This spring, five UT undergraduate students are serving as ambassadors to a place they know well – the Forty Acres. Now in its second year, the Graduate Student Development team (GSD) in the Faculty Innovation Center offers “ITA/UTA Connect,” a program that connects undergraduate teaching ambassadors (UTAs) with small groups of international teaching assistants (ITAs) to provide information about teaching and UT undergraduate life. Throughout this post, you’ll see sample informational posters and ads from these efforts.
The central goal of the Connect program is to provide ITAs with a nuanced understanding of the experiences of undergraduates in an effort to increase ITAs’ teaching efficacy and improve undergraduate student learning. Research on undergraduates mentoring ITAs in the US is sparse, but a study of Dutch universities with large populations of international graduate students have found that connecting them with undergraduate mentors provides international graduate students with a non-judgmental “insider” contact who serves as a resource on university life (Koster, 2012). Using this framework, we asked, who better to provide such an understanding of undergraduate student life, in and out of the classroom, than undergraduates? The “Connect” program aims to share these understandings with ITAs through one-on-one interactions with UTAs, small group experiences, and practice teaching sessions over the course of the spring semester.
Each of the five UTAs selected for the “Connect” program came highly recommended as established mentors on campus. They hold leadership positions in campus organizations and clubs, have served as mentors and tutors in support offices such as the Sanger Learning Center and TIP Scholars, and have a strong desire to work with and learn from international graduate students. As part of their ambassador responsibilities, they meet individually with their ITAs to answer questions about the UT undergraduate life and design and conduct small group experiences to various on- and off-campus sites.
The ITAs are from diverse backgrounds: they represent a variety of disciplines, from Civil Engineering to Asian Studies, to Educational Psychology; and have varying levels of experience in U.S. higher education, from having arrived in the U.S. only weeks before the start of the semester, to being in the latter stages of their programs. When asked what they would like to learn from this program, a fifth-year ITA told us, “I would like to learn about being a US undergrad in order to be able to understand and help my future students better… I would love to learn what students expect of instructors, supervisor (mentors) and TAs, what students’ concerns are and how the concerns are changed as they grow in school, what helps students learn in class, lab, and discussion sections, and students’ general perspectives on and expectations of international professor/instructors/TAs.” An ITA from the College of Liberal Arts applied to the program so that she could “gain feedback from undergraduate students on how to improve my teaching ability.”
One of the ways ITAs receive directed feedback regarding their teaching is in the two group teaching practice sessions offered at the beginning and end of the program. ITAs present 12-minute lessons, and UTAs and GSD team members offer feedback on topics such as content delivery, teaching techniques, fostering interaction, and reinforcing what worked well in their lesson. Although ITAs teach lessons on topics ranging from virtual reality to reinforcement in construction materials, they learn there are common strategies they can all use to engage their students. Most importantly, they had undergrads in their lessons provide real-time, constructive feedback they could immediately incorporate in their own classrooms.
UTAs also plan and facilitate small group activities that shed light on undergraduate life. This semester, UTAs have planned trips to the Sanger Learning Center, the Vick Center for Strategic Advising and Counseling Center, UT residence halls, and UT student organization tabling on the West Mall, to name a few. Hyeun An Kang, a fifth-year doctoral student in Pharmacy, attended the Vick Center experience and learned that 90% of UT undergraduate students come from Texas and many of those are from small towns or rural areas. She remarked, “as an international student, I couldn’t imagine that students from the US could also feel homesick and are going through difficulties to fit in their communities before. This was a shock and a great lesson for me and I felt that I should make sure my students are doing alright even though they are from the States, especially in their first semester.” From these small group activities, she also said she felt better equipped to connect students with different resources, like the Vick Center, or even encourage them to join one of the hundreds of student organizations on campus.
Hearing reflections like Hyeun An’s is encouraging for the development of this program, but there is a dearth of research regarding evidence-based approaches regarding the intersection of teaching, language, and institutional culture for international graduate students. As such, we are currently preparing a study for publication in New Directions for Teaching and Learning regarding this initiative. We have designed a multi-faceted approach to evaluating ITAs’ growth and experiences, considering their teaching self-efficacy, teaching confidence, and “insider knowledge” regarding the undergraduate student experience. Our goal is to share with others the lessons we have learned after two iterations of this program and fundamentally support ITAs in their own graduate student development.
Laura Struve, Ph.D. (Educational Policy & Leadership)
Postdoctoral Fellow, Faculty Innovation Center
In the Faculty Innovation Center, Laura supports programming and research regarding graduate student development. Her research interests include equity and inclusion in higher education, supporting instructors, and intersectional aspects of identity development in graduate students..