International Education Week, which begins today, aims to “prepare Americans for a global environment.” As part of this preparation, perhaps we should rethink the use of the word “international” as an adjective describing people.
Students and faculty members who came to American universities from abroad used to be called “foreign.” Today they’re called “international.” The shift was well-meaning. “Foreign” is “other.” Foreign quickly becomes foreigner. When I see foreigner on the page I hear: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” International sounds nicer, more democratic.
But as a binational student and now faculty member, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term. I’m not international – I grew up in two countries, not on a cloud between them. My Egyptian, Polish, and Japanese students and colleagues are not international either; they are foreign nationals living in the United States. There are people who identify as citizens of the world, but many newcomers and visitors to this country do not. (We make a similar mistake when we refer to people who enhance diversity as themselves being “diverse.”)
Why does it matter? Because language matters. Because there is a difference between “non-American” and “international,” and blurring the distinction whitewashes something important.
What, after all, is the mission of international education? Recently, I’ve been involved in a series of inspiring conversations about the future of international education at my school -- a place that is deeply committed to fostering a global perspective. These conversations have led me to fresh understandings about the transformative potential of cultural exchange and of my role (and perhaps responsibility) as a binational academic.
During my undergraduate, graduate, and early teaching years, I devoted much of my energy to figuring out how to be a polite guest. Because I didn’t have a foreign accent I could “pass” as purely American, which relieved me of having to share my entire life story with every curious stranger. When my background did come up, I tried to answer questions honestly, but I was uneasy with the attention. I didn’t want to be the exotic outsider; I wanted to blend in.
Recently, I’ve begun to realize that in trying to assimilate I squandered an opportunity. I now believe that at its best, international education is part of a broader mission: a mission that at its heart is about honoring difference. Opening our doors to students, staff, and faculty from different cultural, racial, religious, economic, and national backgrounds, people of different sexual orientations and physical abilities, can transform all members of the community.
We begin to understand that our way is just one of many possible ways -- to structure a sentence, to deliver bad news, to tell a joke. We encounter attitudes about money, family and desire that complicate our own. We taste strange foods, get curious about customs that initially strike us as bizarre.
But this is just the first step. The deeper, more radical transformation that international education can spark goes beyond folkloric exchange. It happens when we step outside of our culturally determined default modes and connect from a deeper, more universal place.
Who would we be if we were born in a different time and place -- to a different family, a different race, a different nationality? When we bracket the aspects of our identity that have been chosen for us, who do we see? Tapping into this alternative version of ourselves can lead to a fundamental shift in perspective. If you have experienced this before, you know what I mean. It’s almost a physical sensation, a kind of quickening, a waking up to a quality of aliveness -- in myself, in the other person, in what Martin Buber called the I-Thou.
But this can only happen if we all cut loose from our anchors, if we’re all prepared to swim in the open sea.
When a Chilean student and an American student encounter each other on an American campus in this way, they are engaging in something that truly can be said to be international. But the Chilean herself is no more international than the American. She is a person who comes from a different place -- which can be difficult or exhilarating; sometimes it is both.
Referring to her as “an international” papers over the reality. It implies that she has shifted from being a person who comes from a place to being a person who inhabits the in-between, but that the American need not. The pearl of international education hides in corners of the university where Americans make the shift, too.
So what’s the answer? Should we go back to calling people from other places foreigners? Cosmopolitans? Non-American? Do we need a new word? Or is “international” too deeply entrenched to go away?
Language matters, but its meaning evolves; sometimes using a word imprecisely is the most effective way to convey meaning. Perhaps if we repurpose “international” to apply to all community members we can still salvage the intention behind the move away from “foreigner.”
JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” If I say: “I am an international,” will you?
Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond.
The U.S. and China reciprocally agreed to extend terms for short-term visas, including student visas, earlier this week during President Obama’s state visit. According to the U.S. Department of State, Chinese students and dependents on F, M or J visas are now eligible for multiple-entry visas valid for up to five years or the length of their program.
“Until now, many Chinese students who left the United States for short visits abroad were required to apply for new visas,” a State Department fact sheet explains. “Under the new arrangement, Chinese students will find it easier and more convenient to return home because in many cases they will not be required to obtain new visas prior to returning to the United States to study.”
American students headed to China will be eligible for residency permits valid for up to five years.
Some academics in Australia are accusing universities of admitting “functionally illiterate” international students and tolerating widespread cheating because they are “addicted” to the fees these students pay, the Sydney Morning Heraldreported. The academics spoke to the newspaper in the wake of its investigation into a Sydney-based essay-writing company that targeted its services to international students. Universities contacted for the story said that the problem involves only a small number of students and that systems are in place to detect cheating.
North Carolina State University says that a professor there will apologize to his students for making "an offensive statement in jest." A statement from the university says that "the professor realizes that his statement devalued the heritage of some students and was inappropriate for the classroom or anywhere else on the university's campus." Further, the department head will meet with any concerned students.
The university did not name the professor or say what he said. But WTVD News reported that the professor was Charles Hardin and that, when he was returning exams in a biochemistry course, he had difficulty reading some names and said that students should "Americanize" their names "because this is America." Hardin did not respond to a request for comment.
University leaders in Norway are working against a government plan to force them to charge tuition to students from outside the European Union, News in English Norway reported. Tuition is free in Norway -- for Norwegians and others -- but the new government has adopted a budget that assumes charges of about $15,000 for those outside the European Union. Norwegian academics note that when Sweden started charging foreign students, its foreign enrollments fell. Some universities in Norway are exploring ways to pay the foreign students' tuition so that the institutions can continue to enroll students from many parts of the world. Dag Rune Olsen, dean of the University of Bergen, told the newspaper Aftenposten, “We may need to admit fewer [foreign students], but I don’t think we can demand so much money from this group of students. We believe those foreign students who come to us are a very good investment in our future international network. They are good students but not necessarily able to pay tuition.”
A year after it voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, American Studies Association is sticking to its guns. But it wants to broaden its public image, and demonstrate involvement in activism beyond Middle East.
The boyfriend of the nurse at the center of the controversy over Ebola quarantines has withdrawn from his accelerated nursing program at the University of Maine at Fort Kent due to concerns about the university’s handling of the situation, the Portland Press Heraldreported. Ted Wilbur, whose girlfriend, Kaci Hickox, fought government efforts to enforce a mandatory quarantine after she returned from volunteering as a nurse in West Africa, had agreed to temporarily stay away the university “under duress” and opted to withdraw from the program after university officials declined to preemptively communicate to students that any harassment or threats against him would not be tolerated upon his return to campus. (University officials reportedly told him that there had been threats against him.)
“They didn’t show any leadership or support to me and they had an opportunity, as a nursing school, to act like a medical community, and they didn’t,” Wilbur said.
A spokesman for the University of Maine system, Dan Demeritt, told the newspaper that the university had worked hard to address “community concerns” about the Ebola virus. “Unfortunately he feels we weren’t accommodating enough, but we worked hard to balance the students’ needs and the overall concerns of the campus and the community.”