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Letter: Try welcoming international students, not shaming them

On February 28, 2018, all masters students in Duke Biostatistics received an email from their director of graduate studies, Dr. Megan Neely. In her message, Dr. Neely singled out international students and expressed disapproval on behalf of “many” Duke Biostatistics faculty regarding their practice of conversing in their native languages while on break. Faculty, she claimed, viewed students who chose not to speak English during private interactions as unprofessional and as not taking their academic experience seriously.

On January 25th, 2019, Dr. Neely sent a second email, again explicitly requesting that enrolled international students speak English “100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

I acknowledge that Dr. Neely may merely have been a messenger, conveying this policy on behalf of the department’s leadership at large. However, the attitudes conveyed show clear insensitivity towards the international students to which they are addressed.

I strongly suggest that the Biostatistics department, as well as other departments at Duke, first examine their own organizational culture to identify areas for potential improvement rather than dictate the behavior of students. If international students are primarily mingling together, doesn’t that suggest that they do not feel at home in their academic environment? Perhaps the department could do more to foster camaraderie between international and domestic students? Might faculty be perceived as unapproachable? Could reforms to the Biostatistics orientation process for incoming students be warranted?

In addition, this unfortunate interaction between faculty and the international student body arguably stems from a larger problem of attitudes singling out international students based on their national origin. The suggestion by Dr. Neely that faculty feel threatened when confronted by conversation that they cannot understand suggests that they are not willing to trust their international colleagues. It is also ironic for the Biostatistics faculty to suggest that they might decline to work with international students due to communication concerns when research studies have demonstrated strong biases in graduate admissions and other settings based solely on the ethnic origin of applicants’ family names. I would suggest that international students thus already confront ample bias within the academy without veiled threats of an exclusion policy from potential research opportunities.

Certainly, it is true that herculean efforts by international students to master English while in America will likely be rewarded within the academic and professional world. A long historical narrative of Western military, economic, and political primacy has ensured the maintenance of such a status quo. Given these established norms within the academy internationally, it is entirely reasonable to expect that professional and research communications take place using English. However, it is ultimately the choice of international students alone how they choose to confront this unfair reality outside of working hours.

Furthermore, the challenge of integrating into American academic culture need not be an individual one, left largely to the responsibility of the student themselves. The Duke Biostatistics department, as well as departments all across Duke, ought to be reminded of their own responsibility to provide help and mentorship to those enrolled within their programs. Rather than police behavior, I urge them to find greater compassion for their students and to incorporate constructive feedback and initiatives in their efforts to maximize the competitiveness of their programs’ graduates.

My proposed solution is not an easy one, and certainly asks more of overcommitted faculty than is required to compose an aggressively-worded email. However, being unable to do enough to welcome our students from abroad nevertheless represents an immeasurable improvement over making them feel actively unwelcome at Duke.

Seaver Wang is a 5th year Ph.D. student in the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences.


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