If you heard peals of laughter coming from the upstairs classrooms on the Friday before Reading Week, it was probably the international discussion group.  The group is hosted by Student Senate’s Hospitality Committee. While we laughed many times, perhaps we all laughed the hardest when one international student asked, “Am I correct that most Americans are of Dutch heritage?” Nope, that’s just Grand Rapids.

It was the North Americans’ turn to laugh at ourselves when the international students chided us for inviting people to a hospitality event but telling everyone to bring their own lunch. “You can’t have hospitality without a meal!” they insisted. International and North American students alike were full of stories about cultural gaffes and misconceptions. Where cultural differences might separate, laughing at ourselves can bring us together.

We began our discussion with cookies and then broke into small groups to talk about the day’s topic: higher education around the world. Nepalese universities operate under an exam system in which the only thing that matters is a final exam administered by an independent board. In Nigeria, students who want to attend a popular class may stand outside the classroom and take notes on the lecture through open windows. In China, students don’t ask questions in class out of consideration for their classmates who might not have the same question. The biggest difference about the learning environment in the United States? International students were impressed by the CTS faculty’s humility and approachability and their willingness to admit when they don’t know the answer to a question.

After bringing all of the small groups back together, we discussed ways that North American students could show hospitality to the international students on campus. Most students expressed a desire to improve their English through conversation, since they will be expected to have a high level of fluency when they return to their home countries. Some international students pointed out that they aren’t comfortable asking a North American student for help unless a relationship is already in place. The burden of initiating those relationships should be on us—not only are we the hosts, but if you’ve ever tried to start a friendship in your second (or third!) language, you know that it’s terrifying.

If you are a North American, here are some easy things you can do to show hospitality to international students:

  • Sit next to someone from another country in class. Make a point of introducing yourself and take responsibility for starting up a conversation.
  • When you ask questions in class, speak up and slow down. International students said that they adjust to their professors’ speaking styles quickly, but it’s hard to understand the questions asked by students. Professors can help by repeating the question before answering it.
  • Don’t wait to be asked for help. Americans tend to be afraid of prying or interfering. But don’t be afraid of asking, “What are you finding difficult about life in the United States?” Likewise, when you hear someone say that it’s hard to develop relationships in a new country, don’t say, “Yeah, that must be difficult.” Ask that person out for coffee. If you’re shy, like I am, bring a friend.

Finally, if you want a chance to get to know international students in a casual setting with guided discussion, keep an eye out in the Enews for the next international discussion group meeting.

By Erin Zoutendam