When Abigail Smith was at an undergraduate at Randolph College, in Virginia, she was sometimes the only Black student in her courses, and her classmates would turn to her for the African American perspective. But Smith is Jamaican, and she felt put on the spot, asked to represent a culture that wasn’t her own.
Eventually, Abigail gained the language to talk about race and racial identity through studying sociology. But she never got that sort of diversity education in her international orientation or through other programming aimed specificially at students from overseas.
Her experience isn’t uncommon, as I write
in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Few colleges offer diversity programming that accounts for the differences in foreign students’ backgrounds or experience with race, even as the number of international students on U.S. campuses has increased over the past decade.
But with the Black Lives Matter protests shining a spotlight, nationally and globally, on America’s struggles with race, that could change. Nearly 500 of you tuned in for a latitude(s) coffee hour
on how colleges can do a better job talking with international students about race and racial identity. I was joined Ivonne M. Garcia,
chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at The College of Wooster; Kwame Gayle,
a graduate student at Worcester State University who came to the U.S. from Jamaica; and May Lopez,
a graduate student at Michigan State University who’s from Ecuador.
Here are a few takeaways from our conversation:
Colleges should provide safe spaces for international students to talk about race so that they can ask questions they might be embarrassed to pose. “I’ve come to think of learning about being anti-racist the same way I think about learning a language,” May said. “I’m never going to be perfect at it, I’m going to continue to be corrected, and I’m going to keep trying.”
Don’t assume international students have no concept of race or have never experienced discrimination. What they may be lacking is the American context. Ivonne recommended drawing connections between their home countries and the U.S., talking, for example, about colorism or other potential forms of bias in their native cultures.
Colleges can do more to help international students build relations with American students of color. Instead, a lot of programming reinforces international students’ “bubble.” “I found affinity with international students but could have found affinity with other Black students,” Kwame said. May praised an informal lunch that Beloit College, where she earned her undergraduate degree, organized between new international students and those from TRIO programs, which serve low-income, first-generation, and minority students.
Connect with the broader community. Volunteering in the local community and working for a summer with Upward Bound helped expose May to new perspectives. Kwame said he wanted to understand the racial history not just of the U.S. but of St. Paul, home to Macalester College, where he got his bachelor’s degree.
It’s not solely the job of the international office to talk with international students about race.
Colleges can take advantage of their institutional expertise — Kwame suggested inviting an American studies professor to talk about U.S. race relations during international-student orientation. Diversity education should be woven through the learning experience, not a one-off at orientation, the panelists agreed. Why not have students listen to the 1619 Project podcast
, the New York Times’ look at America’s legacy of slavery, for English-comprehension practice, May said. Wooster has rethought its curriculum
, requiring all students to take courses in categories that include global engagement and diversity, power, and privilege.
One thing that came through in the lively exchange between participants in the chat: People are hungry for information and guidance to take back to their own campuses. Here are a few resources, from my reporting and recommended by other international educators:
Intercultural Praxis Model: This model uses critical reflection and discussion to help students understand other cultures, engage in difficult dialogues around cultural difference, and become empowered to use communication to advocate for social justice.
Letters for Black Lives: Begun as an intergenerational dialogue between young Asian Americans and Canadians and their older relatives on anti-Blackness, the open letter has since been translated into multiple languages and the conversation on racial justice has been expanded to additional communities.
Intergroup Dialogue: Started at the University of Michigan, the program focuses on students’ learning about social group identity, social inequality, and intergroup relations and trains them to serve as peer facilitators to further conversations on social justice issues.
Mills International Center: The University of Oregon center has transformed its intercultural work by incorporating social-justice education.
This list is just a starting point — please add to it with your suggestions. Send them to me at email@example.com
Likewise, both the Chronicle article and the webchat are a first take on a complex topic. I’m thinking about other ways to continue my reporting, from diving deep into particular pedagogical strategies to examining the different ways certain groups of international students think about race. Let me know what would be the most useful and the most interesting to you.