Why Must International Students Assimilate?

I remember flying into Cleveland from Mumbai two years ago, excited at how drastically my life was about to change and how lucky I was to be able to live my dreams. Three months into my stay at Oberlin, as my giddy excitement began to wane, I realized that while most of my identities were accepted and celebrated, being international was not one of them. I use the word “international” for anyone who has spent most of their life outside of the U.S., irrespective of their passport status.

Like plenty of international students, I remember fumbling my way through my first year, balancing being a college student for the first time, finding my identity in a whole other country, and rapidly adapting to a new culture. When I would bring up that international students have different needs from domestic students — like adapting to the language, navigating social dynamics, and coping in a place without any resemblance to what we have grown up experiencing — I would often hear, “I don’t see any difference.” I wonder how that is possible when so many international students go through experiences like mine. 

When I introduce myself to people, I often receive a “You don’t expect me to say that, right?” in reference to my name. When I went with my friends to Walmart and struggled in the self-checkout counter — having been to Walmart no more than five times in my entire life — my friends were impatient and uncomfortable, slowly skirting away from me. When I sit in conversations laden with American-centric references, I reach a point where tuning out the conversation is easier than asking for the 10th time, “What does that mean?” I’ve even walked into my professor’s office hours and introduced myself, only to have them ask, “Do you have a shorter name?” 

Sometimes I think I’m merely the diversity token friend for white people to check off of their “holier than thou” checklist, embarrassed during moments when I’m still learning what’s apparently so obvious in American society. Clearly, I have learned to do things differently most of my life. How can you embrace differences when you choose to ignore them? 

As a foreigner here, I am eager to learn aspects of this new culture, but I refuse to do that at the cost of my identity. Two years ago, it was not easy to brush away subtle acts of “othering,” such as exclusively conversing in American references — on cinema, music, politics, sports, etc. — or mocking me for not doing things the “right” way, not realizing that what happens in this country is just a way, not the way, of doing things. I am a third-year now, and not one thing has changed. 

I didn’t just come here to be a tourist. I applied and was accepted into Oberlin College with the promise of not just being able to pursue my learning and educational goals, but doing so in an environment that accepts me for who I am and celebrates what I and students like me bring to campus. 

When international students first arrive on campus, we are invited to an orientation to be more “American,” covering topics like tipping culture, politeness, double-meanings, and whatnot. While I appreciate the intention to make us feel more comfortable, I’m perplexed by the lack of an analogous orientation for domestic students on how to treat students from a different country. While I’m here to adapt, there is a delicate balance between adaptation and assimilation.

 A few months ago, I channeled my disappointment into fueling change, meeting with various departments on campus like the Multicultural Resource Center, the International Dean of Students, and English for Speakers of Other Languages, and planting the seeds of a domestic student orientation. I instigated conversations with students, faculty, and staff on campus and developed concrete plans to kickstart what I tentatively called the “culture cohesion program.” I received plenty of nods and hands-off “support,” but at the end of the day, I found myself alone, burned out, and in the dark. It was exhausting to simultaneously unpack my own traumatic experiences while constantly explaining and justifying the inception of this idea to others. It didn’t take me long to realize that one person cannot change the world; it takes a village and then some.

When we call ourselves “Obies,” the term implies symbiosis, a mutually beneficial relationship. This symbiosis allows us to go beyond facts and theories learned from books to uncover lived emotional experiences from real people. Why is it that international students are the only ones expected to go all in? Why don’t you meet us in the middle? Are we not as much Obies as those who grew up in the United States? International students are not just a number to flaunt on admissions websites or diversity tokens to spice things up. Whether it is me from India or my friends from Chile, Zimbabwe, China, Australia, Afghanistan, Japan, or Mauritius, we bring diverse perspectives and add value to an Americentric learning environment.

In the time I’ve spent here, Oberlin has truly come to feel like home. Because of that, I think it’s worth addressing not just what works well at Oberlin — for that, feel free read my Oberlin blog — but also what we need to change. At Oberlin, many people genuinely care and don’t shy away from plenty of hard conversations, yet the conversation surrounding international students’ needs is often neglected.

For now, I have put my project on hold as I seek more support from student leaders. But there are still things we can do in the meantime. First, we need to have more conversations about diverse cultures on campus — if we don’t talk about it, how will anyone learn? Let’s create an atmosphere where people are unafraid to ask questions and learn about culture. Another low-stakes way of extending empathy to international students is to ask questions to better understand someone’s experiences and culture — and actually listening to their answers. The key here is open-minded curiosity, including your peers in conversations laden with American references by explaining the whole deal — conversations are much better when everyone feels heard. Don’t be afraid to kindly ask that burning question. While you could have Googled it or heard it from someone with a similar background, we all have unique experiences, and most of us would leap at the opportunity to share a portion of our lives before living in the United States.

If you have read this far, I need support from fellow Obies, faculty, staff, community members and alumni like you. You don’t have to have experienced the same things as me or other international students to be the ally we so badly need. If you see me around campus, know that I am always down to find some time to have a conversation about this. If you are not here at Oberlin and care about this, please feel free to reach out to me via email at [email protected]