Town-Gown With a Global Twist

Results from a survey of community members' perceptions of international students in a rural Midwestern town suggest there's plenty of room for improvement.

June 1, 2015

BOSTON -- American universities are recruiting more international students than ever. But how welcoming are the college towns those students are coming to?

Professionals in higher education have paid increasing attention to the challenge of integrating international students on their campuses in recent years, but a session here at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference focused on integrating them into the broader community. Just as colleges have been taking steps to encourage more meaningful interactions between international and domestic students, so, presenters here on Friday suggested, should they be trying to foster such interactions with members of the community at large.

Jamienne McKee, now special programs coordinator for the English Language Institute at Mercer University, in Georgia, presented research on attitudes of owners and employees of local businesses and service providers that she conducted while a master's student at the University of Findlay, in Ohio.

McKee identified her research location as a rural, Midwestern, 5,000-person college town with a university enrolling 3,500 students, including 200 international students (she said she could not name the location but described it as being near Findlay, Ohio). She said she distributed about 150 surveys to businesses and service providers -- restaurants, banks, grocers, day cares, hair salons, etc. -- within a one-mile radius of the campus and received 44 responses, with the majority of respondents being female (79 percent) and Caucasian (93 percent). Of the respondents to McKee's survey, 95 percent were born in the U.S. and were native English speakers, 27 percent spoke another language, 22 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, and about half had traveled outside of the country, principally to Canada.

McKee used a 50-question, quantitative survey that asked respondents to indicate how strongly they agreed with statements on a Likert scale. She found that the vast majority expressed agreement with statements affirming cultural diversity as a theoretical value. For example, 79 percent indicated that they believed it to be important to accept a wide variety of cultures in the U.S.

But in practice many seemed to be less open to cultural difference in their midst. Fifty-six percent said they believed that international students speak their own language when they should be speaking English and 37 percent agreed with the statement that international students excessively stick to their own cultures instead of adopting an American way of life.

Most of the business owners, managers and employees who were surveyed interacted regularly with international students, with 47 percent saying that they saw them in their workplace several times a day and another 40 percent saying they saw them a few times a week. But they had very little interaction with the students outside their place of employment. "They're going into businesses, they're having contact," said McKee. "But it's just transactional interaction, and meaningful interaction outside of work isn't happening."

As for their overall attitudes toward international students, 28 percent agreed with the statement that international students have many qualities they admire. Just 21 percent agreed that international students make an important contribution to the community. Twelve percent agreed with the statement that the more they hear about international students the less they like them, while 26 percent said they would like to know more international students.

Over all, they rated their perceptions of international students as moderately favorable, but were more positive toward students from some parts of the world (Australia, Europe and North America) than others (in particular the Middle East).

McKee's co-presenter, Patrick Lilja, the director of the Interlink Language Center at Indiana State University, said that two main implications come out of the study: the need to raise awareness about the benefits international students bring to towns and cities (including the economic benefits), and the need to bring international students together with community members in more meaningful ways. These include through structured opportunities to volunteer in community organizations and "friendship family" programs that pair international students with local families for social activities (though one audience member noted the apparently common problem of families requesting to be matched with students from Europe when the university in fact has far more students from China and Saudi Arabia). Lilja also recommended inviting community members to campus events.

"No one is expecting the community to make this happen," Lilja said. "They're expecting the university to be the driver."

"We are the bridge between the community and the students," said McKee. "Especially for small universities in rural areas, we can often be the leading force for globalization, the only institution that's bringing an international presence."


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