Earlier in January, my university’s newspaper ran an opinion piece titled “Internationalization effort should be scaled back”. It was a simple article, one that most people from the school probably found themselves agreeing with. Yes, my university’s administration is often criticized for its active recruitment of international students; yes, it’s true that 14% of our student body are international students, and around half are from China; yes, most of the students are from Asian countries, and yes, there’s only a handful from Europe or Africa.
These are the facts; it’s the interpretation that I find problematic. Globalization is a good thing: we can learn from different cultures and backgrounds. The concern isn’t that my university should stop trying to recruit students from all over the world – it’s that they’re finding them from all the “wrong” places.
Problem #1: Why are there so many Asian students coming to the U.S.?
The U.S. has some of the world’s best universities for undergraduates, graduates, and professionals. In the past, people came to America in search of gold, or trade, or land; now, they come in search of education.
The selective mindset of wanting to pick and choose which countries can send their students to the U.S. recalls the reaction to the 20th-century immigrant waves chasing the “American Dream”: Americans didn’t want the Eastern Europeans or the Irish, but “proper” Western Europeans.
The same principle applies here: while much of Europe has settled into developed societies and economies, countries like China and India are still developing and changing. It’s natural that Asian students would want to come to the U.S., learn about subjects like economics and biology, conduct research, and network with employers and companies. It’s natural for them to want to better themselves and their countries through education, similar to how upper class elites in Western societies sent their sons away to Oxford and Cambridge or the Grand Tour and their daughters to “finishing school”.
We live in a globalized society; why not make use of it?
Problem #2: Why aren’t there enough international students from the “right” countries?
I’m going to assume the “right” countries mean Western Europe, Australia, Russia – basically, the countries where American students themselves study abroad.
When countries have more higher education and employment options, students tend to stay home. This is the case for countries like South Korea, Japan, and Turkey, all of which send fewer students over. This question relates to #1: a country’s opportunities for its youth – based on history and economy, as well as other factors – creates or limits the channels for its students to study abroad.
Unlike American students, most international students like those from China stay in the United States for at least four years, either completing a degree or conducting research. In all exchange programs, studying abroad involves leaving behind a familiar culture and adjusting or assimilating quickly; for international students in the U.S., this difficulty is compounded because they also invest a large chunk of their life, not just a semester or a summer.
Problem #3: No, really, why are there so many Asian students at my university?
Perhaps what underlies this question is discomfort. The U.S. has been through many dramatic social changes lately – the legalization of gay marriage in some states, marijuana in others, immigration, etc. One of the arguments many people use to argue against gay marriage is that it’s against the norms of expectation: how are they suppose to explain to their children why two men are getting married? It’s just so… different. Icky.
The same kind of mindset surrounds the debate around international students. Americans who grew up with Western traditions – either they themselves are “mutts” of European extraction, or simply for the fact that they live in the U.S. and participate in the culture – go to college and are met by the unfamiliar presence of Asians on campus. They may feel uncomfortable talking to them, having to struggle to understand their words around their accents or encountering different values and perceptions.
When it’s time to socialize, everything breaks down into groups: domestic students eat with each other at meals, and international students have their own tables, speaking in their own languages and not having their expectations challenged. When I’m at lunch, it’s astonishing to me how people naturally divide themselves: it seems as though the groups don’t want to interact at all, and therefore, don’t.
Problem #4: Is there actually a problem?
No. While we’re at university, it’s best to look at what we can learn from the international students instead of trying to pick at nearly nonexistent problems. One of my friends from China regularly shares her tea with me; others make plans to go out for dinner every month. Regardless of how they got here, they are here and are part of our community. As fellow students, we should accept them for what they contribute, not shun them for what we imagine they take away.