On September 25th, the Campus and Diversity Inclusion center (CDI) hosted the “Students You Didn’t Know Existed Mixer,” an event with the purpose of connecting domestic and international students. The name of the event points towards the notion that international students are unrecognized by many students at the university.
But in answering the question, “why are they unknown?” a problematic dilemma is presented to those seeking to improve diversity at the university. That is, the more tight-knit a community is, the more separated it seems to be from the rest of the university. How well can international students be integrated with the rest of the domestic students until it no longer becomes an issue of under-representation and ignorance?
In finding out the answer to this question, I talked to international students Himanshi Alahakoon and Marina Shirakata to get their perspective on this issue.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Himanshi Alahakoon (left in the image above) is a sophomore at the University of Redlands, double majoring in International Relations and Global Business and minoring in Public Policy. Coming from a family with a tradition of studying abroad, what attracted Alahakoon to Redlands has always been the relatively small classes and the close relationship between faculty and students that the university takes pride in.
Meanwhile, Marina Shirakata (right in the image above) is an exchange student from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan in her third year of studying American Studies. Although her home university offers many partnership programs across the world, Shirakata chose Redlands because she is interested in Latin American cultures, of which there is an abundance in Southern California. She often uses Californian immigration policies as a case study in her classes.
Despite numerous differences in the circumstances that brought each of them here, both Shirakata and Alahakoon can agree on one thing they like most about American culture: the people and their fearlessness. For Shirakata, it’s the way people aren’t afraid of expressing themselves and voicing their opinions in class, even if it means sometimes interrupting the professor.
This sense of self expression is also demonstrated through their choice of clothing, with many choosing to dress for comfort rather than following social rules. For example, tank tops—an appropriate attire for Californian weather—would be virtually non-existent in Japanese wardrobes due to its revealingness, according to Shirakata. Similarly, recounting the conservative traditions of where she came from, Alahakoon appreciates how people here are much more open to change, and push for changes themselves.
Shirakata is also impressed by the serious attitude American students seem to have towards studying. Staying in the library to study until midnight is a rare occurrence in Japan; students here generally seem to put in longer hours outside of class. She gives a possible reason for this phenomenon by describing differences in the two educational systems.
In Japan, your status is determined by the ranking of the university you attend, so high school students must study rigorously to get accepted to a high-ranking university. Once you are in, you are set and hence academics are much more relaxed. In fact, most university students in Japan seem to place a higher priority in working part-time jobs and participating in clubs than in studying. In contrast, American college students seem to be much more driven academically.
To fully embrace and be a part of this American culture, however, many challenges are presented to international students like Alahakoon and Shirakata. For Shirakata, language is the ultimate barrier. There are often terms and references to things that are understood by other students that are not in any common dictionary. Alahakoon faces a similar problem, as her accent gives away the fact that she’s not from around here. But for Alahakoon, having travelled frequently since she was young, being yourself is the key to adjusting to a different environment.
“You don’t have to change yourself to fit into a community. The people who like you will naturally gravitate towards you,” Alahakoon said.
As a new student, one of the most common questions when people get to know each other is “Where are you from?” For international students, responding to that question is never simple, especially if they come from a relatively small and lesser-known country. To Alahakoon, it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t know where her country is, but she finds it displeasing when someone blatantly makes inaccurate assumptions, such as claiming Sri Lanka is part of India. “So you’re basically Indian, right?”
But one bad apple does not necessarily spoil the bunch. Shirakata remarks on how students in Japanese Studies are often polite in asking her about her country, and some are even more knowledgeable than her on anime and manga (types of Japanese popular culture media).
And yet no matter how well international students know American culture, there is still a sense of disassociation from the rest of the students. In class, Shirakata notices how her professors tend to use “we” and “us Americans” to describe actions in American history. The underlying assumption that everyone in the class is American, while imprecise, is not statistically implausible. According to International Admissions Director Kenley Jones, only four percent of the total number of students in Redlands are international. At this revelation, Shirakata expresses her surprise at the small number, recalling the large number of Asian immigrants she’d noticed in California.
In contrast, Alahakoon says she recognizes how scattered international students are in Redlands and is not surprised by the number. Despite being an international student, she herself has more American friends than international friends.
When asked about their opinions on this statistic, some American students have a similar reaction to Alahakoon. Elaine Liu, a junior majoring in Biology, also anticipates it, stating that the majority of students in Redlands come from a common background.
Liu takes a guess at the reason why this is so: “Redlands is in the middle of nowhere [and] most international students would go to big cities. It’s amazing that people would come here at all […] I am glad there is an [international] community here.”
But this community can feel like “a separate part of campus,” according to Ridha Kapoor, another American student.
On the other hand, Drew Garbe, a senior double majoring in Public Policy and Religious Studies, says he is “a little surprised” at the number, expecting it to be “a little lower than ten (percent),” although he acknowledges that his frequent visits to CDI, where international community often holds meetings, gives the impression of it being larger. He also comments on the fact that many people he knows at the university come from its surrounding area, and agreed that lack of exposure to international backgrounds is a common occurrence.
Even in other institutions across the United States, the invisible barrier between international students and domestic students that separates the two is real and relentless. The myths of the wealthy, fashion-obsessed, STEM-major international student circulate the internet and become a staple stereotype for foreigners in the U.S. And yet there is an absence of a real acknowledgement of a population of international students at Redlands. This can either mean that Redlands international students have not had significant troubles integrating with their American peers, or that their troubles are simply not made known.
Photographs by Kyle Eaton.