No Longer Bystanders

In these times of student protests as well as terrorism at home and abroad, American college and university leaders must commit to a far more robust infrastructure to support international students, argues William G. Durden.

January 11, 2016

The wave of student activism sweeping across America’s college and university campuses is not surprising, given the growing complexities that come with increasingly diverse student bodies. Colleges and universities are, of course, democratic institutions intended to ready young people for informed participation and leadership in other democratic institutions. Debate, protest, idealism, exercising one’s voice, the demand for something better than what is, as well as the absorption of new knowledge and critical-thinking skills are all essential components of an education in a democracy.

It can be a messy and often painful process -- witnessing extreme positions and clashes of ideologies. Yet it defines who we are as an educating nation that does not just mechanically convey unexamined information from one generation to another.

What is surprising, however, is that international students are also now speaking out. They have come to American higher education without indigenous historic precedent and are contemporary De Tocquevilles -- touring our country for the first time and commenting upon what they see, whether good or bad.

In fact, today there is a sense of urgency for American college and university senior leadership to commit to a far more robust infrastructure to support international students. Such action is especially important on behalf of Muslim students, given world events. When talking to these students, they voice real fear about how they are going to be treated on and off American campuses as terrorism increases abroad and in the United States and as campus communities are directly affected by tragic loss. For example, at least five alumni of California State University San Bernardino died in the December ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

That said, campus leaders should pay much more attention to all students from abroad, whatever their religion, culture or background.

In past periods of activism, international students remained essentially silent. They were bystanders. That has now changed. They are practicing American-style democracy. They appear to view themselves as “insiders” with a voice to exercise and the ability to influence the space in which they find themselves: the university. They reject statements or actions that judge them as “outsiders” -- or simply as “key data points of accountability” often used to fulfill institutional budgets.

Current student activists of all persuasions, including a growing number of international students, would reject -- perhaps as cowardly -- any approach to difference and being “outside” of what is thought to be the “establishment.” For them, being an outsider -- as they define it as absent a voice of power and influence -- is unacceptable. And indeed it is, if that outsider is subjected to personal ridicule and violence merely because of who he or she is, or if he or she must confront systemic cultural, financial and social obstacles to ever having the opportunity to be part of and lead in what is thought to be “inside.”

Asking to Be Heard

International students are, of course, big business for colleges and universities. Certainly they fulfill an important diversity goal, but they are also often full-paying students and contribute significantly to institutions’ revenues in an atmosphere of cutbacks in state funding. They also help solve what has become a problem of excess capacity on many campuses.

The 2015 Institute of International Education “Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange,” supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, found that the number of international students at American colleges and universities had the highest rate of growth in 35 years, increasing to a record high of 974,926 students in the 2014-15 academic year. International students contribute more than an estimated $30 billion to the U.S. economy in all 50 states.

The IIE report focuses, however, exclusively on access and trends, not on the qualitative experience once international students arrive on American campuses. Yet it is precisely here that one hears the international students’ voice as part of the current activism. It is all about the quality of the educational experience broadly defined.

While the voices of international students are far fewer than those of other students, they are asking to be heard. For example, according to an article in The New York Times, an international student engaged in student protests at Amherst College reportedly said that “he felt like the title character of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a book he had read on his own in college. ‘You’re here and you’re seen, but maybe you’re not seen for who you are,’ he said.”

And an article posted in November on the Dickinson College website, “Students Spark Conversation on Inclusivity,” states, “An international student from Vietnam spoke [at an all-campus event] about the ‘marginalization of international students.’ ‘Dickinson advertises itself as diverse, but I don’t know if my definition of diversity is the same as Dickinson’s,’ [the student said,] adding that she has ‘always felt like an outsider’ to conversations about diversity on campus.”

Such sentiments are not, of course, peculiar to the two institutions mentioned but could readily apply to statements that international students on campuses throughout the United States are making publicly. When I hear such comments, I try to understand precisely why these young students express such sentiments about themselves and about those with whom they come in contact on campuses.

Two initial explanations surface. First, because many of these international students come from wealthy, more privileged families in their home countries, they probably have never before been treated as “outsiders” -- or have never even considered themselves as such. In addition, while some of them share historic racial identities with American students, they have not experienced in their home countries the same type of racial prejudice as those students -- prejudice to which they, too, may now be subjected. They are dumbfounded and confused. They find their identities have been challenged. Meanwhile, for their part, American students who share a racial heritage with international students often have difficulty understanding them; while their appearances are similar, their lives are not.

