Nessa Carson from the United Kingdom studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a finalist for our summer scholarship! The greatest challenge facing an international student in the US? Assumptions.
The clock ticked past midnight in the laboratory as I rushed to progress as far into my research project as I could, nearing the end of my allotted time. The previous few months that I had spent at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign summed to an amazing, heady experience, with a great deal of knowledge gained. I had rarely even been abroad before. As the beautifully-hued liquids that I had made stirred in shapely glass flasks, I set my mind to writing the last blog in the series that I had been keeping about my experiences abroad. What could I say that could put three months of new friends and novel, unexpected experiences into words? How could I explain my trials, and how I had overcome them, to others around the globe?
The word ‘unexpected’ aptly describes the challenges that studying abroad invariably presents. My adventure had not been entirely easy; assumptions from both me and other people meant that our expectations were mismatched to reality. Keeping a blog maintained my acute awareness of the nature of the problems I encountered. I found that trials arose in two forms: the international student’s assumptions about the people and situations around them, and the host community’s assumptions about the students.
Preconceived ideas from US domestic students about new people like me take many forms. Only 186 international trips are made every year per 1000 US citizens, compared to 906 per thousand residents of my home country, the United Kingdom.1 The US is gigantic and diverse, so citizens have less need to seek variety abroad. However, the rest of the world is not just one conglomerate, and its countries are yet more diverse than the various states. Failure to realize this led to practices from other foreign countries, or even different parts of the US, being ascribed to me. I had a fascinating conversation with a storekeeper in Illinois, who had heard from his friend who had recently visited Alaska. “What do Brits do for fun? Do you like to hunt bears too?”, he asked, wide-eyed. The surrealism of the question for the 21-year-old slight female he was asking was lost on the asker.
Even those who have been to European countries typically retain some inaccurate assumptions. The grandiose tourist trails of any city frequented by international vacationers bear correlation but do not provide a direct insight to the real lives of British residents. ‘The American tourist’ has become a social meme in tourist towns such as Oxford, where I have spent my last four years studying, to refer to a caricatured friendly but naïve visitor. The stereotyped character asks silly questions, accepting any information at face value without realizing how ridiculous it may be.
Further assumptions come from the media. For example, the British period drama Downton Abbey, set in the post-Edwardian era, has become very popular and elicited a fascination among American viewers. Despite the prudish early 20th century setting, the unavailability of alternative information leads American viewers to derive ideas about current British social classes from this program.
A more troubling problem is the assumption of Americans that international students possess a full knowledge of the common education system across all of the states. It is important that international students learn the American usage of terms such as ‘college’ (known as ‘university’ in the UK, where a ‘college’ caters to 16-18 year olds) and ‘school’ (used only below the age of 18 in the UK). The double meanings leave copious room for confusion, and occasionally I got it wrong and only realized what the other person had meant after the conversation had been concluded. The worst problems were ubiquitous references to classes by the three-digit course code alone. These are particularly difficult for a student from overseas, as not only is the American educational system likely to be very different to what they are used to, nothing about a number reflects what the class actually contains!
Similarly, our assumptions as international students are many because we often have no idea what to expect. After hearing the urban legend that Americans will always ask English visitors whether they know the Queen, I was secretly hopeful that this would be asked of me so I could recount my tale of the time I had dinner with Prince Edward! Alas, my assumption that my Royal connections would be scrutinized has not yet been fulfilled. Before arrival in the US, the only places I had visited abroad were Paris and Dublin – not very different to my English homeland. Despite being an aficionado of US television sitcoms, I could not be sure how life would fulfill itself after I stepped down from the airplane. The
easygoing world of the sitcom was counterbalanced by uncompromising politicians trying to impose their points of view week after week on the news. Pre-arrival, I wondered whether to expect the insouciant world of Friends, interspersed with randomly-timed interjections from angry political types.
As I had been warned, religion truly is a frequently-encountered force, although presumably not so pervasive in Illinois as in the ‘Bible belt’ states of the south. I worked alongside plenty of theists in the laboratory, in contrast to very few in Oxford. My assumptions meant I was resistant to this at first due to the stereotypes I knew, but I was soon able to relax as aggressive evangelization is actually about as common in both countries, and the diversity is to be welcomed.
As a bisexual woman, I faced another issue. Two of my closest friends in England originate from Oklahoma, and they had issued me with a warning not to speak about my sexual orientation with anyone. This wasn’t a problem in itself: I was not in a relationship, and it is not something I spend a great deal of time thinking about. In Oxford, there are almost no troubles with homophobia whatsoever: nobody would even bat an eyelash. However, I experienced homophobic abuse at my high school in the north of England, and that is not a period of my life that I wanted to repeat. Secrecy surrounding this issue can be a problem in social situations: awkwardly skirting the subject of my current or past love life, and what if my colleagues speak of a political opinion that is unfriendly towards me? The evening news is full of references to angry American politicians and pressure groups with an antipathy towards those who are not heterosexual. In actuality, it was revealed once I had arrived that while caution was generally advised, this extended no further than what matches with a respectful professional distance in the UK anyway. Any caution barely needs to go further than for a heterosexual student. A European colleague in Illinois told me that they believed the social climate to be more respectful towards non-straight people there than in their home country. I was very heartened by this news.
I have learned that although assumptions are the largest challenge facing international students in any country, this is part of the experience of an international lifestyle. It may be trying at times when failing to be understood, or inadvertently offending people (something that happened to me far too often), but this is why international experience is so highly valued: you are now a more flexible person with an enlarged understanding of other cultures. Being in an alternative social environment has enriched my abilities as a scientist, as science is an inherently social and diversity-driven pursuit. This fall, I am to return to UIUC to commence my doctoral studies. The life of an international student is made more difficult as we are not eligible for many of the major scholarships valued by scientists. Being awarded the International Student Voice Magazine scholarship would be invaluable, as it would allow me to return to the UK. In this case, I will ask to give a talk in my local community to share the stories I have learned. This is the catalyst for the breakdown of the cultural barriers we face.
1 Travel figures obtained from U.S. Citizen Air Traffic to Overseas Regions, Canada & Mexico 2011 from the Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, USA, and Travel Trends, 2011 from the Office for National Statistics, UK, respectively. Population data from World Bank.