Beyond the Melting Pot: International Students on Campus

Institutions emphasize importance of diversity, globalization and democracy as critical responses to the rising tides of isolationism and nationalism, but international students have experienced something else.

April 8, 2019

Large numbers of postsecondary education students move beyond their borders to enroll in an institution abroad every year. The majority of internationally mobile students enroll in countries in the English-speaking world like the United States (U.S.), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. For the past three decades, these host countries have been capitalizing on rising mobility trends and have been using international students as an important source of income. In the U.S. alone, NAFSA estimates that international students contribute around US$40 billion to the economy and have an impact on the creation of over 450,000 jobs. 

However, this rapid growth didn’t just happen; higher education institutions (HEIs) in the U.S. and elsewhere have been actively recruiting students from the Global South investing important resources to become attractive to the large market of internationally mobile students. And although the main reasons for recruiting them might be revenue or the contributions to research and innovation, there are other benefits of recruiting a diverse cohort of students. Universities with large international populations pride themselves on being global environments with hundreds of nationalities represented. A commitment to educating “global citizens” now figures in many mission statements and strategic plans.

Paradoxically, at the same time institutions emphasize the importance of diversity, tolerance, globalization and democracy as key elements to push back against growing trends of isolationism and nationalism, international students have experienced something else. The recent scandal at Duke University where international students were encouraged to adapt and assimilate and speak only English, helped increase awareness of the prevalence of discrimination and neo-racism. What happened at Duke was not an isolated event, not merely a consequence of individual actions, rather just one example of the struggles faced by international students. In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways, institutions respond to them from the perspective, “We need to help international students” or “Students need to adjust to life here”, or “They need to learn the language, and the culture’”.

I am an international student in the U.S. The story of how and why I decided to pursue a degree in the US is as unique as each story of millions of my peers from abroad. We share the common experience of leaving our countries to study in the U.S., but beyond that, we have different motivations, rationales, backgrounds, and experiences. Research has shown how our countries of origin will have a large effect on the degree of discrimination we might experience. But still, it is common for HEIs to put us all into one large basket with the label ‘international’.

So, what needs to be done?

Institutions need to evolve. Teichler talks about three ‘quantum leaps’ regarding the development of HEIs internationalization strategies. He describes universities moving from 1) vertical cooperation to relationships on equal terms; 2) from a set of activities towards systematic policies and strategies; and 3) from disconnected initiatives towards an integrated, comprehensive strategy. 

As an international student myself, I have seen HEIs in the United States becoming multicultural places where large numbers of students, faculty and staff from different cultures and nationalities coincide. However, we are still prone to be socially and intellectually segregated. We don´t necessarily have to be verbally or physically attacked on campus to feel like we don’t belong. I still remember an incident my first semester in the US when I worked with a classmate on a final project that had to be done either individually or in pairs. After a few meetings I was told that we should “. . . do the paper individually” since [this person was] “not sure approaching it together would be easy to organize”. To this day I can´t help but think that the real reason was that my classmate feared that my language limitations would affect our essay. These types of micro-aggressions along with the institutional push for assimilation (like in the case at Duke), indicate a need for HEIs to transform.

Institutions need to take another quantum leap and evolve from being multicultural places where diversity coexists, to intercultural places where diversity is embraced and woven into daily interactions based on principles of mutuality. HEIs need to become places where different communities have meaningful interactions; places where there is a commitment to understand people whose prior experiences differ.

Today’s HEIs focus too much on what we as international students lack instead of focusing on the richness of our "uniquenesses". We bring with us a set of historically accumulated, culturally developed, and socially distributed resources or what Esteban-Guitart and Moll call Funds of Identity. These experiences constitute the very essence of one’s identity and represent a form of capital that can transform an institution. The collective richness of our identities should be purposefully included to facilitate learning and community building. 

An internationalization strategy will not be complete if it does not invest the same effort expended on attracting international students towards developing the competencies needed to cultivate intercultural and multicultural communities. Internationalization at home and internationalization of the curriculum can help create awareness not only among students, but also among faculty and staff so they will value international students for more than economic or academic contributions. Our diverse identities can help steer the campus climate from a place that is open to learning from international students instead of one that is just ‘teaching’ us.

I invite more HEIs to reflect on the ways in which they can go beyond helping international students towards transforming their campus to become an intercultural environment of mutual learning. 


Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. 

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