The native New Yorker who grew up in a Manhattan high-rise a block off Park Avenue. The lifelong Mumbaiker who shared a one-room apartment with five family members in India’s financial and movie industry hub. The homeschooled child of a conservative family in the heart of Texas. The only child of electronics factory workers in Shenzhen, one of China’s top manufacturing cities.
What chance would any of them ever have to meet, mingle and form lifelong friendships, if it weren’t for higher education?
Attending university is a life-altering experience that can be deeply enriched by sharing those critical four (or more) years with people from other cultures, be they different ways of life within your own country or international cultures. Interacting with people of different ethnicities, worldviews and points of origin can expand students’ perspectives, teach them tolerance and valuable skills for working with all kinds of people and elevate their understanding of their place in the global community.
Yet the differences that should enhance the college experience can become obstacles to personal and academic success — when they are viewed through the lens of stereotypes.
The true crossroads of the world
New York’s Times Square has long been called the “Crossroads of the World,” but university campuses around the world are the real focal points of multi-cultural interaction, and that’s especially true in the U.S.
Large universities draw students from across the country, and these domestic students can often be as diverse as international students. Within the melting pot of the U.S., myriad religions, ethnic traditions and heritages, political beliefs and family structures exist; college campuses are the nexus where they come together.
Meanwhile, nearly 1 million people from around the world came to the U.S. for education in 2015, according to the Institute of International Education. It’s the top destination for international study and accounts for a quarter of all the world’s international students.
“International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st-century education,” IIE’s president, Dr. Allan E. Goodman, said last year when the organization announced its Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. “Studying abroad is one of the best ways undergraduate and graduate students gain the international experience necessary to succeed in today’s global workforce. And studying in another country prepares students to be real contributors to working across borders to address key issues in the world we share.”
People from virtually every continent attend college in the United States. While some are from westernized cultures that align closely with America, many originate from places in the world where customs are vastly different from the American way of life.
The impact of stereotypes
When students enter college with inaccurate preconceptions about others — whether those beliefs are based on religion, political affiliation or point of origin — they may struggle to integrate with the greater college community. The stereotypes they harbor and those leveled against them can make students’ educational experience less satisfying and productive if they don’t find solutions.
Native Texan Ashleigh Cue, a digital marketing specialist for eShipGlobal, personally experienced the effects of stereotyping when she began attending the University of Texas in Dallas. Because she’d been homeschooled, other domestic students made assumptions about her.
“No one could believe it,” she recalls. “They assumed that my homeschooling and conservative background would mean I’d be socially inept, lag academically and walk around wearing long skirts and big sweaters!”
Likewise, she saw international students face stereotyping. “People expected the international students would keep to their customs and not interact with other students, but that wasn’t the case,” she says. “They honored their culture’s customs, but they were also outgoing and interested in assimilating into the college culture.”
Stereotypes that remain unaddressed can create feelings of anger, frustration, loneliness and isolation for international students. Preconceived perceptions can create conflict in college communities. Negative emotion can stifle academic achievement for international and domestic students, and even induce international students to drop out before completing their degrees.
For example, a 2013 study, reported in the South China Morning Post, found one in four Chinese students who attended an Ivy League school in the U.S. dropped out. Among those who did complete their degrees in the U.S., most returned home after graduation.
Stereotypes and prejudice can also hinder the personal and emotional development of students. Researchers at the University of Ohio and Bowling Green University found a correlation between intellectual development and tolerance levels. After testing undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in four-year public universities in the Midwest, the researchers concluded: “higher levels of prejudice are more likely to be found in individuals who evidence lower levels of intellectual development.” Conversely, “scoring above the mean on tolerance was associated with reasoning at or above a quasi-reflective level.”
Common campus stereotypes
A stereotype is a fixed belief that generalizes and over-simplifies traits and characteristics of a particular group or class of people. Humans stereotype in an effort to simplify their worlds. If you can categorize all members of a group based on a specific set of preconceived beliefs, it becomes less necessary to alter your worldview when confronted by the reality of individual members of the stereotyped group.
