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A gap in understanding

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Last spring, massive student protests engulfed St. Olaf College, leading to widespread discussion of racial issues inside and outside the classroom. While The Collective for Change on the Hill’s push to combat direct racism garnered the bulk of campus attention, less-noticed was The Collective’s push to tackle cultural appropriation, insensitivity and ignorance – a problem keenly felt by many of the College’s 294 international students. Many report facing a student body and administration oblivious to cultural differences, and hope that The Collective’s demands will serve as a catalyst for greater awareness.

Underlying much of the bias facing international students is domestic students’ ignorance of the world’s many cultures, an unfamiliarity that contributes to cultural insensitivity.

“I think that domestic students are trying to be educated on being culturally sensitive, but most are not,” Mazen Abusharkh ’18, who is from Jordan, said. “It’s out of ignorance, they just aren’t educated enough, per se, to be culturally sensitive.”

This insensitivity often manifests as microaggressions and unintended insults.

“When you’re talking and they don’t understand you, they just dismiss you with a nod”, Greek student Zoi Triantafilidou ’20 said. “Especially last year, many in my friend group could not understand what I was saying and they didn’t ask, they would just dismiss what I was saying.”

Others echoed these sentiments. Students from African countries are frequently expected to be experts about the entire continent. Domestic students often refer to Africa as a single country. One student from Swaziland was asked if she had a lion as a pet. Many students from East and Southeast Asian nations are assumed to be Chinese, and are asked how to say various words in Chinese. Occasionally, the prejudice is more explicit.

“Last year I was tabling outside the Caf for Advocates for Immigrants and Refugees, [and] there was some guy on the other side of the room, a white guy, American … he was like ‘get all the immigrants out of the country,’ and he knew that I myself was from outside of the country,” Triantafilidou said.

Many international students also see problems within the college administration. Måttiås Køstøv ’20, a student from Bulgaria, doesn’t believe the administration properly considers the ramifications of disciplinary action for international students.

“I feel like they should be a little more lax with international students when it comes to rules and policies,” Køstøv said. “Because imagine you come from Rwanda, your family was literally killed in the genocide, and you get caught smoking pot, or you do something stupid, and you get suspended and go back to where exactly? Or you’re from Palestine, and Palestine’s barely existing right now … I know internationals that fly back because of that.”

Some international students also think the College falls short when it comes to living up to the “globally engaged” element of its mission statement. They often find the College’s efforts at cultivating global citizenship superficial and inadequate, with many targeting the Global Semester program and inadequate cultural awareness training during Week One.

“St. Olaf calls itself a globally engaged college that educates its students all about the intercultural, international experience and so on,” Abusharkh said. “But we, at least most international students I know, are against the whole idea of a Global Semester … To experience a culture, you can’t just spend a week or three weeks there.”

International students receive education on American culture during Week Zero, an orientation for international students prior to Week One. In addition to receiving vital assistance navigating issues involving visas, taxes and healthcare, international students also receive information on American customs and norms. However, there is no comparable education for domestic students during Week One, a fact bemoaned by some international students.

“I think as much education [as] we internationals receive for domestic students, domestic students should receive for internationals,” Køstøv said. “We had a whole Week Zero of being integrated into American culture, and I know Week One is kind of the same, but it is generic.”

Some international students are doubtful cultural celebration events like Omkara and African and Caribbean Night can bridge this gap. While they tend to be supportive of these events, in part because they are hosted by students native to and steeped in the culture, some fear that they can be passive interactions that entertain more than educate. However, Abusharkh was quick to emphasize it’s not the event organizers’ job to educate students.

“It is on the audience themselves to educate themselves on the culture,” Abusharkh said. “The performance, Omkara itself, is pretty much like a ‘here’s a feel for what you’ve learned’, but if you don’t know anything about the culture, and you attend Omkara … it’s like a show where you are only watching it to entertain yourself and not necessarily to learn anything.”

Iranian student Atefeh Alavi ’20 said attending lectures, seminars or panel discussions about other cultures is more educating than just attending the cultural shows.

“Last year, during Africa week, there was a talk about the myth of black hair,” Alavi said. “This is the kind of thing that raises more awareness about diversity.”

Many international students think greater domestic student engagement with events like these could increase cultural awareness. In their list of demands, The Collective proposed requiring students to attend events held by organizations under the purview of the Diversity Celebrations Committee (DCC). Attending these events would be part of MCD/G courses. This system would be similar to Wellness Center Swiped Events for Studies in Physical Movement (SPM) courses and the pink card system for music courses and lessons. The Collective proposed this demand thinking professors would recommend events complementing their course material. Connecting this requirement with classroom work would be one way of increasing audience engagement. Many international students agreed with this proposal or similar initiatives and expressed optimism about such a proposal’s viability.

“I feel like because no one is forced to go to any of the events that talk about different cultures, diversity within the international student body, I definitely think it’s important to have this element of the importance of learning about other cultures,” Rayan Saad ’20, who is from Sudan, said.

“I don’t think the administration is doing enough effort to make the domestic students learn about other cultures,” Abusharkh said. “I really think that the administration can help with that, make it required to learn about other cultures .… There are so many ways that the administration is already doing such things, like with the SPM swiped events. Those are not necessary, but still, the administration found a way to integrate them into student life. So if administration is able to find such a way, then by all means, it probably can find such a way to have the people go to CMIE [Center for Multicultural and International Engagement] events, or have the people go to international oriented events.”

In addition, Alavi says there is a need for curriculum reform that includes more international and multicultural studies. This extends to religion courses as well. The courses currently offered are not necessarily inclusive. All students have to take two religion courses during their time at St. Olaf, but many non-Christian international students expressed dissatisfaction with the offerings of non-Christian based courses.

The College administration is faced with a number of decisions relating to The Collective’s demands and the wishes of international students.

In its report responding to the demands of The Collective, the Task Force on Institutional Racism recommended implementation of The Collective’s proposal for implementing a system similar to the pink cards for DCC-affiliated events.

“It would be a great way to ensure ongoing touchpoints for students beyond mandatory diversity training,” the report said.

While the Task Force’s recommendation is significant, the final recommendations for administrative changes will be made by the Working Group on Equity and Inclusion, whose work is not yet complete.