Bridging cultural divides

When I think of Northwestern’s social setting, I think of the cafeteria scene from the classic movie Mean Girls. “Here, you’vLauren Placee got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, Varsity jocks…”
This sort of social polarization is all too common across U.S. high schools, but I was shocked to see the distinct divide between international students at Northwestern, especially amongst their specific localities.
Graduating from an international boarding school with 80+ nations represented, I was drawn to Northwestern partially for the high international student population. Forming friendships and learning people’s perspectives from vastly different cultures, nations, and socioeconomic statuses than mine was a challenging, yet invaluable experience.
At Northwestern, however, I learned about exclusive cultural organizations and the distinctions between people from country X, and X-Americans (hyphenated-americans, as some call them). I formed fleeting friendships with students, who now exclusively spend time with others from their native country.
Disheartened with this disconnect, I voiced my experience to my parents and learned that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Northwestern University. My second cousins, of Korean nationality, returned to Seoul with their American Bachelor’s degrees and worse English than they had before. Their mother was perplexed and furious, saying, how do you spend four years at a U.S. university and forget your English? Because their workload consisted mainly of quantitative subjects and they immersed themselves in a community of people who spoke their native language, English was really only necessary to complete a Chipotle order.
I became increasingly critical of the divide after hearing about this abysmal study abroad experience. Was it a fault in the university’s international student orientation? Could I create programming in the Northwestern International Student’s Association to help others branch out or assimilate? Maybe these programs could be improved, but my friend from Suzhou, China pointed out my American assumption that there is an obligation to branch out or assimilate in the first place.
In the end, my international high school experience proved to be very skewed. The application process filtered students based on dedication to intercultural interest and personal challenge. I had failed to recognize that not all international students on U.S. college campuses possess or prioritize these values.
Many are motivated to come here for the prestigious degree and career opportunities available post-graduation; more often than not, they pay a steeper price for their education, which only heightens the academic pressure. In addition, if they are planning on returning home to work or fail to secure a US work visa, it is smarter to form friendships with those from their home country. These friendships may be longer-lasting due to proximity, and also provide an incredible professional network.
There is also absolutely nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with people from your home country. It is wonderfully comforting to have a group where there is a familiar sense of humor, no lapses in lingual ability or unknown pop culture references.
On coming to Northwestern, freshman Pranav Dhingra remembers, “I wanted to have a totally different experience from back home, so I chose to have an American roommate rather than an Indian or Singaporean one.”
Still, at the end of his first year, he finds himself with many close friends from these regions.
“There’s a certain charm to them that I missed during fall quarter,” he said.
We as Americans should take a less critical view towards internationals. Instead of condemning them for being exclusive, we should seek to understand the challenges of studying in a foreign environment and the positives of forming friendships with people from a common culture or country.
Many of us are unconsciously guilty of the same exclusivity, having friends from one niche interest group. Your friend group is a very personal choice, and there should be no responsibility to venture outside of your comfort zone. Still, my personal philosophy is that the most meaningful friendships are formed with those who bring new, differing perspectives to your life. This following year, I hope to establish a more inclusive environment in Northwestern’s International Student Association and continue to strike up conversation with random strangers in dining halls.



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