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Are Foreign Students Stereotyped by American Classmates?

This week, the Question of the Week was about tolerance and prejudice on campus. How do Americans react to international students and the diversity that they bring?

I asked our bloggers to reflect on their experiences, and to discuss any negative incidents they may have had with stereotyping or prejudice. But (happily!) they all had nothing but positive things to say about how they've been received by Americans.

The question was inspired by a message I received from a Muslim student, and we'll look more in depth at what life is like for Muslim students in upcoming posts.

Senzeni Mpofu
Prior to my departure from Zimbabwe, I had braced myself for the worst type of racism one can ever experience. The tales of woe that some returning students shared fueled my fears: One student confessed that no one wanted to share a seat with her on the bus simply because she was black. Another told me about her biology professor, an openly racist man who would laud praise on her white research partner for an experiment that they had done together. The list goes on, with each story more mortifying than the last.

I had expected America to be a place where I had to stand up and speak up in defense of my values and principles but I found myself standing tall effortlessly– proud of who I am and of my origin. I thought people would stare at me incredulously when I told them that I was from Zimbabwe. Instead, the common response was “Awesome!” Of course there were some variants, such as, “Well, I’m from Hartford. That’s only forty minutes from here. Kinda boring, I know.” I had been geared up to fight for a place in this new society only to have it handed to me on a platter.

America is a land of immigrants and their descendants who know how it feels like to be in a foreign country and are ever so willing to help every new member of the society ease the transition in America.

- From her post, "Blessed is he Who Expects Nothing"

Nareg Seferian

Studying at a small, liberal arts college, I find that most, if not all, students, faculty, and staff are very welcoming and accommodating. Also, again due to the size, the international students or other minorities have a hard time isolating themselves, so their interactions with the rest of the community are not limited.

St. John's College has seen an upsurge in diversity lately, and that has certainly raised some questions, both on the technical and logistical side, but also on what such a shift might mean more generally. Does the dining service of the college cater to various dietary restrictions? How does one handle discussing philosophy with a fellow student for whom English is a second or third language, or who has a strong accent? The discussion is ongoing, but I don't have any doubts that everyone considers that a broader range of opinions and experiences can only enrich our classes and extra-curricular activities.

I am happy to say that outright discrimination or prejudice have never been a problem for me. What I have noted most of all is plain ignorance, simply a lack of information on other cultures, religions, and traditions, a gap which I am always more than happy to close when it comes to things pertaining to Armenians. The unfamiliarity with the foreign is understandbale; it would be much more discouraging to see my fellow students not care at all about their colleagues.

Jamal Janybek
In my college in the U.S., and in towns where I go, people ask where I come from. When I say that I am from Kyrgyzstan, many people laugh and think I made up such a country, or that the name is misspelled. I know it may sound funny, but this is true!

I really did not expect that Americans would react this way. Nor did I expect that so very few people here would have heard of my country.

I arrived in America very recently, and I sometimes feel that to a certain extent where I come from defines who I am in some peoples’ eyes. But, as I get better adjusted and used to America, I start interacting normally with people once we get past the part where I say where I’m from.

I found that people wanted to know about Kyrgyzstan’s geography and culture, and in particular, people were curious if Kyrgyz culture is similar to Europe’s, or to the Asian culture instead. So, from this meeting I learned that people are really interested in meeting other people from different parts of the world, especially from not well-known countries.

As I am living outside of my country for the first time, I never thought before that I would take such a role of a “cultural ambassador.” I feel now that I can be a useful and important bridge to other people who are interested to learn more about my country and my region. There are some people who would like to know more about that part of the world for various reasons – doing international business, tourism, cultural exchanges, etc.

- From her post, "Be Proud of Your Country"

Farima Afaq

I have lived in Afghanistan, a Muslim country, and have grown up there. Before I came to the US, I knew that the culture might be very different. After living in the US, I have found that there is a big diversity in the US, and people live in the US representing different backgrounds.

I have made friends who have always been interested in learning about Islam and the Islamic culture and customs. I have definitely enjoyed teaching them about my religion or informing them about some of the things that aren’t true about my culture or Islam.

Despite the fact that I have met many friendly people, I have also met people who had never met Muslims and only heard about them. So, the only thing they knew about Muslims is that they are terrorists, and I don’t blame them since they never learned about real Islam and real Muslims. That is why learning about different religions and understanding them is very important.
I have been the only Muslim girl to wear a hijab (head scarf) at Kent School, which makes me different from every other student. Therefore, my friends, the faculty members, and the school staff have asked me the reason for wearing it, and I have always appreciated their curiosity and have been happy to answer their questions. When I was asked if I would like to chant from the Holy Quran in the chapel, I was honored to represent the Muslim faith.

- From her post, "Being Afghan and Muslim at a US High School"

Do you think Americans have stereotypes about people from your country? If you're an international student, has your experience been similar to those of our bloggers?