Thinking about global diversity, I think back to the situation at Duke where an email was sent out to students warning them that professors may not hire them for an internship if they spoke their native language in an academic building. I think we can all agree that this goes against every part of diversity and inclusion. While this particular individual did face consequences for her email, it’s important to keep in mind that her actions were indicative of a much larger problem in the system. Based on this email, at least 2 other faculty openly said they did not want to work with certain international students based off assumptions they made about these students willingness to work because the faculty heard them speaking another language in an academic building.
International students face innumerable challenges that resident students do not. First, there is the most obvious: a possible language barrier and culture shock. Transportation may also be a concern, as many students will not have a car, especially when they first arrive. Luckily, Blacksburg has a pretty decent bus system, but that is not the case in every college town. There is also the added expenses of being an international student, in terms of both the actual cost to attend a university, and also the costs of international flights and visas.
Once students are in the US and settled, they continue to face many challenges. A friend of mine was doing her Master’s degree out of a university in Poland, where she grew up, but she came to the US for a short period to do research in our facilities in Texas. She spoke English very fluently, but she still struggled to communicate with American colleagues sometimes because the English she learned in school didn’t cover the words for the various cuts of meat on a pig. I know this is a recurring issue where students may not know technical terms in multiple languages, and Google Translate isn’t the greatest tool for those words.
There can also be added stress for international students. As young people, we tend to make choices that in hindsight, were not particularly smart. As an international student, if those choices land you in legal trouble, you could face deportation. Another unnamed international friend of mine made poor decisions one night, and ended up with a DUI. Later, this friend found out that they could potentially lost their visa and be deported for it. While I do not condone drinking and driving, I do not think one should face being kicked out of the country and subsequently not being able to finish a degree because of one bad decision. Luckily, since it was this friend’s first offense, the charge was reduced and they were not deported. I can remember the stress and anxiety that this caused my friend on top of the stress of dealing with the normal things that happens when someone gets into legal trouble.
The stresses that international students face has gotten worse in recent years. While it was difficult enough for international students to travel home, the travel ban has made it nearly impossible for some. I met a woman at the International Soil Science Conference back in January. She was studying in America, but she was from Iran. She is unable to go home to visit family, because she fears she will not be able to get back into America. With federal policies and the rhetoric regarding immigrants, it’s no wonder international students may not feel welcome in the US.
While international students face implicit biases, assumptions, and prejudices that can make it difficult to feel welcome. Another friend of mine grew up in Dominica, but has studied in the US for years. He has no discernible accent, but he told me he intentionally hides it so people will not judge him for it. I have often noticed student’s hesitancy or unwillingness to work with international students on projects. Generally because of a fear that the students will have communication issues. On the other side, I have also seen students avoid taking a class taught by a non-native English speaker because the students think they will not be able to understand the lectures. I don’t support this line of thinking. If I can understand someone, with my imperfect hearing, most people should be able to as well. However, it seems the only way to change someone’s mind on that front is exposure listening and speaking to people that have an accent they are not used to hearing.
With all of these challenges, I wonder what the university can do to eliminate some of these struggles for international students to create an inclusive environment.