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More International Students

Harvard Lacks Diversity of National Background

By Ali Ahsan

Admission notices for the class of 2001 were mailed last month. Of the more than 2000 acceptance letters sent out, some 130 were addressed to foreign addresses --the first class of the new millennium (claims by current first-years not with-standing), like its predecessor classes, will include about six percent international students. But for a university which is a center of global excellence, and which counts diversity as one of its twin hallmarks, six percent is not a large enough number.

As an international student I arrived here almost two years ago with the phrase "diversity and distinction" imprinted on my mind after a summer spent pouring over the application booklet again and again. However, somewhat to my disappointment, while I have encountered an enormous amount of diversity here at Harvard, I've found it to be a diversity of American viewpoints, of American ideas, and of American students. Diversity as I had pictured it--a diversity of students and viewpoints from around the world--is something Harvard lacks. It lacks so much so that up untill the fall of 1994, this "international" university did not even have an international students organization on campus.

Critics of the view that Harvard needs more international students can point out that Harvard is, after all, an American university designed to educate American students and thus there are enough foreigners on campus as it is. While a somewhat valid argument, it ignores the fact that there are other universities out there which, though equally American in nature, have much higher percentages of international students on the rolls, and these places don't stake a claim to "diversity" with even half the zeal that Harvard displays. Since comparable institutions like MIT, Boston University and Canada's McGill University all have significantly greater foreign student populations, in terms of sheer numbers as well as a proportion of the undergraduate population, one must conclude that Harvard isn't as diverse as it could be.

In all fairness it must be conceded that while Harvard might have a smaller international student body than BU or McGill, the international students here are a more diverse group than at most other universities. The primary reason for this is that Harvard is one of the very few colleges in North America which is still completely need-blind for international applicants in admissions, and this need-blind admissions policy results in far greater socio-economic diversity amongst its foreign student body than would otherwise be possible. Harvard, unlike other Ivy League schools, has no limits or quotas on the amount of aid it can provide to applicants from abroad, and thus ability to pay does not factor into any admission decision made by the College. Ironically, though, the very fact that the foreign students here are such a diverse and engaging group makes the relative scarcity of their numbers even more disappointing. BU, which offers no financial aid to international applicants, might have a greater percentage of foreigners on its rolls. But as a general rule all of these students fall into one income category: the rich elite of the world who can afford to pay $30,000 up front for their children's' education.

Still, while Harvard claims that it holds international applicants to the same standard as American students for admission decisions, the acceptance rate for foreign applicants is consistently lower than that of the general pool of applicants. Considering that international applicants must overcome significant hurdles in applying to American colleges--even arranging to take the mandatory SATs, Achievements and TOEFL tests is a nightmare outside of this country--they must, by their very nature, be a very highly motivated and self-selected group of applicants. Consequently, foreign students should, if anything, be accepted at a higher rate than the general applicant pool, and thus their lower acceptance rate doesn't make much sense.

According to Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70, director of admissions for the College, while international applicants as a group might have slightly better test scores and academic records than the overall pool, this advantage is often at the expense of non-academic interests and extra-curricular involvement, both of which are critical factors for admission to the college. While this may be true, the admissions committee should not unduly penalize students for lack of extra-curriculars. Most foreign applicants come from countries and schools where there are very few opportunities for non-academic development and the entire system is constructed to discourage extra-curricular pursuits.

In most countries across Asia, Africa and Europe, grades on school-leaving examinations like the International Baccalaureate or the British A-Levels are often the sole determinant for college admissions. In such an environment students are routinely discouraged from "distractions" like public service or the performing arts which feature so prominently in the curriculum of American high schools. Making allowances for such cultural differences does not mean that the admissions committee should blindly start accepting uni-dimensional math wizards from abroad, but it does entail a greater sensitivity to the challenges facing applicants from other countries. In admitting American applicants the admissions office routinely makes allowances for different challenges faced by students. On a similar level Harvard should recognize the problems encountered by otherwise qualified foreign applicants in pursuing extra-curricular interests societies where the very notion is often anathema.

At a time when record numbers of American applicants are being denied a place at the College, arguments for increasing the proportion of international students will probably not prove to be quite popular. But given Harvard's outspoken support for diversity, the relatively low number of foreign students in the College should give us, and the admissions office, something to ponder.

Ali Ahsan is a sophomore living in Quincy House.

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