Many St. Olaf students proudly mention to family or friends that St. Olaf ranks first in the number of students who study abroad. However, only a handful of Oles know that almost 10 percent of the entering class of 2016 consists of international students. Perhaps study abroad is not the ultimate number by which to judge a college’s global view. Instead, maybe we should focus on how many American Oles have international students as close friends.
According to its mission statement, St. Olaf College “strives to be an inclusive community, respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs” and “challenges [students] to be responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.” However, when you look around the campus, you may have noticed that students tend to be grouped by racial differences. You may have attended multicultural events like Diwali, Africa Night, Lunar New Year or International Night. Unfortunately, many Oles consider these events more entertaining than educational and even fewer know that all students are welcome in the performances or on the planning committees for these events.
People conclude that the camaraderie within the ranks of international students is the result of proximity and similarity and that the difficulty of Americans bonding with international students is explained by language and cultural barriers. Ironically, you will see the biggest range in diversity among international students, yet many international students become close friends despite their disparate cultures, socioeconomic classes, first languages and traditions. Speaking English is the only thing all international students have in common. Additionally, they accept and value American culture – otherwise, they would not leave their loved ones to come and study in the United States. Given all of these considerations, language and cultural barriers seem like a poor excuse for the phenomenon of segregation, a condition that is more likely due to ignorance, disinterest and stereotypes.
It seems reasonable that intelligent, highly educated college students might be more interested in integration than segregation. The scarcity of close relationships between international students and Americans, however, is visible in the St. Olaf community. Sadly, few American Oles would call their relationships with international friends close.
Trusting relationships are built upon reciprocal contributions. International students have to overcome language barriers, culture shock, homesickness and loneliness. Most are trying to adjust and fit into American culture and student groups, but some are also afraid of reaching out to make friends with Americans because they are afraid of rejection or prejudice. International students need to have the courage and confidence to open themselves to changes and adjustments.
American students also have to reach out. They often assume that it is the international student’s responsibility to adjust or adapt to American culture. As hosts, many American Oles show international students “Minnesota nice.” Instead of simple politeness, international students need acceptance, engagement and support. The visible boundary between Ole Americans and international students develops from the deflection of individual responsibility and ignorance of international students’ feelings.
Away from everything they know, international students are eager for a warm welcome. Many international students carry hopes of developing deep relationships with Americans, but many have felt shut down by their peers’ unintentional unresponsiveness or unequal interest in deep relationships. Only when both sides of a relationship are open to supporting each other can the relationship be deepened. Many international students have developed superficial friendships with Americans, but have failed to build close relationships. The frustration of meeting emotional and psychological needs makes international students tend to shy away from their American counterparts. At the same time, many Americans remain unaware of any segregation.
In past Diwali and Africa Night celebrations, you could only identify a few white faces among all the minorities on stage. These celebrations are perceived as occurring only for minorities, or perhaps white students are afraid of being judged for mingling with people who are “different” from themselves. These kinds of assumptions or concerns create a significant barrier for inter-cultural communication and integration. Events like Diwali and Africa Night are not just a celebration for the related students on campus. They are celebrations that these cultural groups want to share with the whole St. Olaf community. Students work incredibly hard to coordinate, practice and cook for these events because they want to share their cultures with other students. They hope that more knowledge will lead to more support from the American community.
Having the top undergraduate study abroad programs in the nation seems inconsistent with the observable segregation between American and international students at St. Olaf. Sending students to other countries is a great way to encourage them to develop a global perspective, but there seems to be some contradiction when students are more willing to pay a large amount of money to travel off-campus than to learn from the international students living with them on the Hill for free. Without really living in a place for a period of time, it is impossible to truly understand that locale’s culture, values, traditions and customs. I have to wonder how well these trips walk the fine line between tourism and cultural engagement.
As a minority on campus, international students’ voices are hardly heard. Trusting relationships with American students are rare for some international students. To be an inclusive community, “respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs” is not enough. To fulfill the college’s mission of developing students’ capacities as global citizens, all students need to learn to be accepting and respectful and to learn from each other’s differences by being supportive and engaged here on campus.