The International Issue: The Problem With Diversity On College Campuses

One of my very good friends here at Northeastern is from Dubai.  And before I met her I can honestly say that I had no idea where Dubai actually was and that I knew very little about the part of the world. I did have preconceived notions of where she grew up though- to me, her home was nothing but blistering heat, sand and religious fundamentalism. I often make jokes about how little I actually know about the world outside the U.S and I often catch myself bombarding my friend with a multitude of most likely ignorant questions about her home, culture and the way of life there. For the most part she answers all of the questions I ask without rolling her eyes. She’s grown accustomed to answering such asinine questions and knows that I have good intentions when asking them.

This is one of my favorite things about going to a school with such a large and diverse international student body. It gives you the opportunity to learn not only from your teachers but from your peers who are often times more worldly and experienced than the professors. Interacting with people different from you makes you realize that there is more than one way of looking at the world. And sometimes it can be scary to have your core beliefs questioned or attacked- but at the same time if you aren’t willing to defend what you believe in, are you sure you even believe in it in the first place? I mostly love hearing about what life in other parts of the world is like. Through listening to a friend talk about the world, you can imagine what it would be like to be there yourself. It’s kind of like traveling, but without the whole five thousand dollar airfare thing.

While I think individual interactions between American and international students are fine, I think it would be ignorant not to acknowledge that there is often a sharp divide between the two groups.  To be blunt, international students tend to be insular and only interact with outsiders when needed. And that is understandable. Many international students speak English as a second or third language which often makes it difficult for them to communicate with their English speaking peers. They also have more in common with the people from their country so it’s also understandable that they are more likely to interact with only each other.

To say that a community is tolerant simply because it is diverse is false. In fact, I think more diverse communities can often be more intolerant. Once when I was in a class our teacher asked us all to pair up for group projects. I couldn’t help feel bad about the Chinese student in the back of the room who was left out. But I could understand why people didn’t want to work with her- she knew very little English which would make working with her more difficult. While it may have been insensitive, it was just more convenient to avoid her. This intolerance, however, has often been more charged or insensitive and there is a culture on campus where international students are made the butt of jokes. People tend to make racist jokes or comments about the Asian students on campus, often expressing frustration when they get somewhere that is full of Asian students or mocking them while watching them cross the street or approach things in ways that are different from how an American student would.

Another issue worth raising is that there is often a sense of competition that arises between domestic and international students because of economic and cultural differences. Many students come to Northeastern with a competitive drive and are more than willing to take any and every opportunity they can get to advance themselves. I’ve met international students who roll their eyes at majoring in anything that doesn’t guarantee a 6 figure salary because to them success is measured by money. I’ve also met several American students though who don’t take advantage of the opportunities college provides and take their education for granted, which is something most international students would never do. Whenever career fairs or other events like that come up you will see every international student line up with resume in hand, ready to fight for face time with employers.  For those of us who aren’t used to this type of competitive drive, it can be overwhelming and even off putting. And I’m sure international students can’t help but feel annoyed when they see entitled American students sleeping through their classes or complaining about having to attend career fairs.

It’s easy to feel inferior when standing next to an international student. I mean international students tend to come from much more glamorous backgrounds. Some of them go on vacations all across the world and attending international high schools and come from families with more money than you could ever dream of having. And when you’re a white New England kid from a middle class family who isn’t afforded the luxury of vacations it’s hard not to feel resentful. A lot of times these international students are disliked solely because they’re peers are jealous. Other times, however, international students do come across as spoiled or entitled, but that’s more of a personality trait than where they come from.

It is unfortunate that for a school that prides itself on diversity that it doesn’t push for dialogue and interaction beyond the admission level. I mean if Northeastern is only focused upon making the school look diverse to prospective students and donors than it has been extremely successful. If it’s trying to make a more tolerant atmosphere that encourages working together and putting our background differences aside then it is clear that it has been less successful. I’m not entirely sure what diversity is like at other schools. Maybe Northeastern is dealing with these kind of issues in a much more productive way than other schools similar to ours. I just know we could be doing better.

3 comments

  1. I have one major point of disagreement with this well thought out article- the international kids are oftentimes significantly less driven/competitive, are going to school on their parent’s dime for fun, and will be working for someone they know back at home when they graduate. That being said- that’s only a specific group of them. There are plenty of hard working international students who are extremely income driven, but there are also plenty of hard working American students- who despite efforts in group projects where we work with an international kid who never shows up, does none of the work, or does a horrible job on the work without asking for any assistance (with English or otherwise) -will never be as wealthy or as entitled as some of the internationals here. To be quite honest, I don’t think they stick to their language and friends from similar international backgrounds because it’s easy- I think they do it because they look down upon us Americans, oftentimes view us as significantly below them, and have heightened opinions of themselves. This is a personal opinion based on my experiences at Northeastern. I have had some lovely experiences with international students from a wide variety of countries, and I have been in some awful group projects with kids who knew minimal English to the point that they provided little help to the group. Generalizing the international students here is bad, so I will not do so any longer. To be fair Americans are probably below them anyways.

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  2. I’m an international student at Northeastern. My parents are from different countries. Growing up, I was exposed to both cultures of my parents, which are pretty diverse cultures. I never had any problems making friends in those two cultures. When I decided to study abroad, I first attended a school for English as a Second Language in Boston. I made friends with people from ALL OVER the world. I had best friends who are from completely opposite cultures,but still I was fine and I never thought I would have trouble making friends. Ever since I started studying at Northeastern (two years ago) I have gone through very hard times trying to deal with the problem of people avoiding me. At first I was very excited to make friends and I talked to everybody in my classes, and being a freshmen most of the students attended the same classes with me. So the people I tried to talk were actually in all of my other courses. I got introduced to many of my classmates, but the second semester, no one would talk to me. I thought that naturally I would talk to all of the students who shared the same classes with me, but all of them ignored me and acted as if they never saw me. Anywhere I go I was ignored and I would be the girl sitting at the back of the class that no one wants to talk to! I was never put in this situation in my life and so it was very depressing. The hardest times were my second and third semester becauseI still couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to talk to me. I blamed my self all the time and felt very badly. I would spend all of the breaks sitting alone, a couple of times I asked some classmates if I could sit with them during lunch, they said sure, but then no one talked to me , they kept talking to each other. I started to lose hope ,but became really depressed. I went to school counseling and shockingly the counselor told me that I should probably avoid American students anyway because if “I don’t drink and party like them” most probably they won’t accept to be my friends! Then I met some other international students and talked to them about the issue, and to my surprise everybody had the same exact problem. Everybody seemed in despair. Even those who “drink & party” had trouble making friends. So, finally, I just gave up and I never tried again. Now, (done with my second year). I only have international friends at Northeastern.

    I came across your text while randomly searching for a topic for one of my classes. Thank you so much for considering this topic. It is really helpful to see the other point of view of. And it also means a lot that there are people who care. I’m sorry for the long history ,but I needed to get this out of my chest. I really wish that more people are considerate like you.

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    • Thanks for the comment! I’m slightly horrified that your counselor said that to you. I completely disagree with his or her point and I’m not sure why they thought that was good feedback. I have a few very good international friends but I’ve found that who I am friends with depends more on my extracurricular activities than it does my classes. I’m very quiet in my classes so I don’t really have to many friends from them. I occasionally do theater though and having an activity like that where I interact with the same people constantly has really helped me foster friendships. I’ve never heard a story like yours before and I’m sorry that it happened with you. Don’t give up though! Switch up your extracurricular activities and either do some community service work or a club that is more intensive. I hope people pull their heads out of their asses and see what great friends international kids can make!

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