Foreign students and tolerance – II

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“Would you date someone who was African-American?” The interviewee quickly responded, “No, they will hurt me because they are so big and I don’t like their curly hair and big lips, it’s not my style. It may come from Western aesthetics of blond and white.”

These were not the words of a white supremacist, nor those of an anti-immigration advocate, but of a 21-year-old Korean international college student. Her negative perceptions of African Americans were commonplace in my Ph.D. dissertation study of 44 Chinese, Japanese, and Korean international students’ experiences with cross-racial/ethnic interaction at University of California at Los Angeles. Upon reading Elizabeth Redden’s article in Inside Higher Ed, “I’m Not Racist, But,” I was reminded how xenophobic and intolerant domestic students can be toward international students.

An often-overlooked area of inquiry is what racial attitudes and stereotypes international students bring to America, which affect with whom they interact, how they navigate their college experience in the U.S., and campus climate as a whole. Racial misunderstandings take place on both sides of this international and domestic relationship, indicating that there must be concrete efforts taken by universities to promote cross-cultural interaction and educate students about the historical, racial/ethnic, and cultural diversity that exists in both international and domestic student communities.

More than half of students interviewed in my dissertation study held negative stereotypes of African-American and Latino people. This stemmed from little to no interaction with individuals of a different racial/ethnic background, combined with media images of African-American and Latino people as poverty-stricken or criminals — images found both in Asian and American media. A racial hierarchy emerged as students explained that white people were on the top of this status pyramid because of the perceived wealth, beauty, and education portrayed in American and Asian film and television. East Asians and Asian Americans came second, Latinos third, and African Americans as well as Southeast Asians were lowest on this hierarchy. Southeast Asians were placed at a low level due to the developing economic conditions of many Southeast Asian nations as well as an Asian racial hierarchy based on phenotype, with darker skin being less desirable.

East Asian international students had positive views toward Asian-American students; however, upon further interaction between these groups on campus, Asian international students felt as though they were not accepted by Asian Americans and had trouble finding topics to discuss with Asian Americans because they were, as one interviewee put it, “white inside their heart,” or very Americanized. While Asian international students wanted to interact with white Americans, they also felt like white Americans did not want to interact with internationals and when they did, internationals experienced social discomfort due to language barriers and lack of common topics to discuss. Without a required diversity course at UCLA, many international students complete their educational experience in America maintaining the same stereotypes with which they came into college.

These findings are troubling and may have greater implications as international students become a larger population of our colleges, universities, and citizenry. According to the International Institute of Education, in the 2010-2011 academic year, the number of enrolled international students studying in the U.S. rose to 723,277, a 32 percent increase from a decade ago. Chinese students increased by 23 percent, to 158,000 students, Indian students reached 104,000, and Korean student numbers increased to 75,065 students. A symbiotic relationship is taking place here, in which international students are flocking to America for skills, knowledge, and opportunity, while international students infused $21 billion into the American economy last year. Universities and the U.S. government are gaining not only the intellectual, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, but also a much-needed revenue stream.

With this growing population of international students, colleges and universities should be creating policies and programs to lessen balkanization and racial discrimination, and at the same time, integrating international students into life in the U.S. by teaching American history, politics, culture, and diversity. America has gone to two wars in the last decade, some have argued, in order to spread American democracy and values of tolerance. Now we have 723, 277 international students at our doorstep and what are we doing to educate them about our government institutions and racial diversity?

Sadly, the answer is “not enough.” The University of California System exempts international students from taking the American History and Institutions requirement, while diversity courses are required on some UC campuses but not others. The University of Southern California, the university hosting the largest number of international students in the nation (8,615 students), does have a diversity requirement, but more can be done to help create tolerant and aware global citizens. Many university international centers have international student orientation single-day events, but there may need to be more workshops, programs, and structured classroom experiences in academic departments and residential life spaces to help reduce international-domestic student balkanization and build bridges of cultural understanding between the two groups.

All too often, international students are not given the chance to interact with domestic students of any racial/cultural background, which leads to racial tensions, such as the anti-Asian YouTube rant by a white UCLA student or the Compton Cookout incident at UC San Diego.

My dissertation illustrated that international student stereotypes could easily be broken through positive contact between seemingly disparate groups, whether these interactions took place in living spaces, work places, the classroom, or in student clubs.

Undergraduate international students who lived in the residential halls had the most contact with cultural/racial out-groups and were more exposed to diversity programming in their living spaces. Undergraduate and graduate students who lived off-campus had fewer cross-cultural/racial interactions and as a result held more stereotypical views toward racial out-groups. International students in the humanities had more interactions with cultural/racial out-groups and were more comfortable with their language abilities, both factors that led to ease of cultural adjustment and stereotype reduction. International graduate students in the sciences tended to have co-national labmates and advisers, which resulted in less interaction with domestic students and the creation of a niche community of co-nationals.

Higher education institutions’ international centers understand the benefits that come with positive international-domestic contact; therefore, they have begun to address this issue of international-domestic student discrimination and balkanization. UCLA’s Dashew International Center instituted a program called Global Siblings, which creates activities and events specifically for international and domestic students to interact. UCLA also created an American Culture and Communication course where students learn American culture through music and film, while debunking racial stereotypes within the media. Santa Monica Community College has a peer mentor system that also aids international students.

As the recent article here illustrates, these are good first steps, but there must be a culture of sensitivity and cultural awareness on the part of professors, students affairs officers, and students to make international students feel welcome. Building a culture of tolerance takes time, but as the number of international students grows, colleges and universities will have to adapt quickly to serve the needs of these students or else face a decline in revenue from this unique population.

American universities must also heed the needs of international students because many of them are elites from their country and expect to be treated well and provided with the academic/social services that they desire. In TESOL Quarterly, University of San Francisco ESL Professor Stephanie Vandrick refers to this contemporary wave of privileged young internationals as the “students of the new global elite” (SONGEs). These students come to America from upper-middle class families in their country and expect quality services and amenities to be provided at an American university.

They are often status-driven, seeking an educational advantage over their peers back home. Therefore, if they do not feel they are welcomed at a university, if they face racial discrimination, or if they are not being provided with the amenities they expect, they will apply to a different university or tell their friends in their home country about their lackluster experience in America. This could affect the reputation of the university abroad, and could hurt public universities that may not be able to provide the student services and individual attention that private universities can. These students of the new global elite (SONGEs) are paying top dollar to earn an education and experience life in America. They should not be relegated to racial slurs, covert taunts over the twittersphere, or subjected to what Jenny J. Lee, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, calls neo-racism.

It is true that international students also hold stereotypes toward racial/ethnic groups in America, but with increased international-domestic interaction, both student bodies can learn from each other. If we are to truly create global and tolerant citizens that will be the future leaders and teachers of tomorrow, we must create more college diversity courses, not shy away from teaching American history, culture, and government to international students, and create safe spaces on campus to discuss international-domestic student relations. It is in the interest of American colleges and universities not only to recruit international students but to give them the rich education for which they are paying and from which the global community will benefit.

Author Bio:Zack Ritter is a graduating Ph.D. student in higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has worked in academic counseling, American culture curriculum development for international students, inter-group dialogue programs, academic success programs, and residential life.

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