Editorial: Reaching further for internationals

As we have seen time and time again, the measure of our school’s success at diversity is not how many different kinds of people comprise it, but how suitable it is for a diverse population. Administrators have demonstrated inadequate concern with regards to the fact that the current winter break dorm-closing policy and the inconsistent help international students receive in making alternative plans is often a cause of great anxiety.
With its need-blind admission policy for international students, the College sends the message that it is eager to make Williams accessible, but after these students matriculate, believing they will be assisted in matters that pose a strain, those that do not have the means to go home or the family or friends in the United States to provide accommodations are asked to navigate travel and lodging in the U.S. without the active help of the College until they become desperate. Especially on behalf of first-year international students, many of whom have only begun to acclimate to the College let alone to living in the U.S., the College needs to reexamine its laissez-faire policies if it wants to achieve the ideals it asserted by offering need-blind admission to international students in the first place.

The problem of winter break housing does not affect all international students by any measure; many can go home, others have family in the U.S. and those who are upperclassmen have more solid connections to people in the U.S. that would facilitate making plans. But the group of international students who do not have these other avenues – first-years especially – should not be treated as if they can figure out alternative arrangements in a new country entirely on their own.

Last year’s Claiming Williams asked us to examine privilege in order to build community, and being a domestic student certainly offers privileges. By examining the winter break dorm-closing policy, the College would be acknowledging this fact, as it already has willingly done in so many other ways that strengthen the community.

Of course, even the privilege of being a domestic student is not so simple, and the Dean’s Office argues that it cannot assist international students when some domestic students, especially those from the West Coast or the noncontiguous U.S., also have difficulty making and affording travel plans. Just as the College supports financial aid students with its new no-cost textbook policy but cannot extend this aid to those who just missed the cutoff for financial aid, the complexity of the gray area is not a reason to withhold help from those definitive populations that have difficulty.
The assumption that international students, especially first-years, would be comfortable asking a suitemate or friend to house them for two weeks is flawed, partly because expecting first-years to have formed close friendships by December is sometimes unrealistic. Furthermore, though, it does not take into account that many first-years are from one of the many cultures where people are not accustomed to imposing themselves on others, especially during intimate family holiday celebrations. Even if, in the end, only a handful of students have to get the Dean’s Office to help them secure lodgings, many more people have had to stick their necks out for assistance, either from friends or from a homestay program, when they are not comfortable doing so.

The decision to keep dorms closed to students during winter break is obviously a logistical one, while opening them up would first require a principled commitment. If cost is an issue, surely students would rather funnel the $90 they would spend on their homestay organization back to the College as reimbursement for the ability to stay. But whether or not the College eventually chooses to leave some dorms open for international student housing, administrators must start by being more forward and active with the advice and assistance they offer. The Dean’s Office, especially Gina Coleman, associate dean for international students, should demonstrate more concern than a few e-mails to those students who have to find a place to stay in the U.S. Initiating individual meetings with first-year internationals who, for whatever reason, cannot return to their families would be one way to demonstrate substantive support.

Numerous other schools also force students to vacate dorms during this time, as evidenced by the fact that there are programs like the Christmas International House, the homestay organization recommended by the Dean’s Office, but the fact that other schools have an outmoded policy has never stopped Williams from breaking new ground and making progressive decisions.

The no-cost textbook policy for financial aid students announced last week demonstrates the College’s commitment to easing one of the cost-burdens of going to school here. The difficulty some students have in coming up with textbook money is on-par if not less than the anxiety and trouble that some international students go through to secure accommodations for themselves in the U.S. for two weeks. We hope the College analyzes the disadvantaged status of international students when it comes to vacation housing, and that it is prepared to improve these students’ options.

Family Days is just one of many ways the College unknowingly privileges domestic students, especially those from the Northeast. Parents who can hop in the car and drive a few hours to Williamstown are greeted with nametags, passes to meals and special shows. If the College showed similar enthusiasm for assisting international students in being comfortable during winter break, then we would be on our way to realizing the kind of environment we set out to create when we open our doors to people from around the world.

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