Americans Are 'Internationals,' Too

Let's rethink the language we use to describe students and faculty members who aren't from the United States, Shari Motro writes.

November 17, 2014

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.


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