College experience challenges Internationals

Anyone who happened to look up in Paresky last week would have seen a whole panoply of flags from different countries adorning Baxter Hall as part of International Week festivities. For some, the flags were an apt metaphor for international students at Williams: interesting and vibrant, but peripheral to the general campus activity.

The number of international students on campus has been growing, especially in light of the College’s switch to need-blind admission policy for applicants abroad in 2001. Non-U.S. citizens currently make up eight percent of the student population, up from six percent last fall. Despite campus-wide emphasis on diversity in recent years, the stereotype of self-segregating international students – who focus on academics at the expense of other activities – has yet to be discarded.

“According to the 2007 Senior Survey, international students are (as involved in many campus activities as their peers),“ a fact which surprises even many internationals.”

According to the Senior Survey for the Class of 2007, international students are as involved in as many campus activities as their peers – a fact which surprises even many international students. Differences were noted for participation in student government (30 percent of internationals vs. 13 percent of the whole graduating class), cultural/ethnic clubs (63 percent of internationals vs. 21 percent of the class), volunteer activities (73 percent of internationals vs. 50 percent of the class) and intercollegiate athletics (27 percent of internationals vs. 47 percent of the class).

“I like to contribute because I feel like I’ve gotten so much from Williams,” said Spencer co-president Toni Kraeva ’09, from Bulgaria. She added, however, that international students tend to prioritize studies. “In my eastern European culture, if you play sports, you do it for life. If you go to high school or university, you’re meant for academia. Here there is more emphasis on diversifying yourself.”

Kraeva also attributes the academic focus to the higher competition that international students face in applying to Williams. International students made up approximately 15 percent of the 6,437 applicants for the Class of 2011, but only received 8 percent of acceptance offers.

“As far as test scores go, international students are really at the top level,” said Gina Coleman, associate dean and international student advisor, adding that this reflects a greater familiarity with the standardized testing rather than a higher level of qualification. “Nevertheless, they’re making greater sacrifices to come this far away for their education, so there tends to be a little more seriousness of purpose,” she said.

Of the 176 international students at Williams this year, 72 percent are on financial aid with an average aid package of $43,585. For U.S. citizens, the figures are 43 percent and $33,849 respectively. “I think the average package for an international is much greater than that of a U.S. citizen, because more of our international students come from lower income families,” said Paul Boyer, director of financial aid. “When we became need-blind for international students, an interesting bonus was that the number and the geographical diversity of applicants increased.”

Financial aid was a definite draw for varsity cross country runner Edgar Kosgey ’10 from Kenya. “I chose Williams over another school because of the aid package offered here,” Kosgey said. Despite his success on the field, however, he feels grades are more important than athletics. “To my family, I go to Williams to study, not to run, and return a well-educated person,” he said.

Kosgey added that he does encounter bias as a prominent campus athlete. “Many people think I’m good because of where I’m from; they think all Kenyans are really fast,” he said. “They don’t believe me when I say I didn’t run in high school at all.” Kosgey started running the summer before he came to Williams, after two years of playing soccer in school.

Self-segregation

“The general experience of an international student is that he or she always tries to integrate into the new community and make new friends, but cultural differences make it so hard that eventually, one stops trying,” said Yang Du ’10, a Chinese national. “To really [integrate] you have to change yourself and sacrifice certain aspects of your own culture, as the environment will not change for you,” he said, adding that he does not blame such polarization on either party.

Du felt that while Americans are generally warm and friendly, it was difficult to tell whom they genuinely cared for. Kraeva, too, shared a similar experience. “In the beginning I had a lot of trouble understanding what was genuine friendship and what was just being nice. I’ve been hurt as a result,” she said.

Many cite the comfort of being understood by fellow internationals as the main cause of self-segregation. “When I am with people from my region, I tend to open up faster and be generally less reserved because I feel like I’m starting with some footing,” said Ma Khin Pyi Son ’10, from Burma. “However, I was in novice crew last year, which kept me away from the social scene outside of work, classes and crew. So I mixed with whoever happened to be in the same places as I.” For Khin, these places include Students for Social Justice (SSJ), the Frosh Leadership Weekend committee and working as a student athletic trainer.

Language is a primary hindrance to social integration. While some international students speak English as their first language, for many it is their second, third, fourth or fifth. “The first few days here I felt like I couldn’t participate in any groups because I couldn’t speak as fast, and a lot of jokes and pop culture references I just didn’t understand,” said Burge Abiral ’11, International Club representative for the Minority Coalition (MinCo). She added that her comfort level with English has increased in everyday interaction.

Language also affects students’ classroom experiences. “It was really hard being expected to write a good paper at the beginning of freshman year,” said Kosgey, for whom English is a third language. “However, I spoke to my professors, and they were really understanding.”

Other cultural difficulties that international students cite include the party scene and the media-driven society. “I have heard some amount of complaint from other international students about Americans, for example to do with loudness or promiscuity,” said Teng Jian Khoo ’09, a Malaysian. “But we all chose to come to this college and this country, and if something doesn’t harm us we should learn to accomodate.”

According to some internationals, students who have studied abroad tend to be more sensitive to cultural issues. Ben Kolesar ’08, a Williamstown native, found it natural to socialize primarily with the other American exchange students while spending the spring semester of his junior year in Mongolia. “We had the same self-consciousness about being together in a big group of Caucasians, but still stayed as a group because we all spoke English and had lessons together,” he said.

The role of College administration

Given various difficulties with cultural adjustments, international students have mixed reactions regarding the administration, including the Dean’s Office, in providing sufficient support.

On the one hand, many internationals have approached Coleman for mere logistical issues, such as not having vehicles or finding housing during breaks. But on the other, some feel that there is room for improvement within the College.

“My personal opinion is that there isn’t enough administrative support for international students,” said Kraeva, who could not obtain sufficient information about Optional Practical Training (OPT) permits for internships from either the Dean’s Office or the Office of Career Counseling (OCC). “A lot of upperclassmen are disappointed because we’re trying to think of careers, and the only way we can find things out is by talking to other international students.”

Kraeva also noted the need for a support system of adults who have international experience. “You can always go and talk to Marcela [Villada Peacock, Multicultural Center (MCC) program coordinator] and ask her for advice, but while she is awesome she’s also the ‘mother’ for every other MinCo group,” she said. “Sometimes you just need someone who has been through it all to tell you that you’ll be fine.”

Nevertheless, compared to her international friends in other campuses, Kraeva added that international students at Williams seem better integrated.

Diversity and internationalism

Another key concern of international students at Williams is the lack of a globalized consciousness in the campus community. “The aim of International Week was to increase awareness about different countries and to celebrate different cultures, but it was mostly international students and their American friends that attended the events,” said Abiral. “Sometimes that lack of interest was disappointing.”

Kolesar agreed that there is little practical advice about interacting with people from other backgrounds, whether national or cultural, though diversity at large is a popular topic on campus.

Others caution against unrealistically high expectations. “No matter how much we talk about diversity and the reasons we’re here, people will find those similar to them in outlook and interests,” said Khoo. “Yet within that commonality you a heterogeneity of perspectives.”

Ultimately, most agree that discussion is crucial. “Williams students often go abroad, experience what it’s like to be the fish on land and feel uncomfortable; but then they can just return,” Khin said. “We can’t, at least not for some years, and we have to adjust. If those who go abroad can extend their experience to empathize with internationals [here], we might all be better off.”

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