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.