As citizens of a representative democracy, we often equate the idea of representation to how accurately our elected officials embody our interests. In a political system like ours, the fate of politicians who sharply deviate from the median, ideal stance of their constituents is pretty much set — no reelection for you, sir or madam.
But this type of representation is not applicable to all instances of our lives, and it is definitely not what international students at MU need to become more visible and active members of the community. We need to be more than standard-bearers of the opinions of other international students and scholars. What MU needs to see is not increased representation of students from other countries in its student organizations — it is increased participation.
This is not to say international students are not already involved on campus. MU features countless multicultural and minority organizations, often headed and populated by international Tigers. It is rather natural for students from other countries to join organizations with which they have a cultural affinity, for the sense of familiarity can make the experience of moving to a foreign country less, well, foreign. Nothing like feeling at home to cope with the effects of culture shock or, even better, avoid it altogether.
In addition, multicultural and minority organizations give international students the opportunity to remain connected with their roots and bring the world a little closer to their fellow MU students. By raising our collective cultural awareness, organized expressions of diversity create a cultural spillover from which we all benefit.
Given these benefits, the case I present here is obviously not one to encourage international students to abandon participation in multicultural organizations. It is more of a (constructively) critical look at our institutional structure. If we look closely, the presence of international students in more “traditional” and visible MU organizations — namely the Missouri Students Association, the Alumni Association Student Board and so forth — is minimal. Of course, I don’t believe this occurs because of some sort of systematic effort from domestic students to exclude international students. It is simply a cause of an unintentional lack of communication that needs to be addressed.
We must acknowledge the information we are giving international students may not be complete. Granted, it is extremely difficult to condense all aspects of American life in the four- to five-hour journey that is international orientation. We need information about our visa status, obtaining cellphones and opening bank accounts, but we also need guidance regarding opportunities to get involved in the community. We need a little box in the upper left-hand corner of the countless guides to “Life in CoMo” that says, “Yo, extracurricular activities are kind of important in the American college system, and they really help you meet people. Here’s how to join….”
We need this guidance not because we lack initiative. Rather, it is because educational systems in different countries accord varying levels of importance to extracurricular activities, to which, as an international student myself, I can bear witness.
Student organizations were not a student’s priority in any of the three school systems I attended in South America, for instance. This might come as a big surprise to many U.S. students who are accustomed to an educational system that expects at least minimum extracurricular involvement from its pupils.
What I suggest, based on my experience, is that many international students may simply not be aware of the advantages of joining “traditional” student organizations. Given there is an almost natural and justified inclination to be part of multicultural organizations, the push should be to balance involvement and encourage students to be part of institutions that allow them to interact with U.S. students and participate in the shaping of MU student life.
Granted, being a senator in MSA will not replace the homely feeling of speaking your language, eating your food and listening to your music — and that it is because it shouldn’t. Participating in “traditional” MU organizations can complement the feeling of security sparked by special interest cultural organizations and help international students become part of a local community featuring students of all backgrounds with common goals and interests.
Joining “traditional” student organizations can, in short, be just as effective a mechanism to overcome culture shock as joining a multicultural or minority student group. Holding the same passport is not a prerequisite to friendship. Finding common ground among all the differences is.
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