My View from South Hill
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The transition to college is one of life’s major events. Like the first day of kindergarten and the birth of one’s child, the first few weeks of college are one of those times people tend to remember for the rest of their lives. You encounter new expectations, new freedoms and new friends, all of which add up to a rare opportunity to reinvent yourself. You must also cope with nervousness that your self-reinvention in this new environment might not be successful. What if college is too hard? What if you don’t fit in?
Now imagine that your first week of college takes place in a foreign country. Not only are you not being served your mother’s cooking, but it is not even your native cuisine. Not only do you have to make new friends, but you must do so in a culture and a language that are not your own. You have an opportunity to reinvent yourself, but to many people your primary identity will remain “that student from another country.”
It was with those thoughts that I had lunch a week or so ago with seven international students who are currently undergraduates at Ithaca College. Isuru, Hugo, Sachiko, Jia, Scott, Desiree, and Riw came to Ithaca respectively from Sri Lanka, Brazil, Japan, China, Australia, Singapore via Australia, and Thailand. Going into the conversation with them I knew one thing for sure: all seven of these students were more intrepid than I was at age 18 when I ventured all of 35 miles from home to go to college!
These international students are incredibly upbeat about their IC experience despite wrestling at times with a natural longing to be back in more familiar environs. I asked them what the most difficult part of adapting to American college life had been. Was it language, food, or the academic expectations of American professors? Was it dealing with cultural stereotypes? Tony told me he wouldn’t mind not being asked again how often he saw kangaroos hopping around Sydney, but the overall answer to my question was unanimous: the hardest part was learning about American popular culture! Sports with unfamiliar rules, popular singers whose work is completely unknown, celebrities whose basis for being famous is hard to discern. TV shows everyone is expected to have watched growing up; aspects of American history that are assumed to be known to all. The hardest part, according to some of my erstwhile informants, is learning to interpret verbal and behavioral cues. When does “See you later” mean the person wants to see you later and when does it simply mean “goodbye?”
These students were not complaining about the added work of cultural decipherment on top of their regular work as students. On the contrary, they are energized by the challenge of cultural adaptation and discovery. Their breadth of campus involvements is remarkable, even by the high standards of IC students in general. One is a freshman senator in the Student Government Association, one plays basketball, one is active in a student organization that raises awareness about the symptoms of depression. All affirmed that the best way to be truly known and cared for as an individual – to get beyond the “international student” label – is to become active in something you care about. “You can make really good friends very quickly,” said one of my informants, “but only if you get out there and do something.”
I have in the past been a non-degree student in university classrooms in France and the Netherlands, and I know how much harder it is to do quality work in another language and with a different set of academic expectations. Far from being daunted by the academic challenges at Ithaca College, though, these international students found classes and course work to be one of the best parts of the experience. “’Our professors get to know us,” one said, “and they expect us to think on our own rather than merely learn what is in the text book.” “We have incredible freedom,” added another. “We are responsible for our own learning, and as a result you get out of it only what you put in.” I asked if that constituted a difficult adjustment from the way they were taught in their home countries, and was told it was a big adjustment but not a difficult one. “This is why I came to Ithaca College in the first place. Our learning is meaningful; we are not just completing problem sets for the sake of it.”
I asked what we could be doing better. “Your backgrounds outside of the US enable you to see things that I and others on campus are likely to miss. What do you think should be different?”
“Make the food spicier – American cuisine is so bland!” said one. Another student reacted in horror: “It is already too spicy – tone it down!”
With that disagreement on the table, my informants focused on the way we conduct diversity-related programs and conversations on campus. “The tone is often so negative,” one person said. “It seems to be quite defensive.” I noted that given our country’s history with diversity and with particularly with issues of race, these are highly delicate topics. It is important to talk about diversity issues as we grope toward a more just society, but people understandably worry about giving offense and inadvertently causing backward movement.
There was a moment of silence around the table while everyone pondered. One student said quietly “I was never a minority before I came to this country. I was never before called ‘Asian,’ and I am still not sure what that means or who is and is not included in that category. What I do know is that when the conversation is always about the negative aspects of stereotypes and how everybody is really the same, then something is lost. We are different and it is possible to celebrate difference and learn from it without being defensive about it.”
Our conversation continued on that and other topics for awhile, but these were the words that remained engraved on my heart as we broke up and I headed back to my office. We know as educators that the richness of the campus learning environment is immeasurably increased by having a student body as diverse as possible in every dimension of experience. I had just seen that richness in action. Scott, Riw, Isuru, Sachiko, Jia, Hugo and Desiree: I am glad you feel such great benefit to being part of the Ithaca College learning community. You are certainly giving back to it in full measure!