Welcoming International Students into Our Classrooms, Not Just Our Institutions

John walked into the classroom full of chatting students and found a hard plastic chair toward the back, not wanting to draw much attention to himself. Compared to his classmates he was less-proficient in the language, less fashionable, and less popular.  When class began 10 minutes after the time printed online, he regretted sitting in the back of the class, because that made it more difficult to understand a professor teaching in his second language.   Despite his familiarity with the basic principles of the course, much of the vocabulary made little sense. Two days later, the student was baffled to find a different professor in front of his class. After a few more confusing classes, attempts to meet other students, and panicked emails, the student was frustrated, lost, and discouraged.

This experience happens every semester at colleges and universities across the United States, including my own small liberal arts college in West Michigan. I have witnessed it many times but never understood it until I was the student in a cold lecture hall in northern Spain. Every year millions of students travel internationally to receive an education or an experience unavailable in their native country. Acculturation, the process of adapting to another culture, is a challenge no matter how prepared the student is. As classrooms in the United States become increasingly diverse and transnational, we must grapple with the challenges involved in incorporating international students into the classroom and appreciate the richness that such diversity can add to all students’ educational experience.

The higher education landscape in the United States is in a time of transition. As funding decreases, American institutions increasingly look to international students as an additional source of talent and tuition dollars. If we consider international students to be nothing more than a cash lifeline or a diversity quotient, we are severely underestimating the power of the classroom. Numerous studies have indicated that learning improves when students are exposed to new environments. Our minds are opened to new ways of thinking when we are placed in unfamiliar settings; it is a manner of adaptation. Diversity in the classroom is one of the most important ways to create a unique environment to encourage new thought and innovation. When students are exposed to ideas and questions from peers with different backgrounds, all students’ learning improves. A student from the American Midwest is unlikely to think about European history the same way as a student from the Middle East--the essence of academia is the pursuit of dialogue between ideas. A diverse classroom is a better classroom.

If we are to reap the rewards of the diverse classroom, we must understand the challenges international students face. Acculturation stress from eating unfamiliar food and navigating confusing social norms has been well-documented; students experience symptoms such as physical sickness, depression, and anxiety. The stress of life as an international student can prevent even the most motivated from achieving their potential; international students often face a language barrier which make lectures difficult to understand, and unfamiliarity with cultural cues can make it difficult to find friends or study partners in class. International students often seek out students with similar backgrounds who face similar challenges, but this segregates students into cultural groups that often prevent the cross-cultural dialogue so important in higher education.

In recent years American institutions have implemented new programs  to woo international students, aware of the talent pool available.  But unfortunately, these programs can lack the support necessary to help international students thrive in the classroom.  Welcoming international students into our classrooms should involve more than administrative programs to support international students logistically. An academic community that serves its students is aware of how multiple levels of the academic experience—administrative, instructional, and social—allow students to thrive. Institutions should develop cross-cultural appreciation at all these stages to cultivate a community that cherishes dialogue, including programs like peer tutoring, cross-cultural writing centers, and programs that pair international students with domestic students.   In particular, American universities and colleges need more resources for the classroom because the classroom is still the key to the undergraduate experience. Studies have shown that international students tend to form tight-knit groups that are difficult for domestic students to penetrate. Professors in the classroom have the opportunity to create an environment of interaction, intentionally creating projects where students collaborate and exchange ideas.

Ultimately, we need a commitment across entire institutions to welcome international students as peers, and to appreciate the richness they add to the educational experience. Empathy is at the heart of the matter. When we can place ourselves in the chair next to us, we better understand what our peers need. As Christians, we must welcome the foreigner, and not just to fill a quotient of international students or to supplement lagging tuition dollars.  We must welcome international students as fellow human beings, each with a unique insight that is worthy of development. This transformation is what is required to establish learning communities, not just factories of diplomas. We owe it to ourselves and to our fellow students to think carefully about welcoming all into ourclassrooms, and not just our institutions. Ultimately, this requires more than an attractive sign with “Welcome” written in 70 different languages.

-Ian Graham is a senior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, where he studies History and International Relations. He enjoys biographies, attending concerts, and throwing a frisbee when he should be studyin