27 May 2009

The International Nature of Graduate School

One of the things that I have always admired about academia is that it tends to be tremendously diverse. I can scarcely think of a single graduate program that isn't populated by an international cast. Except maybe mine. Oh, we are international, not terribly racially diverse, and somehow we have failed to integrate.

Our faculty is young. Since I came in 2003, we have hired 6 new faculty members. Every hire was to replace an retiring white botanist or ecologist. Aging, white, male botanist or ecologist. All but one of the new hires were straight out of college. Four women. Two men. All white. Despite the strides the department has made in bringing gender equity to the faculty, they have failed miserably to post any gains in racial diversity. All the faculty in our department are white. All are Americans save one Asian. Seven men. Four women. One male and one female emeritus faculty.

The graduate students are far more diverse. We have students from Korea, China, Senegal, Nepal, and Colombia. In the recent past, we had students from Panama, India, Argentina, and Ghana. I've met people from California, Utah, Tennessee, but mostly from the Midwest. We have one Hispanic American. Here's the thing. With one notable exception, all the international students hang with other international students. They may or may not be from the same country, but it appears that their common bond of being foreigners binds them greater than any desire to integrate. We have an extremely active international student union, so successful, in fact, that I feel I miss out on the potential that a diverse cohort offers.

There is a Chinese man in our department. His English is so good that at first, I thought he was Asian American. It floored me to learn that he only learned English 5 years before I met him. It totally caught me off guard when he spoke of how he hated being touched. He particularly hates having his head touched. Americans are rather touchy. When we sit around bitching about things that have happened to us, he invariable includes a story about someone touching him unexpectedly. A salesperson in a store. A graduate student who teasingly tussles his hair. He finds it terribly offensive. Just a little cultural difference that I have come to accept even if I don't understand it. The Chinese student is the only student I know that regularly invites the Americans to his house for parties. The rest of the international students only hang out with other international students.

I find that quite sad. Now, I've accepted that some of the straight-out-of-undergrad grad students (the very early 20-somethings) really don't want to hang out with me. I accept that. I hang with D-friend Bek and somewhat with D-friends Liv and Melissa. I understand the 2-year cycle and realize that students are going to cycle in and out and some cohorts are tighter than others. But I find other cultures incredibly interesting and I ask our international students a lot about their culture and their homes. People usually like to talk about themselves, especially the South Americans.

But I am sorry to say that the students I am most curious about are those from Africa. Several countries in Africa are on my bucket list. I would LOVE to talk to these students about their cultures and their homes. But more than any other students, the African students flat out will not socialize with the rest of us. They don't generally eat lunch with us. They don't go to the international parties. And I have wondered for some time whether this sort of elective segregation is part of their culture. I just don't know and it appears I won't find out.


  1. Or I guess there's also possibility d) There is something about the general cultures of their places of origin that is exclusionary; I see this as the least likely explanation, myself, but I'm looking at it all from afar.

  2. None of them appear open enough to talk about this with them?

    Ironically (in its juxtaposition), I was at the going-away party last night of a grad student's African boyfriend. J-friend BY had invited me, and observed that the party was the second most fun party she had gone to in grad school, after a previous party hosted by the same group of international students -- including Africans.

    As is my wont, I have three theories for you:
    a) It's there: perhaps the culture/atmosphere of C-dale, the uni, the town, or the US period feels unwelcoming to them, so they have become unwelcoming to it, to a (from your point of view) perhaps unnecessary or excessive degree.
    b) It's you. Not YOU you, per se, but perhaps, relatedly, it's rather something cultural akin to the Asian student's dislike of touching. The African students are responding to some unrevealed cultural offense/slight/discomfort more specific than the idea of general "unwelcomingness" in (a).
    c1) It's them. They're idiosyncratically unfriendly.
    c2) It's them. They're similar to BY's colleagues in her department, where she's found herself making friends predominantly with other white middle-class grad students. Talking yesterday night, I related to her how, in some experiences, I or an acquaintance of mine has been surrounded by international students, but only those representing, say, a country's elite, such that one of my friends felt like Brazilians were very unfriendly and snotty and libertarian, when in fact it was that all the Brazilians at the conference they were at were from the richest 1% of Brazilians, who own 80% of the resources in Brazil, and are quite different socially from the other social groups within the 99% of other Brazilians. Perhaps the students you're talking about are similar, in that we guessed two possible barriers in BY's case -- that the international students were unpleasant elites in general, or that they were unpleasant because she didn't share the same class perspective as she did with the other middle-class American whites (and a couple of other international students who were from more modest backgrounds abroad).

  3. No, they do not appear to be open enough to ask them. We had a girl from Senegal have a baby and we wanted to throw her a baby shower and she refused to participate. She had her baby. We never saw a picture. She graduated and not one person knew that she had moved back to Senegal. She never said goodbye. Hell, she had never said hello.

    We have another girl from Senegal and at least she says hello to me in the hallway. But still, I never see her outside of her lab or outside her office. She has never once stopped in someone else's office just to chat. I just don't get it.

  4. Well, of course, I know plenty of white people like that. People who separate "work friends" from "friend friends" -- and of course, those work friends that they feel share a background level of comfort are by default not "work friends" but "friend friends."

    It does sound a bit saddening -- but the first woman, from Senegal, sounds like an extreme case. But yeah, there are any number of reasons that they're keeping to themselves, and I wouldn't say it's something about Africa per se, or rather, it says something about a certain culture within certain Africans perhaps, but I've known many incredibly friendly, welcoming, and outgoing Africans -- as well as some painfully shy ones who wouldn't invite people out with them because they were intimidated -- so I still tend to think it's somewhat idiosyncratic. Perhaps the self-selection of Africans who choose to go to C-dale maps onto a group of anti-social Africans?