American students need to better reach out to international students

There’s an episode of Modern Family that always sticks out to me. The character Gloria, the Latina wife of one of the characters, asks her son and husband, “Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?”

She’s frustrated, because everything that’s going on in her head can’t translate, so to her American family, it may as well not be there at all.

Last spring, I got a small glimpse of what Gloria was talking about while studying German abroad. Six-year-olds made fun of my accent, store clerks looked at me with sympathetic glances when I couldn’t find what I was looking for and couldn’t think of the word either, and I found myself telling a classmate, “I promise I’m not this dumb in English.”

Translating everything that you hear and that you say is exhausting work, and doing that alongside adjusting to cultural differences makes every day a challenge. And I was doing this work from a pretty cushy position. I am a Westerner, who was visiting Western countries, where almost everyone speaks English. The people there watch American movies, and follow American news. Had I wanted to, I could’ve gotten by with speaking no German at all, as I was only there for six months. 

The international students at Calvin don’t have these advantages. They study at Calvin, far from family, friends, and home, for the entirety of four years. Save for maybe a professor, hardly anyone speaks Mandarin, Twi, or Hindi, and despite globalization, the culture here is different. They can’t skirt by with their native language. All of the pressures that come with college are multiplied by a language you weren’t born into and culture you don’t call your own.

I’m writing this because there’s a usually unsaid sentiment among the American Calvin students that the international students isolate themselves, and as a result, there’s no point in getting to know them. This sentiment says it’s really the South American/African/Asian students’ faults that they aren’t more integrated into campus life.

But this narrative fails to show hospitality and empathy to what the international student experience is like. At the end of the day, when you’re sick of feeling dumb for an accent, it’s nice to be with people who you don’t have to tell, “Do you know how smart am I in my own language?”

Additionally, this sentiment assumes that American students are actually putting an effort into getting to know international students. I say this with egg on my face, because I’m guilty here too, but by and large, we aren’t even trying. This is our home turf, and we haven’t even put down a welcome mat.

So to international students: your ability to get a degree in a different language is a testament to your own intelligence and perseverance. Your hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.

And to American students: put the welcome mat down and try. You’d want it there if you were in their shoes.