Give Thanks for Diversity

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This week marks the 15th anniversary of International Education Week. It is a time to celebrate international exchange, and promote cross-cultural understanding on a global scale. As more American students engage in study abroad trips, and foreign students continue seeking educational opportunities here in the U.S., our world is becoming more interconnected than ever before.

International Education Week

But while there are many exchanges happening all year round, one has to wonder: how deep do these exchanges run? Are students really developing a connection to the places in which they study, or are they simply going for the thrill and excitement of travelling and seeing a new place? After all, it is in our nature to be consumers. With all this in mind, are we really as connected to our world as we think we are?

“In America, they call anyone a friend; all you have to do is say hi. But that’s not real friendship. Back home, it takes time to get to know someone before they can be considered a friend.” This comment came from a student at San Francisco State University, who is originally from Moscow, Russia. In conversing with other international students at San Francisco State University, I learned that many of them share similar views to this student.

In American culture, we struggle to dig deeper and become active participants in society. We spend most of our time consumed in our own lives, and we forget to push past those self-absorbed walls to engage with the world around us. For those who are not as familiar with this culture, it can be difficult to break through and establish that first connection.

All together, for any individual entering a culture different from their own, it is difficult to jump in and form friendships. Though one crosses the border, the real borders lie in simple interactions crippled by linguistic and cultural differences.

In my time working at SF State with multilingual students (many of whom are international), I hear all about the difficulties these students face in making American friends. Some say, “I just don’t feel comfortable speaking English,” or, “I don’t know how to talk to Americans.” As someone who has studied abroad, I can understand that feeling of being a outsider in a culture you wish you could be a part of.

Study abroad in India

About three years ago, I went on a study abroad excursion to India, a country which I had dreamed of going to for some time. When I went, I had an amazing experience, as we travelled from Calcutta in the east, to Ladakh in the Himalayas up north, and ending in the center, in Delhi.

Studying abroad in India

I went prepared, with a solid year of learning Hindi, two in studying the culture, and several spent watching Bollywood & old Indian cinema. However, even with all that knowledge packed in my brain, I struggled to simply open my mouth and engage in mere conversation with the people. After all, how can anyone engage in an exchange if they have barely grasped the language? If they did not grow up speaking the language, knowing all of its nuances? If they don’t have that insider knowledge of the culture, norms, and practices existing in that society? Without this understanding, it can leave one feeling very isolated and lonely—unless, there are others just like them close by. Together, they can build a community based on mutual understanding.

This type of community is exactly what we started at SF State for international students.

Building global connections at SFSU

A few months ago, I, along with a student working in my office, started an organization on campus to help international students practice their English skills through conversation tables. Our mission is to foster a sense of belonging for these students, and provide them with the opportunity to engage with both domestic and international students in a safe, comfortable environment. At the end of October, we held our first meeting.

Eighteen students showed up in total, and they all came from different backgrounds: Chinese natives, American-born Mexicans, a Russian, a Brit, Saudi Arabian, African-American, and Malaysian. Together they shared their thoughts and experiences regarding the topic, Halloween, and in the process, learned things they did not know about one another’s culture. One student talked about the meaning of Dia de Los Muertos, “Day of the Dead,” as a part of her Mexican heritage, which is a celebration many of them had never heard of before and wanted to hear more about. The conversation continued in this lively fashion, before they moved on to playing the word game Taboo.

International students at SFSU conversing

In seeing these students come together, sharing and listening to each other, I discovered the true meaning of what it means to participate in an exchange. Going abroad is not just about saying you have travelled abroad. It’s about the experiences and interactions you have while you are there. It’s about the relationships you form, and thus, the bridges you build, thanks to those ties.

These are the exchanges we should encourage students to get involved in. I believe that it is in this fashion that we can truly cultivate global citizens who not only go abroad, but also actively facilitate and engage in cross-cultural exchanges through their everyday interactions. Because when we are able to come together and share our ideas, beliefs, and traditions with those who are different from us, we develop a global community founded in mutual trust and understanding.

I challenge us as to delve deeper, and dwell more on the meaning of exchange, so we can begin to form deeper relationships, get to know the places we travel to, and engage with the people who live there. It’s not enough to simply travel. We must learn to become active travellers, constantly seeking to learn about the other and participate in their world. From this pursuit, we grow as individuals and come to understand our own role in this world. International education has opened the doors for this to happen. All we have to do is keep on pushing through.

Giving thanks for diversity

 

 

 

Amanda Bent is the Cultural Awareness and Diversity Editor for Wandering Educators and works in in English Department as the Undergraduate Programs and Web Coordinator at San Francisco State University. She holds a BA in Anthropology and English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and is currently enrolled in the Masters in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at SFSU.

 

#StudyAbroadBecause

All photos courtesy and copyright Amanda Bent

 

 

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