Four Unexpected Lessons My International Students Taught Me

My first semester at Calvin College, I realized with some trepidation that more than half of the students enrolled in my African Politics course were international students; a third were from Asian countries and another third from African countries.  I had never taught more than one or two international students, and I was particularly anxious about teaching African Politics to students from Africa!  When a recent Shared Justice contributor challenged us to “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,” it rang true from my own experience. As professors we enter every semester eager to shape the minds of our students and challenge the way they see the world.  But at Calvin I have found that I have been shaped by instructing, but also learning alongside, my international students. 

What I remember most fondly from my African politics class are the transition points.  I remember watching my international students respond to a guest speaker from Zimbabwe because he articulated a dynamic that resonated with their experience.  I remember the students suggesting novels to me about their countries because they knew I liked fiction.  The relationships developed in that class forever changed the way I see my scholarship, my role as an instructor, and the unintended consequences of the grand plans that Westerners hatch for the rest of the world.  Here I present a few of the lessons from my international students, and how they have changed my interaction with students.

Knowing about their country is not the same thing as knowing them.  

As a scholar of international politics, I have investigated the history, governments, human rights records, and social welfare systems of other countries.  But my international students have lived that experience.  Their grandparents lived through the wars about which I teach.  Their parents provide for their families within the economic systems I present in class.  Some of my international students have personal or distant experience with the human rights abuses I condemn in my classes. I have substantive expertise that I am seeking to impart to my students.  But when substantive expertise and lived experience come together, the data and details of international politics come to life in a powerful way.    

But it is only through getting to know my students that I get to know their stories.  I have found that the best way to get to know my students is through spending time with them outside of class.  Some of the most profound interactions I have with my students happen over meals in the cafeteria when we are freed from the confines of the classroom and the professor-student relationship.  When my students ask to eat with me, I offer to meet them in the cafeteria for breakfast or lunch.  In eating with my students, I have come to know them better.

International students have to be more mature and more gracious socially than domestic students. 

I grew up in rural Tennessee, a state that consistently ranks lower  in terms of education quality and economic well-being in the United States compared to other states.  But I can honestly say that I have never sat through a class where Tennessee’s problems were discussed in depth.  I have also never had anyone doubt the quality of my education because I went to Vanderbilt University, a university located in Tennessee.  Yet my international students face these dynamics every day.  Their countries are used as 

examples of governance gone wrong, failed development, and destructive corruption.  Their peers can sometimes ask inappropriate questions instead of thinking carefully about how to use their interest to build relationships.  My students’ names are mispronounced, their home countries mistaken, and they are often approached based on assumptions. 

Yet I observe my international students graciously managing these complicated dynamics, and I have increasingly tried to use the classroom to follow their lead in two ways.  First, I have started using Calvin’s tradition of devotional thoughts at the beginning of class as an opportunity for my students to share their stories.  This gives my students, whether from North America or across the world, the opportunity to share the thoughts that captivate their hearts.

Second, I bring diverse voices into the class as guest speakers, either in person or through clips like Ted Talks. When we talk about development, I present an expert from a developing country who has had amazing success in achieving what Westerners have failed to provide through foreign aid.  I try to balance my Western-trained academic voice with those from other traditions around the world.  My hope is that as my students hear each other’s stories, as well as expertise from scholars and practitioners around the globe, that all my students will be surprised by the ways that they share the same hopes and struggles, and increasingly celebrate the ways that their unique experiences lead to innovative solutions for political problems.   

My international students have worries that domestic students have a hard time understanding.

Last year the Ghanaian exchange rate fluctuated drastically due to government policies.  As a scholar of international politics, I might have watched this development and commented on the implications for global exchange rates.  But for my international students, exchange rate fluctuations have severe implications for their ability to pay tuition.  When I was a student facing financial constraints I would work multiple jobs to make up the difference between what I had and what I needed.  But international students also face restrictions on the types of jobs and number of hours they can work.  These restrictions make it difficult for international students to use the tools that domestic students use to manage their finances.

I have found that I can support my students in these situations in two ways—first, by listening to their struggles and second, by finding ways the system can be tweaked to better support them.  It is important as mentors that we reinforce to our international students that they cannot control the whims of international politics.  But it is also important that we structure our institutions to reinforce this rhetoric on a daily basis.  Even with the desire to effectively support international students, often we have a hard time conceiving of the ways that international political trends can negatively impact our international students on an individual level.  As academic institutions we have to structure policies that support international students effectively, even in light of complicated political dynamics in their home countries.

Family is important, especially when thousands of miles apart. 

I went to college 45 minutes from home.  If I forgot something, I would drive home and get it. When I had a social, emotional, or academic crisis, I would go home and cry on my mother’s shoulder.  My father frequently met me for lunch throughout the week.  I had a social support system that could easily be reactivated when needed.  My international students, on the other hand, left their families on another continent to come to college.  Some of them go up to two years without seeing their families.  They often stay on campus during holidays, or visit relatives in other US cities.  They build dense social networks with the other students who can support them throughout their experience at college.  But ultimately, they are separated from their families at one of the most challenging times in young adulthood. 

As a professor, I struggle to think through ways I can support my international students in this time away from their families.  Though I do not have a solution, I have come to realize that though we are at different points in our lives, I am much like my international students in their lack of extended family.  I left family to move to Michigan, and I also spend most holidays in town trying to cobble together a “family” with whom I can share the holiday.  So I try to think through the ways that my family building in a new place can include my international students who have had such an impact on the way I see the world.  I try to turn outward instead of inward, to expand my own family’s idea of the web of relationships that define our social life.  So in the end, my cross-cultural group of students change both my perspective as a scholar and my identity as a participant in this new community.  

We have known for a long time that the academic project revolves around a community.  Knowledge does not just flow in one direction, from the professor to the students; students learn best when they are part of a scholarly community where learning is modeled for them.  One of the most profound ways that professors can model the heart of scholarship is to demonstrate how they are continually learning from their students.  This is especially vital in a cross-cultural classroom context, when the lived experience of the students bring to life the substantive expertise of the professor.  Because ultimately the classroom, and any other cross-cultural community, is the most transformative when we approach each other with a desire to learn and grow in relationship with each other. The posture of graciousness and patience I have observed in my international students is a great place to start.

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.