Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
When I became a college counselor to international students about two years ago, I was excited. I, a former international student that attended college in America, could help others do the same! I planned seminars about culture shock, adjusting to a foreign country, and what college can be like for a Third Culture Kid or “transnational youth” (Tanu 2018). I wanted to help prepare them for the day-to-day experiences of being an international college student.
In reality, however, my students have so many other logistical hurdles to jump over that the social or qualitative preparations fall onto the back burner. I spend a lot of time convincing students to drop their humble habits and brag about their accomplishments in order for their Personal Statements to stand out. I advise them on when to schedule their standardized tests, especially the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), to maximize their scores. In other words, I help these students figure out how to conform to college guidelines that were set without consideration of diversity, equity, or inclusion.
Once an international student is finally admitted to an American university, s/he starts first-year orientation a week before domestic students. The idea is to help students adjust to jet lag, become familiar with the environment, open a local bank account, and take care of other logistical tasks. I remember mine being a whirlwind.
I first landed in America at age 17 for college. In that first week of orientation, I met my cohort of students from Singapore, South Africa, Malaysia, and Tanzania. Despite our differences in nationalities and upbringing, we bonded because we had all left our home country to come to a place that supposedly had the best education in the world.
And then, our second week of orientation started. International students were evenly distributed into larger groups of domestic students that had newly arrived. Orientation Leaders (OL) went around the group so students could introduce themselves. It went something like this:
OL: What’s your name? Where are you from?
Student #1: I’m Amy from New Jersey.
Student #2: Adam from Manhattan.
Student #3: My name is Rachel from Framingham.
Me: My name is Na-Young. I’m Korean. I grew up mostly in Thailand.
OL: How do you pronounce your name?
Me: Nah-Young. Like Neil-Young.
Student #2: Did you ride elephants to school?
Student #1: No, Adam, she’s from Taiwan. They don’t have elephants in Taiwan.
Do I correct Adam or Amy? Would that make me seem snobby? How would that action affect how these people view international students? Did Rachel or the orientation leader not hear my answer accurately either?
I honestly don’t remember how I reacted. At the time, it was more important for me to fit into this new environment. Correcting people about my identity or reflecting on how I could stop perpetuating that bias was not a priority.
I realize there are multiple layers of inequities here. But my main question is: why is the burden of being “oriented” on international students? International students are brought into tertiary education systems to diversify them; colleges should accordingly take responsibility and provide a supportive environment for the students.
Universities should create an environment where every student feels safe enough to be themselves. What if domestic students arrived as early as international students and attended a parallel orientation that includes implicit bias training? What if they attended self-reflection workshops about what it means to have grown up on stolen land? Helping domestic students reflect on their privileges would trickle out to create allies for the international students. This way, the marginalized population on foreign land would not have to do ALL of the work. International and domestic students would orient towards each other.
Nayoung Weaver is a College Counselor and AP Math teacher at an international school in China. As a “Third Culture Kid (TCK),” she is raising her second-generation TCKs while working to make mathematics education global, equitable, and inclusive to diverse learners. Find her on LinkedIn: nayoung-weaver-414762147
Tanu, D. (2018). Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School. Berghahn Books.