The University of San Francisco wears its diversity on its sleeve. From walking tours and university brochures to college ranking websites, USF is lauded as one of the most diverse colleges in the nation. Onlookers would expect the campus and community of USF to be a utopia of cultural exchange and intermingling. However, many students have had a distinctly different experience.
At the International Student Cultural Diversity Exchange Forum hosted a few weeks ago, Nick Wu, a junior and Senate vice president of business administration, stood up before the full McLaren conference room and stated, “Domestic and international students have such a bad attitude towards each other. It pisses me off!”
Lichao Zhang, a freshman, and the international student representative for Senate, understood the frustration. “The reality is, there is a gap between students here. I have spoken with international and domestic students who feel the same way.” Speaking with impressive conviction he continued, “This means there must be a way to get these two groups connected as a whole.”
Along with ASUSF Senate, Zhang is making it his mission to do just that: bridge the gap. Speaking on a personal level, he stated, “We all have the moral obligation to push forward the communication between international and domestic students.” The Cultural Exchange Forum held on Mar. 17 was just the beginning of a series of events aimed at opening dialogue among students of all backgrounds. After opening remarks, the majority of the event was spent within smaller discussion groups which would then share the central points of the conversation with the room. The Chinese International Student Forum was a second event held this past Wednesday Apr. 8, featuring a panel of Chinese students focused on illuminating their personal experiences at USF.
An important question at the core of this initiative is how the gap between international and domestic students began. Due to the fact that international students arrive to USF up to a week in advance of domestic students at the beginning of the semester, orientations for domestic and international students are held separately. For this reason, Chris Vasquez, the Senate sophomore class representative, feels like the gap begins from the moment you step on campus. “We really need to get people to step out of their comfort zones from the start,” he stated.
Shaya Kara, a sophomore psychology major agreed. “Breaking the ice is the main problem. If we start off breaking barriers, we can continue throughout the year,” she said. A number of other students stood and voiced their support, advocating a shared orientation at the conclusion of orientation activities, among other ideas.
Sophomore Laureano (Larry) Figueroa, the vice president of public relations, recognized that USF faculty also has responsibility in the continuing effort to realize true diversity at USF. “Teachers need to create an atmosphere of inclusion in the classroom,” he explained. Rina Kowinwipat also sees accountability of this sort as an important factor, stating,“Teachers need to recognize that students come from different educational backgrounds.”
Ultimately, students seem to recognize that blame cannot be solely placed upon the university. When asked what really creates the gap between international and domestic students, Zhang stated, “Both groups recognize that there is a divide, but no one has been willing to step in the middle and communicate. We do not have a problem or an ‘issue’, we have a misunderstanding.”
A predictable theme in both events was the issue of the language barrier. Many students spoke to their personal experiences and challenges in this regard. Yunli Wang, an international student in her first semester at USF, said, “When I speak Chinese I am very funny, but not when I speak English!”
These sentiments are not only felt by international students in the U.S. Angie Possemato and Lauren Abuali, two domestic students in their senior year at USF, relate having very similar experiences studying outside of the U.S. Abuali explained, “Like a lot of other students studying abroad, I tended to stick with the other Americans at first. Eventually though, I figured out that I had to find comfort in uncomfortable situations.” Possemato continued, “Once I started putting myself out there and showing some interest, my experience completely changed for the better.”
Zhang and Qiushi (Aaron) Yu, a sophomore student from Northern China who participated in the Chinese student panel, prefer to take a harder line against the language barrier. Lichao said, “The difference in language should be approached as an opportunity, not an obstacle.” Although this is a difficult step to take for many students, Aaron concurred, “You can’t always use language as an excuse, at a certain point you have to admit who you are and be willing to make mistakes.” Towards the conclusion of the International Student Forum, a student stood up in the back of the room and explained his personal approach: “Learn a lot, prepare a lot, and just communicate.”
USF has a largely diverse student body, and the hope for greater interaction and cultural exchange is a goal that both international and domestic students are willing to work towards. Each speaker on the Chinese student panel expressed the fact that for them, USF represents an opportunity to gain the type of cultural knowledge and sensitivity that can only be achieved through building meaningful relationships. For Zhang as well, the key to bridging the gap lies in our commonality, not our differences. “We are all human beings, we all understand the concept of humanity. The reason why we come here is to communicate and interact. This is how we will move forward.”
Photo courtesy of Kristian George/Foghorn