Building bridges

“It is awesome! He is able to talk with Americans.” When I heard this during a discussion about an international, I felt a deep urge to think about the situation of international students at Williams. I also questioned why the distinction between an “international” student and an “American” student becomes so strong that some internationals see talking with Americans as a “hard-to-achieve ability.”

You may think that an international “who cannot speak with Americans” is immature and should learn to fit in. However, internationals that feel most comfortable with other internationals who often come from different backgrounds or face different pressures. My experiences at home may give you an idea about these pressures; during my last summer in Turkey, people warned me that I should “iron my shirt because I represent Turkey” or that I should not “go to the U.S. to have fun” when I expressed my interest in majoring in comparative literature or philosophy. Moreover, I was constantly told that I should have a truly exceptional record; otherwise, as a non-U.S. citizen, I will never be able to find a job in the U.S.

I know that many of my international friends have had similar experiences, and several weeks ago, one of them told me that he finds more comfortable spending time with people who face similar pressures. Even though this is probably not the sole reason why some internationals do not have many American friends, these considerations often matter in the social groups of international and American students.

Rather than excluding internationals, I encourage Americans as the hosts to seek out opportunities when they can meet with many international students. Only then can internationals really understand the importance of a liberal arts education, a totally foreign system to most countries. American students can also benefit from understanding cultures distinct from theirs. College, after all, is a place where we engage intellectually in different areas rather than a ladder to a better graduate school and career.

When I talk with my international friends, I realize that most share the same concern: American students are unaware of this invaluable educational opportunity. This might not be true; however, we still have to eliminate this perception in order to form stronger connections between these two communities. Indeed, this perception heavily influences each International Club board meeting every Saturday; whenever we plan an event, we always wonder if other people will attend and participate. Although we spent weeks organizing International Week, some of us doubted that some were even aware of the existence of such a week. At a school like Williams where students are expected to be curious and engaged, we should not have to even think about whether people are willing to learn about our cultures before organizing an event.

I also believe that the real cultural differences come to the surface especially when people have fun. Thus, here comes my most important advice: I recommend anyone to experience “different ways of having fun.” Go to the Moon Festival or to international parties. Sit at a table full of internationals and share jokes. The international students love to talk about their educational experiences, but the interaction between Americans and internationals should not be limited to sharing information. I believe we form a much stronger community when we learn to enjoy things that we have never found interesting before.

As international students become more integrated into the College, we will realize that the international student body is actually not homogenous. Some have fun only with Americans while most others only with internationals. Some never feels comfortable with English while others come from places where English is the official language. Some claim to have no nationality while others decorate their rooms with objects from their small villages. However, there is one factor that unifies all these students: different cultures influence them simultaneously and each of them has to decide how to react.

From my conversations with one of my professors, I have learned that Williams takes essential steps to be more responsive to international students’ concerns: currently, the Committee on International Education Initiatives aims to create a student body that is even more aware of global issues. Also, Williams is considering building an international student center. I certainly believe that these steps will strengthen the bond between internationals and Americans. Still, I think that buildings or committees will not have significance unless the students – both internationals and Americans – change their mindsets and become more appreciative of the diversity here, actively seeking out differences.

Ceyhun Arslan ’11 is from Istanbul, Turkey. He lives in West.