Monday, April 2, 2012

tough love

So I sat down tonight to write the following email to a former student who has asked me for help in studying for the TOEFL, an extensive qualifying exam required by every U.S. university to prove one's level of English proficiency. I hope it strikes him with a holy discomfort.


Let me prepare you for this email. It will not be easy to read. It's not even easy to write. Understand that what I share with you, I share because I care about you. If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't take the time or the effort to use this opportunity to help you see things with a fresh perspective.

I taught you when you were just a freshman, and I realize that over time, people can mature and make positive changes. However, it's my overall experience that, unless there is a major trauma in one's college life, what works for the first year will continue to be the formula applied to the second, third, fourth year and so on. I also know that the academic environment here encourages whatever means are necessary to achieve the final result. In China, everything depends on the final mark. It is not that way in the U.S. Our education system highly values the process of learning as much as the final outcome, which is why many professors develop long-standing friendships with their students; it is considered an interactive part of learning. Academic integrity receives high priority among colleges. We have clear definitions of cheating and plagiarism, and when one is caught, the result is often expulsion from the institution with no hope of ever returning. American universities share names of such individuals so that the odds of being accepted to another university are slim. No school wants to be known as a refuge for liars, cheaters and fakes.

I say this because I want to establish that I am evaluating you based on the perspective of a U.S. school, and what I share with you should be taken with all seriousness. As your former teacher, I am somewhat acquainted with your approach to learning and academic integrity, and I will tell you that I am greatly concerned when thinking that you might possibly study in the United States. To be honest, X, I do not think you are a good candidate. Here are my reasons why:

1. You have already indicted yourself by choosing an internet moniker that displays great contempt for certain areas of western education. "FUCKtheGRE" not only insults American institutions AND your American teacher who tried to help you see the value in a foreign language, but it also labels you as arrogant and short-tempered. Consider that many US schools now have access to Chinese microblogs, and do not think for a moment that they are not out looking at your posts. They want to know if the person on paper is the real thing. Sadly, with a name like your previous one, you would not pass the test of authenticity.

2. You once told me that you have no problem cheating on exams or quizzes if they're not important. While your attitude about cheating certainly isn't rare, it is slightly alarming that you have not considered how this will affect your performance in America. X, cheating is not tolerated there. Not on homework or on quizzes or on exams or on finals. Not even in writing articles. If you still cheat and are accepted into an American school, you are putting that school and your own reputation in huge danger. More importantly, cheating is like setting a small part of a forest on fire. If you get away with it, it begins to consume other areas of your life: your business, your taxes, your friendships, your marriage. X, your lack of conscience is going to be a serious threat to your future. Sadly, when I think of you in 20 or 30 years, I do not imagine a content man who is surrounded by good friends and a strong reputation. Instead, I imagine a man who has achieved life's luxuries at the expense of his own morality. You would not be a man whom I would trust, X, and that's heartbreaking for a teacher to have to tell her own student.

3. You have hired an agency to do things for you. I know more about agencies than you probably think I do. While they promise to make your dreams come true, they are actually part of the reason why American universities are increasingly suspicious about Chinese students. Agencies do more than translate; they forge the entire application for many students. The trouble is that the application doesn't match the ability of the students once they arrive on campus. On paper, the student has exceptional communication abilities and outstanding contributions to class. In person, the student can barely speak and sits silently in class, never interacting with the other students (except for the ones who are Chinese). This is causing some American students to be resentful of Chinese kids who buy their way into class yet never contribute. They are, essentially, taking away the chance from someone who does the work honestly and independently.

4. You have demonstrated little interest in true study. Why go halfway around the world if all you really care about is smoking, the NBA and your girlfriend? You can have those things here in China without doing any damage to the reputation of the US schools.

This isn't just your academic life I'm talking about, X. This is your whole future. Instead of focusing on what a US school can do for you, start asking yourself what YOU can do for yourself. Maybe you need to take some time for self-examination before you expect an American university to change your life.

While I love China and desire the best for my friends and students here, I am also protective of the reputation of my own country's universities. After all, I am a product of such an education, and I wish for the level of excellence to be maintained for the sake of my own children and grandchildren. Your current performance does not meet that standard, and if I were on the admissions committee of your target schools, you would not be selected.

Our conversation tonight has given me reason to believe that you do not yet understand that YOU are a part of the problem that keeps Chinese education from experiencing its true potential. Change starts with the individual, not when you step foot onto foreign soil. Whoever you are now determines the rest of your days. For your sake and for the sake of your wife, children and the subsequent generations, I hope that you choose to re-evaluate your attitude and approach to the life you have been given. It is not too late to choose a better way.