Why do all the Chinese students sit together?

davidlivermore | March 14th, 2016 12 Comments

China 2

By David Livermore and Sandra Upton

A few years ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a fascinating book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She addressed the reality that African-American kids usually sit together in the school cafeteria and the same goes for Latinos, Asians, and other ethnicities. Tatum suggests this might not all be bad. It can be a coping strategy for students who may feel marginalized and misunderstood in the classroom and on campus as a whole.

As more schools and universities recruit and admit international students, this same phenomenon occurs. And given the record number of Chinese students studying overseas, it’s often most visible among them. Many universities are struggling with how to assimilate Chinese students with the rest of the student body. And it’s having a negative impact on their educational experience.

Nearly 40 percent of international students studying in the U.S. report having no close U.S. friends and wish for more meaningful interaction with those born in the United States. 47% of international students studying in Denmark report feel isolated from the Danish students. Similar realities exist elsewhere.

The growing number of students studying internationally presents a great opportunity for everyone. Universities tap a new population of prospective students, students gain the benefit of the diverse perspectives of classmates, and the reach of a faculty member and university goes much further. However, the rise of international students on campus presents universities with challenges like the following:

  • Many international students experience racist insults on social media and in person.
  • Events and programs targeting international students are seldom attended by domestic students.
  • Student orientation programs for international students inadvertently prevent assimilation.
  • International Students form cliques and fail to get involved.
  • Domestic students lack curiosity and empathy for their international classmates.

How to Assimilate International Students On Your Campus
No one has completely figured this out but there are a few leading practices that universities can use to improve the experience of international students while simultaneously helping other underrepresented students on campus.

  • Inclusive Teaching – The biggest influence on most students’ university experience is what occurs in the classroom. Faculty need to be equipped to create inclusive environments in how they select texts, handle non-native English speakers, encourage participation, and facilitate learning. Developing faculty’s cultural intelligence will improve their teaching and help students gain more from their diverse classmates. It can also have a lasting impact on student learning well beyond their university experience.
  • Integrate Multicultural and International Offices – Many institutions have seen the value of housing the offices of multicultural affairs and international student services in the same location. While domestic and international students have some distinct needs and expectations, both ultimately want to be integrated into campus and form friendships outside their race, ethnicity and nationalities. Working collaboratively increases opportunities for positive interactions among all students.
  • Make integration the responsibility of all students – Too often integration is seen as the disproportionate responsibility of the international student, instead of one mutually shared with the domestic student. If you’re the international student, you have a strong motivation to learn about the dominant culture. If you’re from the dominant culture, learning about underrepresented students might pique your curiosity but it’s rarely a matter of immediate survival. Students from the dominant culture need to see what they can learn from international and underepresented students living across the hall. Begin by helping all students see the benefit of building a global, diverse network that will enrich their university experience and provide them with a lasting professional network.
  • Cross-Cultural Engagements Outside the Classroom –Something powerful happens when students experience a different culture together outside the classroom—whether its volunteering in a diverse neighborhood nearby or traveling together overseas. These kinds of experiences help domestic students move beyond stereotyping all Chinese students as driving luxury cars and speaking in Mandarin and seeing them as peers who want friendship and a career.
  • Modeling the Way – Authentic and sustainable integration happens when there is active facilitation, support, and modeling by faculty, staff, and administration in both curricular and co-cur­ricular contexts. When students “see” campus leaders demonstrate their commitment to creating an inclusive culture, they are more likely to engage and even mimic their actions. Do students see faculty and staff of different cultural backgrounds engaging on a regular basis? Are they sitting together in the cafeteria? Or are they too working and relating separately?

While Chinese students represent the largest population of international students on most campuses, similar realities exist for many underrepresented students. When assimilated with a culturally intelligent strategy, the growing diversity on your campus not only expands enrollment, it provides your university with a built-in resource for providing your students with the experiences and skills to thrive in today’s global marketplace.

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