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Into the College Melting Pot

Becoming global citizens on a culturally homogenized campus

By Charlotte C. Chang

While Harvard has longprided itself on promoting academic excellence of the highest caliber, the rampant globalization of recent decades has expanded its aimsto include a focus on creating global citizens capable of engaging with people, cultures, and ideas from all over the world. Harvard uses many effective means to achieve this end, such asoffering robust foreign language courses, introducing new General Education requirements, and promoting well-established study abroad programs. In addition to these official efforts, there is alsothe oft-touted approach of filling our campus with international students from across the globe.

As an “international” student myself, however, I have often observed that the vast majority of us jumped into the melting pot long before we reached Harvard—in many ways, we got here because of it. Harvard’s justifiably selective admissions standards as an American college create cultural and economic criteria that contribute to a far greater degree of cultural homogenization than what simple demographics suggest. As such, I often question whether the international student body at Harvard contributes to the creation of global citizens truly capable of cultural and linguistic flexibility and adaptation to different contexts, or ratherto the creation of global elite citizens capable only of interacting with people who, albeitwith diverse passports, have already adapted to an “international” English-mediated culture.

There seem to betwo major factors that directly contribute tocultural homogeneity among Harvard’s international students. Namely, prospective students must have adequate preparation for the type of independent, inquiry-based learning that is encouraged in our classrooms, and they need to speak and write English at a high academic level. The first requirement presents a challenge to those students from places where education systems do not encourage this type of learning. The best way for students from these countries to apply successfully, then,is to attend some sort of international or boarding school, or otherwise enroll in more liberal academic programs that offer curricula divergent from local educational philosophies.

The second requirement is a challenge to all students from nations where English is not a native or even a common language, especiallyin countries where the native language is wholly unrelated to English (as is the case in much of Asia). This means that prospective students from these backgrounds are, in practice,forcedto take costly tutoring classes, attend Western international schools or boarding schools, or otherwise having some relation to Anglophone countries in order to learn English well in the first place. Because of this apparent yet unstated prerequisite of obtaining the type ofeducation that often costs much more money than a public, local education, the students who eventually find themselves qualified to be admitted to selective American universities inevitably come from disproportionately wealthy backgrounds.If one did some simple research on the statistics of international students admitted every year from a place like Hong Kong, where I attended an international high school, one could easily see that an overwhelming majority of successful applicants share similar privileged educational opportunities which are not at all representative of the common experience in the city.

Of course, it should be no surprise that international students are wealthier than the average in their home countries—after all, this istrue of American students at Harvard, as well. Beyond statistics, the importantpoint here is that bright students who have the financial means to overcome the two challenges stated above typically become more familiar with and inclined toward English-mediated, often American-centric culture, at times becoming somewhat removed from the cultures, languages,and ways of thinking of their own countries. As such, it is no surprise that very few international students at Harvard experience significant culture shock or find any particular difficulty in building meaningful relationships with their American or international classmates. Cultural homogenization does occur at Harvard, but much of it occurs even before one’s application is submitted.

It is hard to criticize this considering that when significant cultural and linguistic homogenization does not take place prior to arrival on campus, self-segregation is bound to occur and would severely restrict inter-student exchange, degrading the overall intellectual experience for all students involved. Acknowledging this, however, I think if we truly wish to become enlightened, adaptable, and considerate global citizens, we have to be the ones to put ourselves in situations where we have to adapt to engage in fruitful interactions with people from genuinely foreign cultural and economic backgrounds. This could be as simple as spending a semester abroad, or it could be as committed as searching for socially responsible career opportunities abroad where an expatriate lifestyle is out of the question—using Hong Kong as an example again, this could mean opting for employmentother than the investment bank,which would inevitably trap a Harvard graduate in an upper-class, culturally homogenized bubble—a tinysliver of what the city really represents. Either way, I think that developing ourselves as global citizens is much more than collecting passport stampsand making friends with international roommates—it is about not taking for granted that unfamiliar things and people will always adapt to us.

Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer house. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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