Diversity isn't enough
Without guidance, the growing population of students from China might lead to rich cultural exchanges with American students, but it might also lead to prejudice, alienation, and frustration.
According to The Chicago Tribune, more than 600 freshmen from China will enter the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne this fall. Extrapolating a bit from information that UIUC makes available online, this represents roughly 8% of the freshman class. The 4,447 international students at UIUC represent more than 14% of undergraduate enrollment; Chinese students represent nearly half of the international enrollment. Is the campus prepared for such a large population from a single country outside of the US?
At Michigan State, 4,519 international undergraduates were enrolled in 2013. Out of a total of 7,161 international students, 4,942 students (69%) are from China. Same question. What is the impact on the campus community and how will other students respond?
Many high-prestige universities are seeing large influxes of talented international students. Senior administrators and the internationally-savvy directors of international program offices are enthusiastic about the talent, diversity, and revenue that these students bring to campus. But this enrollment phenomenon represents important challenges as well.
It is laudable that UIUC is providing freshmen orientation in several cities in China before these prospective freshmen pack and head for the US. This is a very important service (and great kindness) to still very young students who will find soon themselves in a completely foreign culture where they will have to navigate from a foreign airport to a campus without being scammed by a taxi driver, figure out how to connect to a US cell phone network, and open a bank account, not to mention master the process of choosing and registering for classes, understanding the expectations of professors, and managing dorm life! Orientation to students (and their families) before they leave home is a wonderful way to being to bridge the vast cultural divide that they will confront.
Michigan State, like UIUC and many other institutions that welcome large numbers of international students, provides critical support to this population to insure their successful adaptation to US campus life. But it is often a very small group of people on campus who are involved with international students.
There is something very important left out amidst the enthusiasm for campus diversity. While there are generally offices on campus to support individuals who contribute to diversity, how many universities work with "traditional" students to insure that they also adapt? This is not a challenge unique to international populations. I’m guessing that many African-American and Latino students find that diversity is appreciated in statistics, but engaging interest, curiosity, and respect from the student population that has historically dominated most campuses is a different matter.
Traditional-age white students are not always mature enough or prepared enough to confront diversity, let alone celebrate it. Too often, students who are “different” are invisible or ignored in the classroom, invisible or ignored in the dining hall, and generally ignored on campus. Worse, American students who have had little international exposure are often put off by accents and quick to assume they do not understand someone who is not a native speaker and self-consciously trying to express him or herself in English. As a result, international students frequently tend towards friendships with other international students with whom they share the experience of being different, and too rarely with American students who should want to know them better and help ease them into American college life.
We should indeed celebrate diversity on campus, but diversity isn’t enough; there is a tendency towards inertia on campus where little changes, even when 600 new students from China appear. We need to provide orientation not only to those who are different but to all students on campus with the goal of encouraging interaction and learning to tolerate and respect differences. Without guidance, intervention, and facilitation, the growing population of students from China might lead to rich cultural exchanges with American students, but then again, it might also lead to prejudice, alienation, and frustration. Orientation to American campus life is an important service to international students. Orientation to diversity would be a valuable service for most American students as well. The integration of international students could be an invaluable dimension of everyone’s college experience if we only approached it that way.
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