College campuses are complex places, and it’s easy to understand why they can be hotbeds of stereotyping. Students dealing with the stresses and challenges of academic pursuits may seek comfort and emotional security in stereotypes that allow them to think less about cultural differences.
Of course, one obstacle to overcoming a stereotype is ignorance, whether it’s a lack of awareness that something you believe to be true is, in fact, a preconceived notion, or being oblivious that you are the subject of a stereotype.
Common (and sometimes awful) stereotypes about international students include:
- They are all seeking permanent residency status in the U.S.
- Asian students excel in math courses (and thereby blow the curve for their under-performing domestic peers).
- International students are less concerned with personal hygiene than American students.
- Students from Muslim countries are all terrorists, or at least anti-American.
- International students are socially awkward.
- All international students of both sexes greet everyone by kissing them on the cheeks.
- All international students are terrible/great at speaking English.
International students also hold stereotyped beliefs about Americans, including:
- They are all fat.
- Conversely, everyone in America is really healthy.
- Americans are all friendly.
- All Americans hate foreigners.
- Americans all go to the gym to be very muscular.
- All Americans look like Hollywood movie stars, live in big mansions and drive expensive cars.
- American students just want to drink and have fun.
- Americans are loud.
And of course, domestic students may have a range of preconceived beliefs about each other, based on differentiating factors like race, socioeconomic status, the state of origin, political affiliation and more.
You probably don’t need scholarly research to understand how and why cultural separation occurs on college campuses. Social interaction in a university setting can be layered, complex and challenging even when students originate from the same basic socio-economic background within a country. Factor in cultural differences, unfamiliar customs, and language barriers, and a separation can organically evolve between domestic and international students.
Stereotypes are a defense mechanism that allows both international and domestic students to “justify” this separation. Across the country, university and college administrators, faculty and staff recognize the negative effect of stereotype-supported cultural separation and take steps to foster greater interaction among domestic and international students. Greater interaction with people of different cultures can deepen acceptance of, comfort with and appreciation for that culture.
“Because stereotypes are based on what people think they know about you, the best way to overcome a stereotype is to show people who you really are,” Cue says. “Ask questions about other people and their cultures, and answer their questions about yours. The best way to break those wrong ideas is to be and express who you really are.”
While international student services professionals primarily focus their efforts on supporting international students, domestic students can also benefit from the influence these critical professionals have on campuses. University ISS professionals work to foster an environment in which students can overcome stereotypes. Their efforts include initiatives such as:
- Being aware of current campus stereotypes and how they may influence international students.
- Creating opportunities for international and domestic students to interact socially and academically.
- Aiding international students in setting realistic expectations for university life and social interactions.
- Helping international students acclimate to the campus environment.
- Connecting international students with language support services that will help improve English communication skills.
- Providing programs and facilities that allow international students to interact with each other in a stress-free, positive environment.
International growth, campus enrichment
More international students than ever before are coming to America for education, and all signs point to that growth continuing into the future. Virtually every state in the country hosts a significant population of international students, with New York, California and Texas having the most, according to the Open Doors report. In about 14 states, international students represent 5 percent or more of the total number of university and college students.
International students are studying STEM subjects, business and management, social sciences, fine and applied arts, and more. Their gender ratio of male to female is almost equal. International students not only comprise an important segment of the overall student population, they contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy every year. The majority (more than 72 percent) are not receiving financial aid from the U.S. Nearly half of U.S. colleges and universities hosting international students have pathway programs to help international students achieve employment and permanent residency in the U.S.
University and college campuses have long been true cultural melting pots of the United States. The efforts of ISS professionals help ensure everyone — domestic students, international ones, and the global community — reap the maximum benefits of multi-cultural interactions on college campuses.
By: Evelyn Pimplaskar