This past summer, one of my fellow teaching assistants was an international student from China. Though I initially didn’t expect that we’d become more than coworkers, by the end of the summer we were close friends. Over countless lunch periods she spoke to me about her transition to the United States and her life at her college. She attended a school similar to Oxford, a small liberal arts college isolated from a large city.
My experience working alongside her shifted my perspective, as I realized my initially low expectation for our friendship stemmed from my experience at Oxford. Our friendship forced me to think a lot about the current relationship between international and domestic students here on campus. A feeling of separation between international and domestic students was something we spoke about at length, as she felt ostracized at her college as a Chinese student. This is when I approached Dani, an international student, about writing this article.
Part of the issue we see at Oxford is the homogenization of all international students. Too often domestic students will refer to a group of students in their class as “the international students.” This generalization erases the varied backgrounds that our international students come from. Though most of the students in the international student body are from China, the diversity and individuality amongst those students and students from other countries is stripped away when we solely refer to them as “the international students.”
In viewing international students as a single entity, we erase the subcultures and intricacies of the smaller friend groups within the international student population. These subcultures exist within the domestic community as well, as students make friends based on similar backgrounds and interests. The social groups formed by international students tend to be more noticeable, however, because the background that brings students is seemingly apparent. Domestic students often lament that international students are “cliquey,” while failing to acknowledge their role in isolating international students.
International Student Orientation (ISO) celebrates the diversity found within the international community at Oxford. As ISO occurs before the arrival of domestic students, international students begin building friendships amongst themselves early. Upon the arrival of domestic students, international students have already found comfortable social circles. As the cultural and linguistic challenges that come with studying abroad intensify, these bonds grow stronger.
As a result, student often stick to the comfort of the friendships they made during ISO, garnering the label of “cliquey” from domestic students. Though there are problems with ISO, in her experience being an iMentor and a participant, Dani found that what she gained from ISO ultimately trumps any negativity.
Though there is evidently a problem with the relationship between international and domestic students at Oxford, we see hope for a solution. Later this semester, ISP is taking ten domestic and ten international students to a soccer game together. This event hopes to promote cultural exchange in a fun interactive environment. Similar programming will promote one-on-one interaction, much like I experienced this summer with my coworker.
Ultimately, it should not be up to international students to assimilate into American culture. It is the job of domestic students to attempt to learn about others as well. Although it is natural for students to befriend those with similar backgrounds, we could all benefit from a deliberate attempt to recognize the unique cultural identities of our peers.
Photo courtesy of Dani Farchi