Robert: What international students can learn from the US

Rovik Robert, Columnist

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The usual conversations regarding differences between international and American students revolve around the importance of foreign students in increasing diversity and global perspective on campus. This almost seems as though international students are here to provide some sort of cultural counterbalance to the all-American default on most college campuses (in addition to the financial contribution of paying full tuition), and, in return, they receive a world-class education. I want to explore what else international students can take away from studying in the U.S. to amplify their experiences here. American friends, you need not shy away. This column is equally important to you — if you see yourself in a position to help achieve any of the goals below, then you could be the key in helping improve the experience for international students.

One of the main takeaways international students probably gain from their American college experience is the need to have a stated opinion. Coming to a college environment here puts us in situations surrounded on all sides with people who have their opinions to share. Free speech isn’t exclusive to the United States, but it is clearly boasted here as a priority. No matter how much we might try to avoid it, we will be asked at some point for our opinion on an issue and will have to defend that stance. In other countries, this is a luxury. You could have an opinion on matters but it need not be stated for you to be relevant. In some countries, it’s even discouraged to be opinionated. However, in the U.S., your opinion on issues defines you to a large extent. I’m not saying coming to the U.S. is going to teach international students how to have an opinion — if they’ve qualified for college, they likely already have a strong sense of personal voice. Rather, international students should make use of the high concentration of opinionated people to actively develop your views through discourse and debate with others. They can earn how to argue and how to build perspective by taking the opportunity to engage people in an environment that gets heated easily and where people come out fighting to the end.

International students can also gain from understanding how different cultures coexist in a single society. As a Singaporean myself, an appreciation of diversity and an inclusive society is hardwired into me. Yet I cannot even begin to compare the range of cultures found in the U.S. with my home country. Right here in Chicago, you can find strong Polish culture in the Polish Village in Avondale, unique Indian culture in Devon and remarkable Mexican culture in Little Village, South Lawndale. It takes a lot to strongly identify with one’s ethnic background and yet subscribe to a larger affiliation of being American, and that lesson could help in how we promote inclusiveness in our own societies that are starting to face a rapid influx of foreigners. Has the U.S. gotten inclusiveness right already? I would argue not, but it definitely has made more headway than a lot of other countries, and there are many lessons in inclusiveness to learn by attending school here.

Finally, one of the most important things we as international students can learn from being in the U.S. is how to be proud of one’s own culture. We all are used to the regular questions upon introduction: “Where do you come from? Where do you really come from? Do they speak English there?” It’s become something we’ve gotten accustomed to answering, sometimes even with some sarcasm or wit. Yet, I’ve found myself becoming more proud of my culture every time I share more about it, or better still, when I juxtapose what’s happening in the U.S. with my own understanding of my country’s policies. I learn to represent my country and culture more actively, which is mainly due to the observation that most Americans at college haven’t really been exposed to the world outside the U.S. When students study abroad and come back as self-declared experts on their country, the conversation gets more nuanced and developed as now everyone has a common frame of reference. It’s a strange irony, then, that most international students actually dig deeper into their own culture when they go overseas rather than necessarily becoming ‘more American.’

I could go on suggesting lessons international students pick up in the U.S., but the spirit is clear — college life for international students is a two-way exchange. As much as we have a lot to offer in the form of global perspective, we also have a lot to gain from studying here beyond academics. Society builds itself from valuable exchanges and strong relationships, and in college we have the opportunity to get the motor started. The future looks bright if we do.

Rovik Robert is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.