Admit it, you’re secretly dying to know what other people think of you – what they say behind your back that they would never say to your face. Do they really like you, or are they just being nice?
After some of our international student friends told us they’d love to know what their American classmates really think about them, we devised a way to find out – an anonymous survey.
Over 50 American students responded to our online questionnaire, sharing their most honest thoughts about international students. Not to let the Americans off the hook, we also gave the survey to over 50 international students, and we’ll be discussing the responses in a series of posts all this week.
So, what did they have to say?
Let’s start by “ripping the Band-Aid off” (getting something painful done quickly). Here’s the worst comment we heard: “They smell bad and don’t speak English,” said an American student at North Dakota State University. “They are annoying.”
Take a deep breath. Are you still here? Are you okay?
We also heard a lot of really positive things, like this comment from Noa* at Oberlin College, who said, “I think the international students on my campus are really interesting and wonderful people and a lot of times I feel that they are more grounded and well-rounded than American students.”
Or this one from Jacob at Washington and Lee University, “International students add so much more to a college campus. They have experiences that you could not possibly have, and make some of the best friends. The negatives are negligible.”
As is often the case, the reality of how Americans feel about international students is somewhere in between these two extremes.
Relating is easy, except when it isn’t
Both our American and international student survey takers were split nearly in half over how well they relate to the other group. Exactly 50% of international students said they relate to Americans as well as or better than they do other international students. 60% of the Americans who took our survey said they relate to international students as well as or better than other Americans.
Among those 40% of Americans who said they sometimes struggle to relate to international students, many cited cultural differences as a primary reason.
“I sometimes do not share the same values or norms as international students do, nor the same culture,” said Christine from Texas A&M University. “It is sometimes hard to bridge over these differences if both parties are not committed to engaging in dialogue.”
» See all the comments we received from American students
Others noted that a lack of English skills can be an obstacle to getting to know their international classmates. One American student at North Dakota State University even said that they get scared to approach international students because of the language barrier.
“I think that I get nervous to say something wrong,” said this student, or “if they have a thick accent that I will offend someone by asking them to repeat what they said more than once.”
(It’s a fear that’s not totally unfounded. One Oberlin international student said Americans “can be condescending and patronizingly pitiful towards international students (even though they may mean well), and sometimes offensive.”)
And both groups sometimes feel that the other isn’t putting in the effort to bridge the gap.
“At my school, international students stick together,” said Laura at the University of Central Oklahoma. “There’s always a group of two or more in my classes and they rarely try to talk to us, so we sort of just leave them alone. It’s like they don’t want to make friends with us.”
“When they’re in their own country and there’s a minority outsider who they’ll have to put particular effort into getting to know, I think most of them just don’t bother,” said one international student of American classmates at Oberlin College.
» In part 2 of this series, we take a deeper look at who’s failing whom when it comes to bridging this gap
Are international students just a curiosity?
Despite the challenges, the majority of American students who took our survey – 55% – said they’d like to have more international students on their campus. Only 10% said they wouldn’t want more international students at their school, and some of those explained that their campus already has a large international student population.
35% responded that they didn’t care either way.
One international student in our survey worried that some Americans might only say they like having international students on campus because they are “being just politically correct,” while another said that Americans only like international students because they are “exotic.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. When asked why they want more international students on campus, many of the Americans in our study used the word “diversity” (9 respondents, to be exact).
But for many this interest in diversity seems more than superficial – they also talked at length about the opportunity to learn about other cultures and other parts of the world.
“I like to learn about who people are and what their different stories are,” said one Oberlin student. “Almost always I learn something new about not only their personal life but how their life at home contrasts with their life in America.”
“I make an effort to get to know them because I think all of their international backgrounds and cultures are so fascinating and I would be truly blessed to get to experience a small sense of their life through what they tell me,” said a North Dakota State University student.
“I get tired of seeing the world from [an] American perspective all the time,” said one student at Marymount University. “The international students show me their perspective of my country.”
And if the cultural education is a major reason why Americans like having international students on campus, it may be a much-needed and much-valued reason.
The international students in our survey who said they had difficulty relating to Americans said it’s because Americans “live in [a] different world altogether.” They have been raised in “the ‘American Bubble,’” as one College of Wooster student called it.
The truth of the matter is that there is no single way in which Americans view international students. Some are particularly eager and open to meeting their international classmates, while others are perfectly happy to stay with the friends they find easy and familiar (and the same goes for international students, by the way).
In fact, the most honest opinion we heard might have been this one, from an American student at Princeton University:
“I’m too busy to go out of my way to try and make friends with people of specific demographics. I’m friends with whomever comes across my path.”
*Some students gave us permission to use their first names in this article
Read the rest of this series:
Part 2: Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?
Part 3: Americans are Self-Centered but Friendly
Raw comments: 60+ Opinions from American Students About Their International Classmates