From international to immersed

It’s not easy to unpack before going to bed after you’ve just flown for 28 hours to college, but I did. The realization that in just over a day I had gone all the way from my home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to this strange little town in Massachusetts was surreal at best, and I needed to settle into my new surroundings. Thirsty from traveling, I needed water. “Fill your CUPPS cup from the restroom sink,” decreed my JA (Are you sure that’s clean?), and so began my journey.

A few nights and many CUPPS cup fills later, I was slowly settling in. With so many international orientation activities going on, my First Days were spent mostly among other international students. That, coupled with the fact that I had four other internationals in my very multiethnic entry, gave me a decidedly United World College-ish view of Williams. We all spent a fulfilling few days with our orientation groups, and during that initial time of mutual cultural and personal exploration, Williams did seem rather heavenly.

And then classes began. I realized that the differences between the semester-system and the end-of-year-exams-system I was accustomed to were not as insignificant as I had hoped. Classes had to be attended, quizzes had to be cared for and homework had to be done. My very own professor would assess each bit of my work, instead of some faceless, nameless person somewhere in Cambridge grading my A-level exams at the end of the school year. Being held accountable for work consistently throughout a term instead of once at the end of the year is something many of us from parts of the world where the semester system is unheard of still haven’t adjusted to. It’s certainly a valuable system as far as the pursuit of learning goes, but why is the highlight of my Sunday afternoon supposed to be linear algebra?

There are other, perhaps deeper issues that I and the other internationals have to face. Passive, subconscious discrimination is one of them. I guess that I totally fail at picking up on remote vibes, so I’ve never really experienced it myself; but a large number of my international friends can relate numerous counts of incidents where they felt discriminated against and socially sidelined. Not actively, not consciously, but perhaps they were just regarded subconsciously as not an integral part of the combined whole of the community. A sense of belonging is vital for all of us here, especially those who travel thousands of miles in the pursuit of not only a good education, but a good social life while they’re at it. Any social prejudice makes the whole deal sound like curry without spice.

You might feel that I need to dedicate more space to addressing the “problems faced by internationals at Williams,” but when I began this op-ed, that was not what I had in mind. I wish to highlight instead how internationals can overcome any problems they face and bring about positive change throughout campus. In other words, I wish you to subscribe to my brand of Eternal Optimism.

I remember how reluctant I was to run for College Council (CC) in the fall simply because I thought people whom I had just met and who were so radically different from me would not vote for me. I was disproved – twice. In the fall, I served on CC as Mills Rep, and when I decided to run for CC Secretary in the spring against two juniors (neither of whom happened to be an international), I had the same fears. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 2006 found that only 34 percent of Americans would vote for a Muslim. Though the exactly 34 percent of students who voted for me (no, I don’t hold the Williams population representative of the American population) left my candidacy a couple percentage points short of victory, I knew that the mere fact an international freshman could garner so much support in a campus-wide election meant something on its own. There is no need to harbor any notions of active prejudice on the part of my fellow students; whatever subconscious feelings exist can be overcome by conscious awareness.

Some fear that integrating too much into the wider culture would necessarily result in the abandonment of their culture and/or values. For me, there’s no reason why this has to be the case. There is generally a great amount of respect at Williams when it comes to individual opinions and values. An either/or mentality would therefore grossly underestimate the level of cultural understanding and acceptance any student is capable of. I see no conflict in how, after attending Muslim Student Union meetings on Friday afternoons, I head over to my entry to find out what my friends’ plans are for the night. Similarly, I see no contradiction in how I wish to revive both the Williams Cricket Club and the Williams Model UN Club (Sign up now!).

There’s no reason why international students can’t be as much a part of the Williams community as American students, and if that necessitates an international on every ballot or another Global Night at Greylock, then so be it!

Muhammad Asad Liaqat ’11 is from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and lives in Mills.