International Students: Perceptions of America

By Sarah Nicell || Campus Life Editor

Photo Courtesy of Franklin & Marshall College.

After an academic year without international students on campus, Franklin & Marshall College has once again welcomed hundreds of people from around the world to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. With a nearly twenty percent international population, F&M, for many, is the first place in the United States some get to call home. According to Jessica Haile of the Joseph International Center, “F&M’s student visa population has 44 countries represented so far as their citizenship. These are all students that are non-US citizens, non-US permanent residents. Here on a student visa.”

Drawing students from every corner of the globe, at first glance it might appear that the United States is an appealing travel destination, a place where young people can fulfill their American Dream. However, American patriotism is a concept that I feel often fails to expand beyond its borders. Does the red, white, and blue of our flag possess a positive connotation outside of the US, especially when many who were born and raised here disapprove of our government’s actions?

How, then, do international students feel about America after a taste of Lancaster, PA? Is America a place to be proud of? A home? Or is it something different?

After speaking to three people from around the world, I feel that I have a better understanding.

What is your name? Pronouns? Class year?

Alfee: Alfee, she/her. 2024 (but started in Spring of 2021).

Chi: Chi, she/her. 2023.

Sofia: Sofia, she/her. 2024.

Where are you from?

A: Dhaka, Bangladesh.

C: Vietnam.

S: Brazil.

Do you mind sharing a little bit about your background, either of where you grew up, where your family grew up, or about your culture? Anything you feel is important to share.

A: I grew up in Dhaka… in a Muslim family that was liberal for how conservative and patriarchal my culture tends to be. [It was] cool growing up in Bangladesh. I knew lots of different kinds of people. Festivals are very different there than here. Everything is also very close together and condensed. It’s hugely populated… but everyone knows each other.

C: I grew up in a pretty small family in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. I have a sister, and we grew up together at our grandparents’ house while my mom got her PhD. In Vietnam, we’re a very calm, pretty chill people. We just kinda let life be. 

When you hear the word “America”, how do you feel? What comes to mind?

A: Commercialization… Also, I think a few things come to mind, but most of them are franchises, honestly… I live somewhere that’s an 18-hour flight, but I know places like Oregon on a map, because the main type of media we consume is American. Where I’m from, there are franchises, but it’s mostly small stores with regular people… not “Jeff Bezos”. It really is the heart of capitalism.

C: Taxes, visa, study, busy, capitalism… friendly?

S: The whole thing about being international means being a “foreigner”… [Americans] don’t like us taking up space.

In general, do you feel that the United States provides better opportunities than countries of comparable international standing?

C: America provides a lot of opportunities in STEM education and jobs in comparison to other countries who only offer financial aid and positions to business majors… [Also] the idea that if you work hard enough, you can get where you need to be sorta, kinda stands a little bit.

S: I would say that you guys have better opportunities in education and jobs. For example, you can do research here when you’re an undergraduate and get paid… Brazil is cutting a lot of money that was supposed to be for research jobs.

Are you glad to be in the United States, or is there somewhere else you would rather be?

A: The process of applying to the US is long. You plan in advance that you want to come here. If you’re planning something for so long, you end up saying, “This is my goal. This is where I wanted to end up for college.”

C: I think America is really nice because it’s like ten different countries smashed into one. Lots of different people and cultures… I feel myself also being intrigued and wanting to travel to different countries because I’ve lived here for three years, so I’ve kind of adjusted to Western culture.

S: I feel like I’m glad to be here. The whole reason I came here is because I couldn’t choose my major out of high school. [Also, it was a] very long process to get here… Compared to Bath, both places have great opportunities, but I wouldn’t rather be somewhere else [other than the US] at the moment.

Do you feel safe and secure in the United States?

A: I felt safe and secure in Bangladesh for some parts of my identity, and I feel safe and secure in other parts of my identity here [in reference to being Brown and Muslim vs. being LGBTQ+].

C: It definitely fluctuates with the time. I feel like in America, when things are very good, I feel safe. During the pandemic, we [international students] feel that we fall between the cracks and aren’t really vouched for by anyone.

S: I would say not really. If I’m going out of campus, I feel the need to always bring my passport with me. If I have it, I have the right to communicate with people from the Brazilian Embassy… With the Trump administration being so harsh with immigrants and people of color… I think we all still feel a bit scared because we don’t know what will happen.

If you could change one thing about the United States, what would it be?

A: Inequality, how work is tied to productivity through capitalism. How the US claims to be this global police in terms of rights and freedom, and we simultaneously see Texas struggling with reproductive rights.

C: Just one? I wish that we had more of a safety net. I feel like everything we do is harshly penalized here, and for people who are new to this country, I wish people would be more understanding of cultural differences.

S: I’m very biased, but I think… the policies we have about immigrants in general. Also, healthcare, because that genuinely scared me when I got sick [here].

Do you feel that the United States handles diversity, equity, and inclusion well?

A: No.

C: I don’t particularly feel that it handles it great, but there’s a silver lining. A lot of groups start to realize how things are not great, so a lot of people are starting to bond and stand up for themselves and their community. But it takes time to improve.

S: I mean… not really. I feel like you guys could do a better job as the country you are because you are a very developed country, and you have the resources to show people the information they clearly need… Our school is trying. F&M is making it a safe space for all of us, international students. At least they’re trying.

In terms of identity, are you proud to be affiliated with America?

A: I don’t feel anything [toward my affiliation with America].

C: That’s the thing, though, because going to America to study is a badge of honor because it’s very hard to break into University in America. I certainly feel that in my country in particular there’s a certain prestige associated with studying in America. And a lot of pressure, too.

S: No, but I feel bad saying no… because I chose to come here.

After speaking to Alfee, Chi, and Sofia, I have come to the conclusion that international students—at least these three amazing people; I cannot generalize this conversation to the entire international population at F&M—tend to feel the same conflicting emotions about America that domestic students endure. They possess an undeniably critical and observant eye that accompanies having lived experience in multiple cultures, languages, and societies, and an understanding of why one would choose to learn in an imperfect country that, as was discussed at the “A Place for Us” rally on Hartman Green this past week, was not structured for their benefit. In a nation where their safety and security are not guaranteed, a country where their identities and cultures are not properly represented, international students fight to make a home for themselves with the hope of opportunity.

Regardless of perspective, it is indisputable that these international students have so much to offer our campus. To get to know them better, as all of you should, attend International Coffee Hours on Fridays from 3 PM to 4 PM at the Joseph International Center. I’ll see you there.

Sarah Nicell is a sophomore and the Campus Life Editor for The College Reporter. Their email is snicell@fandm.edu.

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