Focusing on Assets

Center for International and Cultural Education


International and multilingual students are smart, creative, brave, and resourceful. Unfortunately, these students are often treated in our culture as if their language and cultural identity is a problem to be solved rather than an asset to themselves and their communities. 

Deficit Discourse
  • A way of speaking about multilingualism as chiefly a weakness of students’ that sets them back (and apart) from their peers 
  • Only recognizing a student’s multilingual background when something has gone wrong, or they haven’t achieved as highly as you (or they) would like
  • Expressing low expectations for international students
  • Example: At the beginning of the semester, the FTS professor encourages all of their students, especially multilingual students, to go to the Writing Center with first drafts.
Asset Discourse
  • Speaking about multilingualism as a resource, skillset, or asset that the student can leverage in their academic and social lives, at Gustavus and beyond
  • Articulating high expectations for international and multilingual students
  • Achieving a better balance in our discourse around weaknesses/challenges students experience vs. their skills/achievements 
  • Example: At the beginning of the semester, the FTS professor encourages all of the students to go to the Writing Center, explaining that every student is bringing a different linguistic background and set of writing experiences to this campus, and that the WC tutors can help them make the most of whatever skills they are bringing.
Asset Discourse is NOT:
  • Pretending that there are no challenges that face multilingual and international students.
  • Avoiding talking about students' status as international or multilingual
  • Using euphemisms to hide weaknesses students have
  • Over-inflating or exaggerating what students are doing well

How to Focus on Assets:
  • Remind students that all of their languages and literacies (broadly defined) are useful and important, on and off campus
  • Praise multilingual and international students when they do well
  • Articulate high standards for students, because we know they have what it takes to do well
  • Be on the lookout for opportunities that students might be particularly well suited for because of their backgrounds, and share those with the students (essay contests, fellowships, peer mentorships, internship opportunities, etc.)

Not sure if you’re employing asset discourse?

One useful example is to compare how you view and speak about international and/or multilingual students vs. the way you view and speak about U.S. students who study abroad. Generally, students who learn second languages and study away from Gustavus have their experience viewed and talked about as an asset. “Wow—you spent a year studying in France! You must have really refined your French skills. And what a learning experience!” Studying away was undoubtedly a difficult experience for these U.S. students, and they probably fumbled at times, but instead we tend to emphasize the accomplishment and asset side of the experience when we speak to and about those students.

On the other hand, sometimes we forget that we have Gusties right here on campus who are doing coursework in what is a second language for them, or in a culture that is different from their culture or home life. These students demonstrate intercultural skills in front of us every day! That’s pretty amazing, too. We don’t want to insult them by sounding overly impressed with their abilities, especially those who grew up in the U.S., but let’s not miss opportunities to recognize their skillset.

For further reading, see "Why is Bilingualism Framed as an Asset for Some Students and a Defecit for Others?" by Amaya Garcia.