A few personal experiences have perhaps helped me to gain further understanding of international students’ perspectives. I live in Baltimore and have done so for some 35-plus years. As is well known, Baltimore, like many large urban centers in America, is plagued by a set of seemingly intractable problems dealing with race, prejudice, violence, abuse, neglect, poverty, drugs and a lack of quality education and child care. This toxic mix, catalyzed by the April death of Freddie Gray, led to a day of rioting last year.

In an interview with the press, a gentleman from the direct environs of the rioting said something to this effect: “The problem is that to many people I am simply invisible. Nobody says ‘hello’ to me. Nobody nods to me. Nobody recognizes me as a person with something to say. Nobody listens to me. People make assumptions about me on the basis of my color and where I come from -- assumptions that I do not have a life and I have zero to contribute to the common good. In fact, people move away from me because they mistakenly think I am dangerous. But I am a person and have something to say -- both as an individual and on the basis of my distinctive experience. I need a place to say what I have to say, but there just isn’t that place.”

My second personal experience occurred shortly after 9/11 at Dickinson College, where I was then president. The U.S. State Department had given the college a series of grants to “orient” students from the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia to “the American lifestyle and culture.” The goal was to cultivate potential friends to the United States in territories that increasingly appeared to be breeding grounds for terrorists. The State Department reviewed and approved a curriculum the Dickinson faculty designed that highlighted the good and the less appealing aspects of the contemporary United States.

But it was all about America. After a week or so of instruction, we noticed that the international students were unhappy, disappointed and, in some cases, angry. When we probed further to discover why, the result was illuminating. The problem was that the curriculum left no space for these international participants to talk about the virtues of their own respective cultures. The exclusive focus on the United States signified to them that the good that they had absorbed from those cultures was inapplicable to the international stage and they had nothing to contribute to global challenges and opportunities. They felt invisible and without substance. They felt dismissed.

We heard them clearly, and we immediately altered the curriculum to permit individuals or teams from each represented culture to present their story and to indicate how they thought some of what they already possessed could in fact benefit American culture and lifestyle going forward. We listened to them carefully, respected them as people with something to say and indicated that we did not have all the answers and were open to their distinct points of view. From then on, the program was much more positively received as mutual respect emerged through the intentional sharing of cultures. That purposeful recognition of the students’ respective identities, in fact, enabled the curricular objectives to be achieved.

Engaging International Students as Full Participants

Based on those two personal experiences, what I think international students are saying is that they are not really being deliberately listened to on American campuses -- and thus any claim to diversity by American institutions is specious. We in higher education avidly pursue them for admission, but then once they arrive here, we essentially neglect them. Their different perspectives and desire to grow as individuals in the meeting of cultures find no forum for recognition and engagement. Further, we don’t provide any avenues for them to influence positively the issues before the American campus and its students. Indeed, our institutions are perplexed about how to engage international students to maximize the benefit of their experience and that of the American students who interact with them.

What should be done? People and departments must pay much more informed and sustained attention to international students once they are on our campuses. Right now, such attention is, at best, erratic. Few staff members are dedicated to international students, and they can sometimes be located in the admissions office, sometimes in the office of student life and sometimes in what are called international offices that focus primarily on sending American students overseas.

The abstract of a study based on the National Survey of Student Engagement, “A Comparison of International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practice,” asserts that “although international students are an important source of diversity on American college campuses, relatively little is known about their college experiences.” We must pursue far more research to understand the needs and potential of international students if the diversity so readily claimed by their presence is to be performative in any educationally substantive way.

International students seem to desire an approach that I call “learner-sourced education.” It is most graphically described through art. In Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gaylord cites the painter’s words when working with his live subjects: “After a sitting I like to join as far as possible in the feelings and emotions of my models. In a way, I don’t want the picture to come from me, I want it to come from them.” Gaylord’s words suggest to me a way that professors and students might interact that would fulfill these international students’ demands not only for themselves but also all students.

They want to be treated as “full participants” on the college campus and later in the broader global society. They replace the transformative power of difference with the power of inclusion. Being “different” and “outside” the mainstream are no longer sources of power and virtue as they might have been for earlier generations such as mine in the late ’60s and ’70s.

International students appear now to want to be heard and treated as the distinctive people they are because of the cultural and individual difference they bring to the prevailing institutional culture. They want to be engaged and listened to so they can affect and ultimately be part of the activities of all with whom they come in contact. They want to be seen and heard as who they unabashedly are. And on that authentic basis, they want to no longer be treated as undifferentiated stereotypes -- often invisible and, in the worst cases, despised -- but rather as individuals who are able to contribute to solving our seemingly intractable shared global challenges.


William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and a professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the chief global engagement officer at Shorelight Education.


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