Spencer Tait: The unspoken international campus divide

Over the course of an average week at GW, I’ll bump into someone and have a conversation about my childhood back in Hong Kong, the manic hustle and bustle of India, or how much I miss Canadians’ healthy optimism. I love the subtle reminder I get when I see a group of Chinese students buying bubble tea from the truck outside Gelman Library, or when a cultural society throws an event on campus with their native food.

My father’s job required a lot of travel – so growing up, I found myself hopping between countries every three or four years. I was born in Singapore and my first home was in Medan, Indonesia. I grew up in Hong Kong, Canada, and England, with only a couple years actually in the U.S., and have done a ton of traveling in between.

This puts me in a harsh middle ground. I’m a “third culture student” who is neither an international student nor totally American. My life was always based on adaptation, forcing me to feel my best when being exposed to something new and positive, unfamiliar and challenging. I take pride in this frame of mind, but wish more people would strive to meet me in the middle. At the moment, I’m not convinced.

GW, essentially, has two student bodies: international students and American ones. And though I’ve only been here a few months, I sense an overwhelming “us versus them” mentality that acts as a complete obstacle to a positive coexistence.

That’s not just a problem on this campus. A 2012 study in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication found that one-third of foreign students “have no close U.S. friends”, and that 38 percent surveyed were unhappy with the amount of American friends they had.

We’re all to blame for that dazzling statistic, and we’re losing out if we don’t turn it around. GW’s undergraduate body – with an international student population hovering at about 10 percent – has a chance to deliver a whiff of life experience that a small, homogeneous school would never dream of. Going to a school like GW gives us an unrivaled opportunity to expose ourselves to all that international students have to offer.

International students almost always come here for an education and life experience from abroad, and many of us will do a semester abroad for the same reason. So when we meet here in the middle, we shouldn’t be ignoring each other.

The University has big plans to help students improve their study abroad experiences. It is even planning a program to let students study abroad for two full years. But students have the opportunity to enhance their own international experiences at home without waiting for more University action.

This past week, I decided to take a stand. My Thurston house staff had just e-mailed me, encouraging us to meet some visiting students our age from a South African shanty town, and I knew I had to go see them to get their perspective.

They come to GW once a year to do drama workshops and to get out of their struggling neighborhoods to live the Western dream for a week, and it takes them a year to raise the money. They congregated in a room in Thurston, a handful of them eager as ever to answer my questions.

Some of the things they said made me look at the U.S., and even GW specifically, in ways I rarely consider.

My favorite discussion was when I asked them to imagine themselves as students at GW. They stressed how much they value the education here. They seemed absolutely in awe and almost intimidated by the large lectures and endless opportunity for knowledge and experience they have to work so hard for, and barely even have access to. One mentioned how he envied us because we had such an opportunity to help other people, a specific frame of mind I rarely maintain in the struggle to work for my degree and my own chances for success.

These people from a world away taught me things about South Africa and learned things themselves. But more importantly, they helped me look at my life from their eyes and consequently amplified my self-awareness, a classic side effect of exposing yourself to the unfamiliar. Every international student has this ability to add new perspectives to their lives and color to their four years of being “educated.”

This social paradigm of leaving each other to our own devices isn’t in our best interest. Everyone has a lot to learn that the classroom can’t teach, including me. International students should realize their value in being able to contribute these perspectives, and American students should let them in.

Spencer Tait is a freshman in the GW School of Business.

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