You’re probably friends with or know someone who’s an international student. But what does the term “international student” even mean? There are many ways someone can qualify as an “international student.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the student grew up abroad. They might be dual or triple citizens, permanent residents, or have student visas.
Being an international student often comes with a lot of heavy baggage, and some American students might have a hard time understanding what it’s like to be categorized as “international.” The natural curiosity about where someone’s accent comes from or why they do something differently can make international students feel like they are exotic, as if there is something negative about their behavior. International students may get irritated when their differences (that are frequently assumed) are exaggerated and the similarities are overlooked. They might feel like anthropological objects rather than humans with interests when they’re bombarded with questions about their culture the minute they meet someone new.
This doesn’t mean that your conversation with an international student should sound scripted or that you should ask specific questions. Just interact with them like you would with an American student. Just because someone comes from a different place than you doesn’t mean you have to figure him or her out immediately. It takes time and effort to get to know someone. The questions like “where are you from?” seem simple, but the answers can be more complex than you think. It’s not easy to sum it up in a few short words. If you want to make international students feel welcomed to campus, here is a list of things you might want to avoid saying (especially the minute you meet them).
- “Where are you from?”
The first instinct you might have when you meet an international student is to ask that person where she or he is from. They get asked this question a lot – almost every time they meet someone new. It’s a normal and logical question to ask, you think. If international students try to answer it they might be asked even more questions and have to deal with even more misconceptions about their country. Sometimes answering, “where are you from” can be more complex than it sounds. Have you ever heard of a third culture kid (TCK)? It’s a term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their developmental years (there are books written about them). TCKs might have moved around their entire lives for various reasons (like parents’ jobs), so it could be difficult for them to pin point just one place where they’re from. They might have more than one place that they call home. Don’t pressure them into telling you one particular place! Maybe they never grew up in the place where they were born. Instead of asking them where they’re from, ask something you would ask an American student you’ve just met, like “what’s your major, what organizations are you involved with?” There’s a difference between where a person is from and who they are (it’s part of who they are, but not all they are), so try to bond over common interests first. After you meet the person, and if you’re genuinely interested about where they’re coming from and want to know more about the culture, you can have a conversation over a cup of coffee or lunch.
- “How is your transition going?”
Don’t ask how their “transition” is going – that’s assuming that they have just arrived to the U.S. and dismisses the fact that they might have gone to middle school or high school here, or arrived at a very young age. To take it even further, this question might be interpreted as you thinking that they have to go through some sort of transition or assimilation to fit in. Instead, you can ask about the ways the United States is different from where they’re from. It’s a broad question, so again, you probably want to discuss it when you have more time.
- “Wait, what was that word you just said?”
Don’t assume that because they have an accent their English is worse than yours. And don’t pick or laugh at their accent all the time because that can make them feel very self-conscious and is just plain rude. Instead of blaming their accent, you can simply say something, like “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that— can you repeat it, please?”
- “Did you just learn English? How are you so good?”
All international students are required to get a high score on a standardized English test called TOEFL in order to get into an American high school or college. Chances are high that they even went to an American school abroad or in the U.S., or took International Baccalaureate (IB) courses in English. International students are also usually multilingual – other countries start teaching a foreign language in kindergarten or elementary school, and add a second or third foreign language in middle school. So instead of asking them how their English is so good, you can ask them how many other languages they speak, and compliment them on their multilingualism.
- “Did you ride a camel to school?”
Don’t joke about things that you’ve heard about another culture or country because a lot of these things are disrespectful stereotypes. International students might worry about reinforcing the stereotypes and feel responsible to break them. If you have specific questions about their culture, you can ask them about it instead of making assumptions. For example, “what’s the education system like in your country?”
- “That must be a cultural thing.”
Don’t assume that doing something different is “a cultural thing” or that it’s wrong. Like Pocahontas said, “you think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you.” If you don’t understand a certain phrase or behavior, just ask an international student to explain what it means.
- “Imagine you got deported for ( ). That would be so funny.”
International students are legal immigrants — they’re not getting deported, so stop joking about it. However, some might have a fear that every tiny infraction will result in being deported and this kind of joke could actually initiate stress or anxiety. You’re better off not bringing it up at all, even if it was only meant in a lighthearted way.
- “He/she is my (Russian/Asian/etc.) friend.”
It is not the best feeling to be the token foreign friend or the token foreign student in class. There is pressure to represent the entire nation or society. Instead of introducing your friend as “This is my Russian pal Natalia,” just say: “This is my pal Natalia.” Your friend is a person – not a categorized label. Feel free to ask your classmate about politics, but remember that there are many sides to the story and he/she is only expressing a personal opinion, not speaking for the entire nation.
- “That’s such an immigrant thing to do.”
For instance, if someone bows to express gratitude and you comment that it’s “such an immigrant thing to do,” that’s making fun of the person’s culture and is offensive. What is an “American” thing to do? If you’re curious about their traditions, ask them in a polite way.
Not everyone has a case of xenophobia – the dislike of someone or something that is perceived to be foreign or strange – but some people might unconsciously exhibit signs of it. Xenophobia can also display itself when a culture is stereotyped and exoticized. Be curious but patient, and ask questions at appropriate times and when you have time to discuss a topic more extensively with an international student.
It goes without saying that international students are valuable assets to our society intellectually and economically. In 2014 alone, international students contributed more than $27 billion dollars to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce (majority of international students receive funding from outside of the U.S.). Not only do international students bring economic benefits, but they also add cultural diversity to classrooms, help prepare American students for global careers, and build long-term business relationships.
Obviously accents and cultures are part of international students’ identities, but they shouldn’t define them and make them exotic or anthropological objects rather than human beings. Now that you’re all in school together, make it feel like home. Aside from international students being valuable assets, they’re also just humans who deserve respect and equal treatment. Everyone comes from different places in college, whether it’s Philadelphia or Ireland, and everyone needs a place to call home far away from home. And perhaps no one needs a home more than an international student, who can’t just simply drive a few hours to see the family.