Someone is knocking on Jennifer’s door who lives in a college dorm. She opens the door with a ‘hello’ and a welcoming smile. The person knocking on her door is Jessica. She happens to live in the room next to hers, so she is here to introduce herself. Both of them are Americans.
Now let us look at a different picture. Someone is knocking on Stefani’s door. She opens the door and finds an international student standing in front of her. Stefani is also a student living in a college dorm but she never interacts with international students because she thinks they are different and sometimes she is afraid of offending them. Perhaps she does not have adequate knowledge of other cultures or she does not have the positive attitude to talk to a foreigner. Which of the pictures seems more realistic? To me, both of them do. Although most of us are raised to learn that we should open the door with a welcoming face, the second picture is pretty common in US college dorms.
The international student who knocked on Stefani’s door is trying to make friends with other students. She wants to get the best experience in the USA through education and intercultural learning and sharing. She has never been away from her family and friends before. She has already become close to a family from an identical cultural background who occasionally invites her to dinner and takes her to places. But she is struggling to make friends with American students.
She was quite happy and surprised at the beginning at how friendly people were here. But soon she found out nobody wanted to talk to her or listen to her. Now she feels non-existent. In her class group projects, she puts so much effort to do her part and participate in the discussion that other group members cannot blame her for her language barrier. Yet, she feels that they ignore her when she tries to give any input during the discussion.
She is homesick, frustrated and she doesn’t have a friend to talk
to. She is the only student from her country. She talks with other international students but she really wants to make friends with domestic ones. She cannot concentrate on her studies. Her grades are not as good as she expected it to be.
Whenever there is a gathering at a professor’s house where students interact with each other volubly, nobody seems interested to know what she has been up to or what she has done over the weekend. The other day when she was in the dining room, she overheard someone saying, “What will all these Chinese students do after they graduate? Will they go back to their country? They are always in a group. If they want to be with other Chinese students all the time, why did they even come here?” She wondered what these students would say about her country’s students if they were in groups.
In spite of all these, she tries to focus on her study because the main purpose of her being here is to get better education. But this ‘psycho-social cultural issue’ seems too strong for her to study.
This is basically the story of how international students, irrespective of their individual or collective status, are alienated in US universities. As a master’s student at a US university, I myself have experienced this at first hand and seen others go through similar ordeals.
I think it is high time we asked whose responsibility or fault this is and talked about what services the International Student office or the University administration can offer to address this issue.
Domestic students are not usually exposed to other cultures, which is why they cannot make friends with international students even when they want to. Since many of them have never been thousand miles away from home (studying abroad), it is hard for them to become sensitive towards those who have. From my experience, I see that it is not always that they do not want to talk; sometimes they are actually afraid of offending people from other cultures.
In order to reduce these widening cultural gaps, the university can develop a course which will bring both domestic and international students in one spot where they will share their cultures. It would open the door for intercultural communication and learning opportunities.
In my opinion, it is also necessary to impart some basic information about other cultures to domestic students so as to enable them to understand and see the world from others’ perspectives. It is crucial not only to open the door when someone is knocking but also to bear a positive attitude.
In a nutshell, the ‘psycho-social cultural issue’ is a potential threat for international students’ academic success and it creates a barrier to enrich their experiences in a new cultural setting. Therefore, it is upon the authorities of the host country universities to address this and make the ambience favourable to students of all cultures.
(Jesmin Akter is pursuing a master’s degree at Kent State University, USA.)