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Guest column: Looking down on international students is patronizing

guest column

This column was written in response to “The cost of being an international student,” which was published on September 11, 2019.

Dear Felicia, 

As an international student at Duke, I appreciate your initiative to join the International Association and connect with those who share different life experiences from you. Although Duke is still within your 30-mile-radius around Cary, North Carolina, it is indeed an excellent place to explore different perspectives. Here, everyone has a chance to build relationships with fellow students from diverse backgrounds, and engage together in reflections about culture and identity. This is a remarkable learning experience with lots to be gained, but only if approached with the right attitude. Unfortunately, Felicia, your article came with deeply problematic underpinnings and gross misrepresentations of international students. 

You criticized the fact that Facebook leads people to “believe that all international students are stupidly rich.” Your article, on the other hand, portrays all international students as people who are fleeing from tragedy-stricken territories, desperately vying for an opportunity to reconstruct our pitifully broken lives in the United States of America, a wondrous land of opportunity and freedom. Both are miserably wrong. 

Citing a few examples of political conflict and natural disaster, you articulated your sympathy for international students and the difficulties some of us go through. I do not doubt that those stories are worth mentioning—they are valid struggles and genuine lived experiences of our peers. 

I do, however, question your selection of those particular stories to share. Was it because you believed those were common experiences amongst international students, or because those were easy sensational stories that align with your underlying view that international students are escaping persecution of some sort to seek hope in your country? 

A language of pathos and passivity runs throughout your article. International students are “forced to” pay for CPT writing classes, “screwed over” by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), “forced to” band together to petition, and risk being “kicked out” of the country. When you could have described the challenges international students face in many different ways, you chose a tone of victimisation. But we are not victims, we are not merely passive recipients of your country’s actions. The opportunity to pursue education at an intellectually rigorous environment like Duke is not an act of mercy extended to pairs of begging hands. We all worked hard to be here, and decided to come here out of our own volition, fully aware that there will be hurdles to overcome. In the face of obstacles such as OPT delays or visa complications, if you can offer only pity, then please respectfully stay in your lane. 

Before you feel proud about your attempt to speak up for international students, please recognize your own biases. Friendships with international students should not serve as a platform for domestic students to claim their privileges, as it risks implying that international students are “less privileged.”

The United States is not the best country in the world. Just as some of us grew up amidst geopolitical conflict which you can only read about, some of us grew up reading about school shootings and terrorist attacks that may very well have had a close impact on your life. Some of us are excited about building our future careers in the United States, others might rather live elsewhere. Some of us miss home dearly, others enjoy the independence of being several long-haul flights away from home. And these are not binaries—many of us are somewhere in between. 

Felicia, there are both pros and cons, and a wide array of subjective experiences for anyone living anywhere. I am glad you have grown to appreciate the “boredom” of North Carolina, but to me, an international student, your article is just at best an egocentric proclamation of how much perspective you think you have, and at worst an embarrassing revelation of how much perspective you do not have. 

Junette Yu is a Trinity senior. 

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