Author: Rebecca Eckart, GEd’13
Last week, Dr. Altamirano, Director of International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) at Penn, was a guest speaker in one of my classes at the Graduate School of Education (GSE). He spoke to my class about the services his office provides for international students, and how hard he has worked to make connections with offices throughout the university to make it easier to support international students.
In the discussion following his presentation, a classmate raised an interesting question. She noted that many international students often tend to socialize with others from their own country, and that American students also tend to socialize with other Americans.
My class tried to understand why this is the case. We talked about a number of potential factors: lack of confidence in language ability, hesitancy to step out of comfort zones, and possible misunderstandings about gestures or customs of unfamiliar cultures. We also discussed how difficult it can be to speak with a person of another culture as an individual, rather than as a representative. When we meet someone from another country, we’re interested in the customs and culture of their homeland, so we ask about those things. But it’s important to keep in mind that people are individuals, and to make a relationship with someone, we need to be interested in that person’s life and interests, not just his or her culture.
Dr. Altamirano encouraged all of us to take time to speak with international students, invite them out for a cup of coffee, and make a genuine effort to get to know them. I completely agree with him. I lived in Japan for five years, so I felt that I could understand well some of the things we talked about. There were other Americans who lived near me, and it was much easier to spend time with them than to try to make Japanese friends. Initially, I was uncomfortable with Japanese and there were so many customs that I didn’t understand. But eventually I did make some Japanese friends, because people reached out to me. They invited me to participate in community events, attend festivals, stay at their house, or go out to try a new food. Because so many people were welcoming and friendly to me, I gained a perspective on a culture that was totally foreign to me.
Now that I’m back in the States, I feel the need to reach out to international students, to try to give back some of the kindness that was extended to me. Penn is a great place to do that. Penn has a large international student population—in the Graduate School of Education, about 29% of the student body. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with international students at Penn, through language chats, volunteering as a language exchange partner with English Language Programs, and other avenues that I haven’t yet explored, but hope to. But the best way, I think, is just to reach out as an individual, and strike up a conversation with someone you see in class, your dorm, or at a social event.
In closing, I’d just like to encourage you to take a chance and start talking with international students you don’t know well, even if you’re worried about a possible language barrier. As Dr. Altamirano told my class, there is a lot we can learn from international students if we take the time to get to know them, and international students will be glad to feel included. For those of you who are still students at Penn, take advantage of all the opportunities here to engage with international students!