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Citizen of the world

I am just coming to realize how small the world actually is. Less than one week after returning from my first trip to Europe, I had the pleasure of helping during international student orientation with International House. Before traveling, I didn’t realize how different cultures can be and how difficult it can be to adjust or even to return to your hotel when you don’t understand the public transportation or speak the language. Language barriers can make the simple task of purchasing a needed item difficult. This came up more than once in a two-week trip to Europe, which has languages and cultures similar to those in the United States. I can only imagine the difficulties in adjusting to culture in which I were a minority in terms of race, beliefs or values.

When a trip abroad lasts two to six (or more) years and includes adjusting to graduate or professional school as well, I would be surprised if acclimating weren’t intimidating. Dealing with classes, term papers and research deadlines is enough to make many domestic students re-think the decision to pursue a higher degree—even without the added pressures of communication issues and moving far from family and friends. For all that, immersing yourself in a new culture has to be a rich, wonderful and worthwhile experience. I am envious of those who have taken the leap. More than 1,100 graduate and professional students last year were international, representing a significant proportion of the approximately 6,000 of us.

There is so much to learn when abroad, from understanding the currency—How much am I REALLY paying for this necklace?—to becoming comfortable with new customary ways of greeting a friend—handshake? hug? one kiss? two kisses? We Americans don’t always consider how our behavior could confuse others. For example, before the I-House orientation, I never thought about how using the casual “How are you?” as a greeting without stopping for a reply might seem rude to others. I grew up encouraged to speak up and share my opinions, but to many people, speaking up without being asked can seem rude and intimidating. Americans tend to want to know about others, but many questions can come across as odd or even insulting. No one can learn all of cultural do’s and don’ts from around the world, but it certainly does pay to be aware of some of the more obvious, especially as the world grows ever smaller with improvements in transportation and communication.

There is much that domestic students can do to help their international colleagues feel comfortable. Most Americans are genuinely interested in learning about and helping others. Reaching out to international students is well worth the time it takes. Not only will you make a big difference for those students, but you have the opportunity to learn about people and places that will enrich your life simply through your knowledge of them. Find out about and attend the cultural events on campus. For Americans who have not traveled, the experience of being among the minority in terms of racial identity or language or culture can be quite educational.

These interactions, however, are a two-way street. International students should reach out to the students around them for help, mentoring and friendship. Know that speaking up in class or lab is not only acceptable but encouraged. Most domestic students are happy to help, and they too will benefit from the experience. After all, in nearly all professions today, we will need to work closely with people from around the world, and those without experience with other cultures will be at a disadvantage. Understand that questions that seem intrusive are almost certainly motivated by curiosity, not malice. Many students are willing to change behaviors that are offensive to others if they are made aware of them, so don’t be afraid to speak up when something bothers you. Finally, be willing to get involved in organizations at Duke. Students are expected to join in without invitations, so don’t wait.

International students enrich their own experiences and ours as domestic students when they attend graduate or professional school in the United States. Hopefully, whether international or domestic, you will take advantage of the opportunity you have to learn about the world right here at Duke.

Heather Dean is a graduate student in neurobiology. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

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