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Embracing Global Perspectives: Engaging with International Students

By Alex Mitchell

Section: Opinions

August 19, 2016

As a liberal arts institution, Brandeis drives its students to explore and experiment with new perspectives and ideas. Our campus is saturated with advertisements for courses, workshops and seminars on finding these mysterious viewpoints. An outside observer might believe that such viewpoints were hard to come by, given the vast amount of resources dedicated to the cause. Yet in my experience, learning a new perspective is a relatively simple task: simply talk to someone from a different country than you, and what better place for such an exchange than Brandeis? Comprising one-fifth of our student body, international students bring a diverse set of experiences to a university mainly populated by homogenized Long Islanders and Californians. Yet despite the aforementioned workshops and seminars, many domestic students have few or no close friends from other countries.

Reflecting on my own conversations with different international students, I find myself amazed at how much their stories have taught me. In these friendships, not only do I learn about other countries, but I learn about how people conceptualize home. Some students love their country and will recall fond memories of beautiful sights and scenes from home. Others despise the old country, and will tell many humorous stories of social dysfunction and state ineptitude. But regardless of their sentiments, each has been shaped by their home, giving them a rare perspective on life, school and American culture. As a school that prides itself on diversity and global experience, we would be foolish and downright hypocritical to ignore these perspectives.

Sadly, I have at times observed a disconnect between international students and the rest of the Brandeis community. I have seen times when students, perhaps well-meaning, treated international students as a sort of “other”; not with any malice, but simply someone they were not interested in getting to know. But this separation can harm international students, many of whom come to American colleges hoping to gain new perspectives. Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences for Undergraduate Education Elaine Wong, who has worked with international students for many years, says that many international students come to America hoping to learn more about the culture: “Most international students come to Brandeis seeking an authentic American university experience, which includes making friends with American students. The responsibility of making friends should not rest solely with the international students.”

I decided to ask a few of my international friends for their perspectives on domestic-international student relations, if a divide exists, how bad it is and what steps might we as domestic students take to address the gap. Most students found domestic students to be either a little bit disinterested in their culture, or interested just the right amount. Students who like their homes and are more social tended to wish people asked them about home more often, while students who were less social felt that they received enough contact. Similarly, students who felt less confident about their English speaking abilities felt this kept them isolated from others.

Xiou Wang ’19, from Nanjing, China, told me that she doesn’t feel a strong divide and that she feels that there are few universal trends at play here: “I would prefer to say that it’s really case-dependent … I can’t think of anything that domestic students can do to improve, I mean, I think the relationships basically depend on specific people and their personalities.”

Troy Zhao ’18, from Baoding, China, disagreed somewhat, as he found that American students often have little desire to interact with people from other cultures. He in part blames a mentality that discourages cultural diffusion and discourages American students from befriending international students. He says that part of the problem is the metaphorical “salad bowl,” wherein diversity on campus is treated more like distinct parts instead of a whole. Such views engender a sort of aloofness from other cultures and prevents domestic and international students from benefiting from each other’s differences. But Zhao also acknowledges that part of the barrier stems simply from misunderstandings: “[Domestic students] feel like most international students wouldn’t talk to them and I feel like domestic students should realize that most of the time for international students, language is a huge problem. I sometimes feel embarrassed by my awkward English.”

A few caveats on my report: Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, these conversations were only with personal friends and represent a biased sample. I am aware that some international students dislike being asked about home, particularly in a condescending fashion indicative of colonialist privilege. However, almost all of the students I spoke too were very friendly about the question, save for one student from Florianópolis, Brazil: Eduardo Beltrame ’16. Beltrame said that he felt “deeply offended and triggered” by this question, and urged domestic students to have greater sensitivity for the emotional needs of international students, especially those from postcolonial countries.

Reaching out in a sensitive and respectful way should not be difficult. Dean Wong gave advice for students hoping to approach their international peers: “International students may not be familiar with American ‘small talk’ but are more than willing to exchange names and to talk about their home towns, families, high school experiences, current classes, extracurricular activities and mutual interests to ‘break the ice.’” A big part of the approach is dropping America-centric ideas, and instead focusing on what we share: our identity as Brandeis students. International students have just as many complaints as the rest of us about DCL, the bio lab final, high tuition and Sherman food; perhaps we can start there.

Most of the responses I received were more humorously or culturally critical than anything else; Americans do not give their families the attention they deserve, know good dance moves or dress nicely enough. The sense I got from these conversations is that while there may be distance between the two groups, international and domestic students do make many meaningful connections with one another, and these lead to positive exchanges of ideas and perspectives. This gives me hope for our institution and its global mission. As Wong says: “If every domestic student would make the effort to get to know one international student, it would go a long way toward making the entire campus more welcoming and more truly global.”

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