Cassandra Hsiao moved from Malaysia to the United States since she was 5-years-old. The 17-year-old recently made international headlines for being accepted into all 8 Ivy League school which is beyond incredible. I mean, getting accepted into one is already a miracle!
We’re all very curious how she got in. And well, here’s the essay that impressed all the universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia.
“In our house, English is not English. Not in the phonetic sense, like short a is for apple, but rather in the pronunciation – in our house, snake is snack. Words do not roll off our tongues correctly – yet I, who was pulled out of class to meet with language specialists, and my mother from Malaysia, who pronounces film as flim, understand each other perfectly.
In our house, there is no difference between cast and cash, which was why at a church retreat, people made fun of me for “cashing out demons.” I did not realize the glaring difference between the two Englishes until my teacher corrected my pronunciations of hammock, ladle, and siphon. Classmates laughed because I pronounce accept as except, success as sussess. I was in the Creative Writing conservatory, and yet words failed me when I needed them most.
Suddenly, understanding flower is flour wasn’t enough. I rejected the English that had never seemed broken before, a language that had raised me and taught me everything I knew. Everybody else’s parents spoke with accents smarting of Ph.D.s and university teaching positions. So why couldn’t mine?
My mother spread her sunbaked hands and said, “This is where I came from,” spinning a tale with the English she had taught herself.
When my mother moved from her village to a town in Malaysia, she had to learn a brand new language in middle school: English. In a time when humiliation was encouraged, my mother was defenseless against the cruel words spewing from the teacher, who criticized her paper in front of the class. When she began to cry, the class president stood up and said, “That’s enough.”
“Be like that class president,” my mother said with tears in her eyes. The class president took her under her wing and patiently mended my mother’s strands of language. “She stood up for the weak and used her words to fight back.”
We were both crying now. My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn’t laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants — I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine.
As my mother’s vocabulary began to grow, I mended my own English. Through performing poetry in front of 3000 at my school’s Season Finale event, interviewing people from all walks of life, and writing stories for the stage, I stand against ignorance and become a voice for the homeless, the refugees, the ignored.
With my words I fight against jeers pelted at an old Asian street performer on a New York subway. My mother’s eyes are reflected in underprivileged ESL children who have so many stories to tell but do not know how. I fill them with words as they take needle and thread to make a tapestry.
In our house, there is beauty in the way we speak to each other. In our house, language is not broken but rather bursting with emotion. We have built a house out of words. There are friendly snakes in the cupboard and snacks in the tank. It is a crooked house. It is a little messy. But this is where we have made our home.”
Also read: Malaysian Girl Who Got Into All 8 Ivy League Schools Tells Us How She Did It
Living in a country far from home, where everyone speaks a language you didn’t grow up with, can be a challenge. For some international students, the English language can be a barrier that makes them feel lonely and excluded.
Once they get to America, a concern for international students is the “Test of English as a foreign language”, also known as the TOEFL test. It evaluates their listening, reading and writing skills and is required for non-native English speakers in order to be allowed to study at Iowa State.
However, the mandatory nature of the test lead to an unhealthy obsession among international students with TOEFL, said Joan Chamberlin, director of intensive English and orientation program, IEOP.
“TOEFL is of limited ability. It tests how fast you can read, some grammar or some vocabulary, but it doesn’t help you with the real problems you have to face once you’ve passed it," Chamberlin said.
Chamberlin said that many former IEOP students struggle with understanding lectures and interacting with professors. Basic skills such as taking notes, writing essays and coping with the quantity of reading for class can be big issues, because they are not measured and tested by TOEFL.
“Sometimes a professor might make an inside joke about Iowa and international students don’t understand the context, so they feel left out,” Chamberlin said.
Malaysian student Xun Chong, sophomore in chemical engineering, said the IEOP class was way too easy for him. He managed to get above the required score for TOEFL, however his real problems began afterwards.
“In some classes, I had no idea what the professor was talking about,” Chong said. “I had to go to countless professors during office hours and ask them what they meant.”
Chong said his broken English skills often are like a barrier when communicating with American students.
“I am a big music fan, and I’d love to talk with native speakers about my and their favorite bands, but I don’t have the skill to talk naturally to them," Chong said. "It always sounds formal, and that’s not good if you want to have a casual conversation.”
TOEFL is a standardized test, but unfortunately, the skills that you need to pass TOEFL aren’t the same skills you need in real life, Chamberlin said. As a result, a lot of international students feel left out.
“I’m not used to American culture, it’s so different to me,” said Rocio Aviles, student from Guatemala and sophomore in industrial engineering. “Everything is going so fast, everyone is constantly rushing, no one really stops to engage in a conversation with friends. That’s so stressful for me.”
Most of the time, Aviles hangs out with Spanish-speaking students rather than with native English speakers. She said that’s why she doesn’t practice English as much as she would want to.
“I am very shy and I simply can connect better with international students," Aviles said. "They have the same challenges, they understand how I feel, because they’ve been through the same.”
Mostafa Fawzy, student from Egypt and graduate in industrial and manufacturing systems, experienced the opposite, because he had no other choice.
“I had a lot of group assignments and had to communicate with native speakers on a daily basis, so I had to make friends quickly, which helped me a lot,” Fawzy said.
Fawzy said that after IEOP class, he often recorded himself talking and sent it to his IEOP teachers in order to get feedback and improve his English speaking skills.
Aviles said she doesn’t think that TOEFL helped her prepare for college life. She recommends watching English movies with English subtitles to practice pronunciation and listening skills.
The problem isn’t limited to international students only. Teachers from other countries often have trouble with the intricacies of the English language as well, said Ryosuke Aoyama, professor in the orientation program.
“Communicating with students was a little difficult at first, especially due to my pronunciation or my grammar," Aoyama said. "I was very afraid of making mistakes.”
Aoyama said that he got used to making mistakes over time. He learned that he doesn’t have to speak perfectly. People still understand the basic points he’s making.
“Don’t shy away from mistakes, learn from them," Aoyama said. "Keep the conversation going, that’s very important when it comes to learning any language. Perfection just prevents us from speaking fluently.”
Practicing your language skills on your own is not a good idea, Aoyama said.
“I don’t like practicing all that much, which is strange coming from a teacher, I know," Aoyama said.
In his opinion, international students should focus on having real and meaningful conversations with native speakers.
“It’s like playing basketball," Aoyama said. "You could practice how to dribble by yourself, but it’s much more important to play with somebody else. It’s also much more fun."
Korean student JaeHee Lee, senior in food science, said she found it helpful that a lot of American students are very patient with her and talk slowly to help her understand them better.
“I’m actually pretty jealous of one of my Korean friends. She has an American boyfriend and now her English is really, really good,” Lee said.
Chamberlin encourages students to step out of their first-language groups and leave their comfort zone in order to overcome the language barrier.
“There is a life after TOEFL and it takes a lot more than just measurable test results to master it," Chamberlin said.