During my time on residential leadership we ran events hoping to involve international students in our hall’s community. These events, however, were run based on the presumption that all international student experiences are the same. They are not. A locally educated student from Japan, for example, is different to a western-educated student from Myanmar. Grouping ‘international students’ as if they are a unified, cohesive community misinforms our policies for inclusion. It is time we step away from this overly broad term and recognise these students as who they are: a diverse group of people with different needs and challenges.
According to the Australian government, the term ‘overseas student’ refers to students studying in a foreign institution who are not Australian or New Zealand citizens or Australian permanent residents. ANU, Australian National University Students’ Association and the International Student’s Department use the term ‘international student’ to the same effect. This is an accurate label when it is used solely to describe the legal and fee-paying status of the student. The problem arises when the term ‘international student’ moves past this narrow definition.
Few, if any, ‘international student’ identifies as such. Instead, they see themselves as who they are: a citizen of their home country. They are more likely to relate more with others from their country than with other overseas students. This is why cultural and country-specific clubs are so popular at ANU: they create a place for ambitious overseas students to cut one’s teeth in student leadership – sometimes after being rejected from college leadership.
Within the microcosm of overseas groups at ANU, we see reflections of the same stories and tensions back home. Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Singapore students are all generally seen as ‘Chinese’, yet the level of wealth, education, English language proficiency skills, and cultural upbringing varies. Ethnically homogenous China with its ‘new rich’ and rising middle class differs from the racially diverse Singapore, where English is the vernacular for many of its citizens. Yet, even these simple descriptions hide the complexities and contradictions of these places.
These complexities manifest more clearly when we ask a person to represent the ‘international community’. When there is only one international representative on a resident’s committee, the workload of dealing with overseas student engagement falls largely onto them. While it’s admirable for student residences to put on cultural events to engage both Australian and overseas students, a Chinese dumpling making event, for example, does not necessarily appeal to South Asian students as it would to East Asian students. This is exacerbated when you continue to see events that continue to borrow upon one cultural region over another
Even the very role of international representative limits the potential of international students to engage in their community. I have spoken to many who were hesitant to run for any other position on their residents’ committees because they felt that they didn’t ‘fit’ into the role as well as they would as an ‘international representative’. Conversely, I have heard students not vote for international students for other roles because they believed they were better suited for being an ‘international representative’.
So, what can we do to be more inclusive to international students? As student leaders in colleges, a good start is to triage. Some students are here to study and are content to be with one’s own. Others have a western background or education and the English and social skills to integrate successfully. The priority, instead, should be on the students who are in between, who want to be included into the community but are struggling.
These students are the ones who show up but need encouragement. It may be their lack of confidence in their English skills, their lack of understanding on Australian college life or it may be their unfamiliarity with the Australian social culture and norms that make conversations difficult for them. By supporting these students early on we enable them to participate in college culture. I have seen many students who, after a few weeks of constant struggle, give up from engaging all together. It is up to all of us to be more inclusive and welcoming.
But institutional change is also needed. ANU should step up in providing training to its student leaders and residential staff to effectively understand the legal, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers overseas students may face. I have seen Senior Residents and other leaders of the community pass judgements about a student’s fashion sense or behaviour which in the context of their home culture is the norm. We cannot expect the one international representative to educate a college on various cultural practices. That is everyone’s responsibility
ANU also needs to be more transparent in its policies for international student integration in residences. Many student leaders and Senior Residents I have spoken to have expressed cynicism about ANU’s uneven allocation of international students into various student accommodations. Likewise, despite international students making up a significant portion of the hall, many of them are left wondering why Senior Resident teams are largely made up of domestic students. We need more transparency around these decisions to have a fruitful and informative debate on overseas student integration into halls.
Finally, we must acknowledge the rising xenophobia around the term ‘international student’. Australian politics and discussions at ANU increasingly use ‘international student’ as a thinly veiled reference to new, rich generation of Chinese students – or as one student leader brazenly said to me, “Chinese spies”. Because of this, we must be careful of how we use language to refer to overseas students. They are people to be respected for their cultural diversity and humanity, not threats to our way of life.
The author served on the Bruce Hall Common Room Committee as Media Officer in 2018.