Students should not segregate when visiting foreign lands

Around campus there is a disturbing trend that is also occurring across the world. While I am pleased with the student body’s diversity and the number of international students, I am disappointed with foreign students’ lack of integration. It reminds me of the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Before you get your feathers ruffled, hear me out and allow me to share my background and explain my perspective.

As an undergrad backpacking solo in Europe 11 years ago, I continually saw other Americans traveling with fellow Americans. They conversed so much about what was happening back in the United States that I wondered if they even noticed the impressive architectural accomplishments they passed or considered chatting with non-American travelers. If I wanted to spend my time with Americans, I might as well have stayed home.

Two years later, studying in Cuernavaca, Mexico, through the University’s Spanish abroad program, I saw similar tendencies in other students from the University. It seemed like every night they went as a group to an “Americanized” bar to drink and speak – in English – about each other’s lives back in the United States. After joining them twice, I decided to instead spend my time with a new Mexican friend and try to learn Spanish and about Mexican culture.

After finishing my undergraduate work at the University, I worked for an English language school in California as an international student guide. Naturally, there were some independent-minded individuals who came to the United States to study, but most students would arrive solo and within a day incorporate into the larger groups of their fellow country-people. The Brazilian students socialized with other Brazilians – in their language, of course – and it was the same for students from every other country.

Since then, I have taught English as a second language in five programs in the United States where the same thing happened. I also worked in an elementary school with language-minority students; it hurt me to see them always as a separate group, not mingling much with the majority.

I taught in Japan, where many other American teachers always wanted to stick together on the weekends and traveled hours to do so instead of sticking around their towns with all those, uh, Japanese people. It was the same when I served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. Many Americans did not like leaving base, never learned a bit of the language and complained that there were no Taco Bells in the country.

In all my experiences, no matter where I go (30 countries and 48 states), one thing stands out more than anything else: There is an unfortunate human tendency to stay with people like yourself. Of course, there are times when a traveler or expatriate needs a break from the adopted culture – sometimes it is easier to chat with someone in your native tongue. But I have seen people miss out on so much when they stick with like-minded people.

This summer I volunteered with 19 university students from Japan who were on campus for a month. They all took a risk to experience this country, but like the other cases, many students stayed together, spoke mostly Japanese and did not venture out to see the United States and get to know Americans.

Granted, the program arranged for volunteers to spend time with these students on trips around town, and some of those volunteers invited students to do things off campus, but most

students spent their time in the dorms, talked in their own language and sheltered themselves from getting to know Minneapolis and the locals. The last night I saw a group

of them, I spoke about this very issue, and after crying, many agreed that although they had a great time, they spent too much time with other Japanese.

I am not just lamenting about the way things are, but imploring international students to branch out and get to know Americans while you are here. I also encourage Americans on campus to open your minds and hearts, welcoming international students and inviting them to do something with you and your friends. Help build a temporary community for foreign students just as you would want if you were abroad yourself.

Michael J. Brown is a graduate student in the ESL education program at the College of Education and Human Development. He welcomes comments at [email protected]