Al-Salem ’17: Debunking the international stigma

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

As someone who has to travel 26 hours to go home, I have experience as an “international student” at Brown. While I definitely do not speak for the international community here, it’s time someone addressed the stereotype on campus that international students are exclusive, elitist and “rich.”

These are all adjectives that I have heard about international students from different people during my time here. Sometimes it’s a long rant about Buxton House — cool parties but elitist internationals — and sometimes, it’s a catty complaint that international kids only hang out with other international kids. Most of the time it’s wildly stereotypical and homogenizing.

When international students are spoken about as one entity, it completely blurs the fact that Brown admits international students from over 90 different countries with hundreds of different backgrounds. As an International Mentoring Program mentor this year, I have further come to understand just how different every student is from one another, regardless of citizenship.

Some students have never been to America before, while others are American and only spent their last two years abroad. For some, this is their first time away from their family. For others, boarding school away from home was a way of life. The levels of “international” within the very small community are so varying that I cannot wrap my head around the idea that we all act the same way.

And here’s where, again, I cannot speak for the entire community when I call for a little compassion and empathy. If you ever find yourself upset by the fact that some international students find solace in others they relate to, try uprooting all you have ever known and living in a completely different environment for four years.

While most college students can relate to leaving friends and family behind, it is especially hard for some international students to leave a culture behind. This culture doesn’t only encompass traditional aspects — it is a way of life. The different social norms and mannerisms in America take time to learn and master, and every day requires effort to be away from home and comfort.

I once had a coworker who unintentionally demonstrated the struggle of international students. She was baffled by the fact that I could be so far away from home for so long when her experience with a semester abroad was intense enough. I don’t think most students on campus realize that going to college in America is not just “the college experience” — for me, this is my “studying abroad,” and it’s longer than a semester or year.

So if the complaint is that some international students seem exclusive, I would like the reader to evaluate how those students’ comfort in a foreign place is bothering the reader. If you had the chance to speak in your preferred language in a place where there are very few who do, wouldn’t you?

If this kind of empathy were employed when international exclusiveness is mentioned, I would hope much of the negative stigma around international students would lighten. But unfortunately, most would still think those students are rich. Those ridiculous stereotypes don’t account for all the international students who can’t go back home for winter break, let alone Thanksgiving break. They also don’t acknowledge that international students can only work on-campus jobs because of their international status in America, thus limiting their options greatly.

So when someone jokes bitterly that all international students are rich, I’d like to see them deal with the Office of International Students and Scholars and figure out a foreign tax system just to survive.

Remember that these students literally represent the rest of the world, and it is wild to assume they are all from the same socioeconomic class.

There are some of us, like me, who have to travel a long way to get back to our families, and there are others who take a short five-hour flight. We deal with entering an environment that isn’t totally familiar to us. Our communities like IMP, Brown International Organization, Brown International Scholarship Committee and Buxton shouldn’t be scowled at with stereotypes when they are some of the only spaces here that understand us and accept our different backgrounds.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that international students aren’t a single body. The one thing that is true is that the stigma around international students is exiling and uncompassionate. I hope in the future we evaluate how much it takes to be an international student before making grandiose statements.

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at


  1. Talula Gotega says:

    Where at Brown can I do camel snort?

  2. Of course you have to travel a long time, but you choose to come to Brown (a University in the United States). The culture shock of yours is no greater than someone from inner city Detroit. And when international organizations throw parties charging $12 or more at the door, yes, you will garner a reputation for being rich. Quit complaining.

    • international says:

      I don’t think “don’t generalize international students into one chunk” is just a whiny complaint. Brown is always advocating people to embrace diversity yet it seems like international students never get viewed that we too are a RANGE. Yes, a good amount of international students are rich — international students don’t get need blind financial aid. But assuming EVERY international student is like that is an overgeneralization, not to mention how that’s just viewing international students just as their class (SES) instead of the personal as a whole. In particular, this generalization makes international students who don’t fit into the rich international stereotype very isolating.

  3. International students are admitted on a need-aware basis and consequently tend to be wealthier (as a group) than are domestic students (as a group). And while it is not the case that all international students are alike, there often seems to be a curious correlation between the affluence of an international student and their participation in Buxton or BISC (spaces also occupied by wealthy domestic students). In my experience many international students feel positively alienated from those spaces because they are from a poor background. Members of those bodies don’t speak a common language so that argument is bunk—unless you mean class-based referents as a lingua franca, in which case I agree.

    So, no, I wouldn’t paint all international students with the same brush, but yes I will continue to find Buxton off-putting.

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