I rarely eat at the campus cafeteria, it is a crowded place with many people that I would love to talk to for hours, hours that I cannot afford to spend in the cafeteria. However, on occasion, I do venture into this quicksand trap. Today was one such day. I was there with a purpose. Along with a few other volunteers, I was distributing free cake that boasted the International Education Week 2010 logo and telling students about the various events that would be taking place on campus as part of this week. When I was done with the promotional gig, I pulled up a chair next to some good friends. Half of them international students, and the other half transfer students from community colleges.
As we weaved in and out of random questions, one of the international students brought up Chaser’s War on Everything: Americans. The Australian TV show mocks a group of Americans for their ignorance. Random people are asked questions about geography and shown mislabeled maps and asked to comment on current wars and possible future engagements. As the international student continued to tell the story of the show, I noticed one of my friends grow quiet. She then made a few sarcastic comments about the ongoing discussion.
As someone who tries hard to promote international understanding on Bucknell’s campus, I tried to engage the US students on the table in a conversation about how the level of ‘international awareness’ could be improved on campus and why many international students found it difficult to come to terms with the lack of the same withing the US.
What I heard from the international students (on this occasion as well as in the past) was:
- US Americans are ill-informed about the world.
- US foreign policies affect most of the world, but this is not known to US citizens.
- As a ‘first-world’ and developed nation, the expectations of US citizens to know more about the world are justified.
What I heard from the US students (on this occasion, as well as in the past) was:
- US Americans, especially students on campus, are made to feel guilty by the remarks of international students in such scenarios leading them to not ask questions.
- International students do not appreciate the diversity within the US education system and are not aware of places in the US where knowledge about the world is not imparted in schools.
- Propaganda like the one in the video clip mentioned above can be created about the citizens of any country. Ignorant people exist everywhere, they are not exclusive to the United States.
As you may be able to tell, both sides of the story have very valid arguments. A happy medium that can help us fight this ignorance without offending each other is needed urgently. Without such a medium the process of internationalization that is being witnessed in colleges and universities across the US will not be able to achieve its desired goals.
While the problem at hand is large and complex, I have been thinking about it for a while and have come up with some tips for students to have more fruitful conversations.
International students should be encouraged to ask questions about the lives and backgrounds of their US counterparts. Very often US students feel that they have nothing ‘cool’ to say when they are talking to someone who is from what they consider to be ‘an exotic place’. By asking questions that treat students as individuals and their hometowns and even neighborhoods as unique places, international students can initiate conversations that will not end in a summary ‘That’s cool.” remark. Secondly, international students need to remember the context within which US students have studied and grown up. Imagine growing up in a stable, large country wherein the basic needs and wants of a person are almost always guaranteed. Compare this to your own country. Compare your experience in your country to that of the not so privileged of your compatriots. How would the people you grew up around fare in a test of world knowledge? Remember: you do not control the environment you are born in or grow up in. It is not until much later in life that most individuals develop the ability to influence this environment.
US students should be encouraged to highlight what I consider to be the most beautiful part of US culture – its individualism. Talk about your background, share with international students the diversity within the US. From East to West and North to South. Point out the fact that government issues within the US are very different from those outside. Be curious, and maintain your desire to learn more. Maintain distinctions between various issues, the US is a large and complex country and so is its population. Reiterate your position as an individual and the inability of any individual (international students included) to represent a group.
While I hope that this post will be helpful to some, I also hope that more informed and involved individuals will think about this problem and suggest ways in which the gap between US and international students can be bridged so they feel comfortable learning from each other. Consider this post a formal Request For Comments!