As an international scholar and a woman of color who worked in a higher education context and in a predominantly White university for eight years, I had my share of experiences with racial microaggressions. Microaggressions in this sense are comments that are based on stereotyping and clichés about my country of origin, my religion, and an ignorance that could be linked to White superiority and lack of desire to learn about other cultural and international groups. Such slurs can be exemplified in the following quotes: “Where did you park your camel?” or “How come you’re not wearing the ninja suit, aren’t you a Muslim?” or, “You’re from Morocco? You’re so exotic, and I love Couscous”. These slurs are subtle, however, they affect the individual’s psychological being, as they can be internalized as a part of one’s racial, religious, and ethnic identities. In other words, I became so used to hearing these types of comments from the White majority that coping with them has become a part of my survival identity as a North African Muslim woman.
My personal experiences highlight some of the issues international students endure when they study abroad. Therefore, in order to commit to social justice in higher education, we need to understand how to support our international students.
During the recent federal regulations that restricted international students from staying in the United States if they are taking online classes, many international students were put in a very vulnerable position where they lost control over their narratives. Even though restrictions on online-only instruction for international students were dropped by the federal government shortly thereafter, higher education in the United States has failed AGAIN in its commitment to strengthen cross-cultural ties. International students contribute greatly to the U.S economy. Yet, instead of supporting their education, they can often be dehumanized and treated only as a money-making machine. While leaving their countries behind to go further their education in the United States, many international students have to engage in speaking English, perhaps not their first language, on a daily basis. In addition to that, they have to develop survival modes to deal with the microaggressions, as they can be perceived as aliens. The others. As a former international student, I always felt isolated from the university as a whole. I looked for other international students like me to bond with, talk about how it feels to be away from home, and the pressures of risking losing the international student visa if we do not do well in school.
International students’ issues should not only be left to the office of international education offices on campus to deal with. Rather, it is a collective responsibility higher education needs to engage in. International students are an integral part of the campus community at large, and should be treated as important beings in the campus community as a whole, and not as an alienated community. Supporting international students will elevate higher education in the United States, and will ensure that restrictions not be placed on them anytime in the future.
Here are four recommendations to support international students on campus.
1. Don’t reduce them to stereotypes: I very often hear international students complaining about how some American students would take a general idea about their country, or culture that they read or heard about on the news, and make that the ONLY idea about international students. Stereotypes can be exemplified in telling a Saudi person, “You must be rich because of all the oil in your country,” or telling someone from a country in Africa, “What animals do you have? I would love to go on a Safari someday,” or telling a person from the Middle East, “Can you teach me how to belly dance?” Stop uttering these comments. They are not flattering. They are microaggressions based on clichés and stereotypes. Instead, get to know the person, not a GENERAL, RACIST idea about their origins.
2. Avoid Tokenization: As a former graduate international student, other international students and I often experienced tokenization in the classroom. This notion comes when a person, usually from a predominant group, in the classroom treats a minoritized person as the EXPERT in the matter, just because they are a member of that cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial group. For example, if a conversation came about a Muslim scholar, eyes would turn to me, and often someone in the classroom would ask, “What can you tell us about this scholar, Mounia?” Just because I am a Muslim, it does not mean I know the work of every single Muslim scholar that ever existed. The professor in these situations needs to intervene, and avoid doing the tokenization themselves.
3. Understand that they live far away from their families: International students have developed a strong survival mode living away from their families. However, it does not mean they have an easy time being away from their families and friends. It also does not mean that adjusting to a new environment quickly is what should be required of them. Therefore, campuses need to make sure they support international students through creating time and safe spaces where they can openly express their concerns. For faculty, invite them to your home for a meal if you can, or create biweekly café and chat meetings to discuss their academic aspirations and how they are dealing with life in a U.S. In addition, make sure you support them and engage with them in their academic endeavors, especially when they involve research that relates to their own cultural background.
4. Value their input: As a former international student, I noticed that the curriculum content was heavily based on White researchers, theorists, and scholars. When I attempted to discuss other non-western theories, or my experience, as someone coming from Morocco, it was usually met by “Oh interesting, let’s move on.” Valuing input from an international student means that one is committed to thinking bigger and larger than the limited scope. This means that cross-cultural and global ideas and scholarship could be reflected upon, that one could see how ideas and different knowledges in the world are interconnected. This valuing of international students’ input allows for a rich conversation and learning to happen. In addition to that, the campus community needs to create reading groups, clubs, and spaces where the input of international students on higher education practices, and policies is heard and valued. This value of international students’ voice could help empower the institution where curriculum, leadership, and student affairs’ policies are identifying the issues that international students go through. Moreover, this value could help international students leave the classroom, and campus feeling nourished and encouraged. Valuing international students’ voice could also help universities commit to an action plan to answer educational concerns that speak to diversity, equity, and inclusion just like many higher institution diversity statements say they would.
These recommendations above are only some first steps one can take to start engaging in inclusive education. International students bring a rich, unique perspective to higher education we could all learn from. Committing to unlearning ethnocentric beliefs about international students, and valuing their narratives allows as to elevate higher education.
Dr. Mounia Mnouer is an independent international scholar. Her work focuses on issues of internationalization, cross-cultural understanding, and Indigeneity in higher education.