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Enzerink GS: Avoid multi-monoculturalism, embrace all

Brown's student body is a vibrant mix of nationalities. As an Ivy League school with plenty of media coverage — especially after a certain British actress became one of the many internationals on campus — Brown captures the imagination of thousands of high school students all over the world. But the potential this diverse community offers is abated by the phenomenon of on-campus "multi-monoculturalism," as The Economist aptly described it. Students from other countries tend to stick together. While Brown's student groups offer fruitful initiatives to bridge the gaps, the start of the academic year merits additional reflection on the value of cross-cultural interaction.

Discussions about bilingual education in the United States have often been framed in terms of public vs. private — public being the dominant language in classrooms  and private being those reserved for the home. International students face similar decisions when deciding whom to socialize with once classes are over. In class, they will be part of a mix of other international and American students, and will thus experience their subject of study through a variety of different lenses. But when classes are over, it can be tempting to seek out fellow countrymen to avoid uneasiness about language and other customs. Certainly, it is valuable and natural to connect with other students who are in the same position as you are, facing the same cultural barriers and the same challenges. But it is integral that students also step outside this artificial comfort zone and embrace the wide cultural diversity that Brown has to offer.

This is easier at the undergraduate level than at the graduate level. The percentage of international undergraduate students is a stable 10 percent. The class of 2015 has 203 international students in a starting class of approximately 1,500. The admission figures shine some light on where these students are from — of the almost 2,700 students accepted into Brown, China delivered the most prospective students (57), followed by India (34) and the United Kingdom (33). Even in this predominantly American environment, many internationals seek each other out. Whether it's by joining their countries' student groups or simply through socials, mini-communities of nationalities quickly start to form. But Brown's housing policies largely nullify this initial grouping. Whereas other universities often have international housing, Brown's open undergraduate housing policies offer an environment conducive to cross-cultural exchange.

The problem becomes more pressing at the graduate level, when off-campus living looms large as a means of monoculture formation. The Office of International Student and Scholar Services recorded 185 international graduate students that started at Brown this fall, almost exactly one-third of the entire new graduate student body. Because the number of graduate seminars is more limited and groups are often small, it is more likely that the graduate's social circle will be limited to a select group of classmates. And when over 50 percent of those classmates are from the same country, as is the case for some graduate programs in the physical sciences, it is easy to fall into a pattern of socialization along national lines. A chemistry graduate student from China I met at the graduate social shares an apartment with three other Chinese students in the same program. "I don't necessarily want to hang out with just them, but it just happened. We came here together," he said. Through various initiatives, such as joining a sports team, he is trying to expand his social circle.

And that's the right thing to do. With 93 countries represented in the student body, limiting your social circle to one or two is selling yourself short. Academia is the foremost place where students and faculty from all over the world have the chance to meet each other in discussion. Scholars operate in an increasingly international field, with exchange programs, study abroad programs and joint degrees, offering valuable additions to their personal, as well as professional, development.

Brown's cultural and national groups already strive to bridge the gap between students from different backgrounds, an initiative that merits emulation by students themselves. The Chinese mid-autumn festival on Monday was a celebration of the important Chinese holiday, but all students were invited to enjoy the mooncakes or try their hand at calligraphy. Equally, the multiplicity of nationally and ethnically oriented groups at the activities fair in the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center was largely receptive to those who are not necessarily part of the target group. The German Club was actively recruiting among those who did not speak the language at all, saying they're "simply a fun bunch of people" who combine academics with recreational activities.

And isn't that what all students are here for? We are in the privileged position to connect with and learn from people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, who bring fresh and different perspectives. It is important not to confine ourselves to what we already know. Brown is well-known for breaking barriers in the academic world, and it's up to all of us to ensure that we do the same in our social worlds.

Suzanne Enzerink GS is an American studies master's student from the Netherlands.




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