJS staff is helping the students understand that college in America is more difficult than they might expect.
“In China, they say that high school is harder than college. But as soon as they get into college, they say it’s easier than high school,” Groves explained. “But in America, that is flipped. When they arrive here, they expect college to be easy and it isn’t.”
Many SJS students are engineering and business majors, both of which are academically challenging. The SJS and CIDL staffs are committed to encouraging students to study hard and asking for assistance when it’s needed. In addition, students are often surprised with different ethics they find in the United States, especially in regard to academics. For instance, in China students are accustomed to bargaining and it’s not unusual for a student to approach a teacher and argue for a better grade. The SJS staff and the OU Office of Academic Integrity work closely together so students clearly understand the importance of academic integrity at OU and following academic guidelines.
“We want to make sure that students understand what is expected of them as students and how to be successful in an American college,” Groves said.
Even though learning the culture of the American college might be difficult at times, there is also room for fun when learning American culture. The SJS program also includes numerous outings, celebrations and other fun activities to help their students understand America from all aspects. Tours of the Oklahoma capitol grounds, a local sports game, trips to local museums and general amusement at places like HeyDay Entertainment and Dallas Aquarium are often worked into the time spent in the SJS program. The staff also has several smaller activities during the semester, including movie and board game nights, as well as celebrating American holidays with their students.
“We had an Easter party this past spring. We colored eggs, had snacks, hunted eggs behind the building,” Groves said. “All the chocolate candy melted but they still had fun!”
While SJS does focus on small group activities with their students, there is also no shortage of individual attention. The students rely on SJS staff to learn about American bank accounts, events on campus and specific problems they encounter. SJS staff has even assisted students moving into their dorm rooms, meeting their new roommates and finding new housing once they have spent their required year in the dorms.
Sooner Jump Start Pride
The future for SJS looks bright. The program gets about 100 new students every year. Currently, all enrolled and incoming SJS students are Chinese. The SJS team is striving for further diversity by promoting the program in South and Central America and Eurasia. With new countries participating, a richer experience will had by those involved.
“One of the biggest parts of our mission is helping the students learn American culture,” Groves said. “But we emphasize to the students that they will be taking courses with people from all over the world.”
Even when students realize they will be side-by-side with people from all walks of life during their time at OU, the Oklahoma culture is often one thing that most international students aren’t always informed about. The SJS staff explains to students that Oklahoma hospitality is first-rate and that Oklahomans are nice, friendly and care about each other.
Most importantly, the SJS staff doesn’t just explain it but also embodies it by being great ambassadors for the university and the community as a whole. And while the students are always eager to learn from the SJS staff, Groves says the staff also learns from their students as well.
“I ask students why they chose Oklahoma when they can go to New York or LA,” Groves said. “They tell me that all their friends go to the coasts, but they want to go somewhere different and have a new, different experience. It’s a very mature and profound way of thinking. They make me proud to be a part of all this.”