Features

Int’l students participate in election

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2012

Students across the country will flock to polling booths in their college towns on election day, while others have already mailed in absentee ballots. But what about students from outside the United States who are not eligible to cast a vote? 

Brown students represent over 70 different countries, and international students have comprised, on average, about 11 percent of the student body from 2007 to 2011. Students can learn more about the political system by taking courses and attending lectures on American and international politics. They can also advocate their political views by participating in groups like Brown Political Review, the Brown Democrats, the Brown Republicans and Brown Students for Obama. While these groups are open to all students, regardless of their eligibility to vote, the reality is that such politically-inclined student groups are composed mostly of U.S. citizens.

The Brown Democrats average around 30 to 40 students at their meetings, while a smaller core group of about 10 students participates in weekly canvassing and phone banking, said Sofia Fernandez Gold ’14, president of the club. The group is always looking for new members, and “students in general who can’t vote are absolutely welcome,” Fernandez said. But “by and large, we are American citizens and American citizens who are active voters,” she said.   

Of the international students who participate in political clubs, few are involved in activities like canvassing and phone bank outreach. Daryl Eng ’15, a citizen of Singapore, said though he enjoys discussing politics and sharing articles with his friends, his political involvement does not extend far beyond academic conversations. It would be strange “if an American joined a group (in Singapore) and told me who I should vote for,” he said, explaining why few international students are directly involved in American politics.  

But others said voting eligibility is not the main contributing factor in students’ involvement in political discourse.

“Everyone is definitely interested (in politics), but I thought that there would be more on-campus debates,” said Jacqueline Ho ’14, who also hails from Singapore. Such debates “would just make it much easier for international students to learn about the issues,” she said. 

An environmental studies and economics double-concentrator, Ho is particularly interested in climate change and environmental activism. Her experience with American politics has come largely from participating in the environmental community at Brown, which she said rarely involves other international students.

Attending Brown has provided the opportunity to educate herself on what it means to be conservative or liberal and the different stances of political parties, she added. 

International students carry political perspectives often shaped by the political system of their native countries. Jonathan Poon ’15 said that in his native Hong Kong, he had always learned that America’s democracy was the best political structure. But after arriving in the United States and interacting with local students, “you realize that maybe the political system isn’t as awesome as you think it is,” he said. 

As an international student, Poon said he offers an interesting perspective on politics that differs from that of his friends, since he is “here as an observer.” He said he likes that the University’s environment fosters an acceptance of different political views. 

Though Poon would like to vote if he were an American citizen – since the election will affect him as a resident alien in the United States – just being able to watch it unfold has its advantages, he said. “I don’t feel like I’m responsible if it goes bad,” he said.

“Mainly why I wish I could vote is because it would just be fun to be a part of it, and I would feel I had a greater stake in it and be more involved in the discourse,” Ho said.

Both Ho and Poon acknowledged that voting is not the only way to get involved with the election and political scene at Brown. Groups with no direct political affiliation, like the Brown Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, also offer the opportunity to discuss current issues relevant in the political sphere.   

A native Canadian, Haakim Nainar ’14 is one of two international students to help co-found the Brown Political Review, a non-partisan magazine run by students. “The fact that I can’t vote doesn’t mean too much to me,” Nainar said. 

One of the interesting aspects of being an international student is observing American politics firsthand as opposed to watching them on television as he did before college, he added. 

“I’m not from a country that has as much separation of powers or checks and balances,” Nainar said, adding that it is interesting for him to relate local and national political issues to current events back home.

“At the end of the day, we’re coming here for an education,” Nainar said. “I think I’m getting a lot out of my education in terms of developing my political views, and that doesn’t relate to whether I can vote or not.”