By Thao Nguyen
What do these two students – a Bangladeshi who’s spent 30 years abroad, working and researching, and an English mature student who had studied, worked and then decided to pursue a different academic route – have in common? Not too much, would be my initial answer. When I sought out these two people, I was trying to compare their thoughts on learning without borders. After my chats with them, I came to realise something entirely different: that it’s not just about seeing the good in welcoming migrant students, it’s also about how we see others, especially those different from us.
Iqbal Ahmed left Bangladesh around 30 years ago to start his undergraduate studies in Louisiana, USA. His journey resonates with me personally – at 18, he had ‘literally cut off his life’ to start afresh in a new land. His journey carried him north from there to New York, and now he’s here at Durham University, doing his post-graduate research in International Development. His field work is based in his home country, but he’s writing his thesis here in the UK. When I asked him why that is, he said that he wanted to learn more about Bangladesh, but the academia on the matter in the UK is much more rigorous, so the combination he chose was ideal.
At 18, he had ‘literally cut off his life’ to start afresh in a new land
For many international students, not just in Durham, but across the UK, US, Australia, this is an important motivation for leaving their own country for higher education. From English language skills to the wealth of knowledge available in this language for so many disciplines, particularly the social sciences, these are things which would not be available in many developing countries. Undeniably, a degree from one of the world’s best universities never fails to impress employers worldwide, but the education and experience is truly an ideal for many overseas students.
Nevertheless, expectations and reality are never the same. Amy, my second interviewee, whose name I’ve changed per her request, had decided to quit her high-paying job to pursue a new undergraduate degree in History. She had just finished her year abroad in Australia and spoke of international friends who were stuck in a cycle of struggle with academic English, not having time to interact with native-speakers, and thereby not improving their English.
She went on an equally impressive journey – from doing German in her first Bachelor’s degree to joining the corporate world, acquiring an MBA, and now a full-time undergraduate again. I told her that I found it impressive – not a lot of people would have the bravery to start all over again at that point in their lives. Amy smiled and said that somehow it worked out nicely for her – she had always wanted to emigrate to Australia, discovering the year abroad program available at Durham in her first year. To my query as to whether the student mobility and diversity was worth it, Amy exclaimed, “Of course, why would you not want to learn about all these different cultures?” and perhaps she’s right, sometimes it’s just as simple as good-natured curiosity.
“It hasn’t been easy, and it’s still not easy,” both Iqbal and Amy commented on taking the first step. That’s what it is, taking the first step, making the first move, starting a conversation. That’s what you have to do as an ‘other’, because you need to integrate yourself, rather than wait to be welcomed. In an increasingly cold climate against outsiders in destination countries, it’s more necessary than ever for international students to step out of their comfort zone. As for mature students, in a way it’s even more difficult to subvert norms because hardly anyone talks about this experience.
Iqbal tells me that “it starts with [your own] thinking”. Everyone has expectations of things they’re yet to know, and sometimes these presumptions hinder our understanding of whatever, whoever, it is that we’re getting to know. In one of his freshman parties, someone who saw Iqbal said, “Get the boat man out of here”, to which Iqbal replied, “Excuse me, what did you mean by that?” He was not aware of the slur then, and in a strange way, that innocent lack of assumption regarding the other’s actions, came to change his approach to adapting to a different culture. He came to erase his own preconceptions before meeting people – ones that are made from the labels of their race, gender, nationality – to get to know them as whoever they may be. Consequently, he worried not about what they may think of him either. And that had been how he’d been finding himself better between the cultures through the years. As for the guy who drunkenly insulted him, Iqbal’s genuine question took him by surprise, through which he realised what he’d said. In an amusing twist of fate, they later became housemates.
For Amy, overcoming hesitations and approaching another student is also not simple, albeit rewarding. “When I was in Australia, it was age rather than nationality that distinguished me,” and while native English-speaking students tend to come together, mature students are even more likely to seclude themselves, or be secluded.
“But most students, once they got to know me, after making that initial contact, they often tell me that I’m just like every other student.” She, too, sneaks food up to the fourth floor of the Bill Bryson, is intrigued by rants on Durfess and fusses over deadlines. “I don’t see people as ‘oddities’,” Amy said. She’d rather get to know a person as who they are, what they enjoy and value, what their mindset is like.
When I set out asking other students what they thought of the phenomenon of student migration, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to hear in response. My understanding used to be that students will be pro-mobility, because our world is so inter-connected, not just because of the Internet but also with the aid of intergovernmental organisations like the UN and their sustainable development goals. Because people like Bill Gates, like the Obamas, are constantly creating and promoting projects beyond borders to give people better chances in life. Because the quest for mobility is a universal one, isn’t it?
My whole-hearted belief in the good of mobility has recently been challenged by the growing backlash against a more fluid world. Increasingly, within a community, we are more cautious of outsiders; wthem. Many of us stop seeing them as people; we see them as ‘immigrants’ – a word that, Amy recalled, Britons who’d emigrated to Australia won’t use to refer to themselves. It’s just another label like ‘othering’ and ‘oddity’.
We attach labels to and typecast outsiders
It may be easy to adopt a pessimistic outlook, one that necessarily claims that humanity and empathy and tolerance are on the decline, that we are all selfish creatures who’d rather isolate than interact. But that would ultimately be against all that I’ve learnt from talking to these two different and yet similar students. Instead, from here on out I will strive to be more open-minded, to not try and gauge others without getting to know them, and to hope that they will do the same, too.
Illustration: Heidi Januszewski