Nine percent is the golden number. Nine percent of Yale students have traveled thousands of miles to get here, New Haven, the foreign land. Somewhere shy of nine percent of Yalies do not speak this country’s mother tongue. Nine percent do not understand the way you dress. Nine percent want to meet you. Nine percent want to learn from you. Nine percent are international.
Nine percent is a considerable thread within our undergraduate social fabric. Behind this figure lie stories of arrival and integration, and as the number of international students at Yale has steadily increased, so have Yale’s efforts to assist its budding community.
International students come to meet the challenge of a liberal arts education in an alien country, with a very particular set of needs and backgrounds that cannot be expressed by the information on their F1 visas.
While Yale offers resources that specifically cater to internationals — a freshman orientation, cultural houses, an office for international students, special counseling — these programs also run the risk of singling these students out by offering isolated solutions to their unique demands.
As international students at Yale evaluate the available alternatives for assimilating to life at Yale, they might encounter the convenient realm of self-segregation or strike the balance of assimilation and self-reliance, all while treading the waters of self-discovery.
INTERNATIONALS AT YALE: A PRIMER
The current 9 percent statistic is nowhere near what the Yale international scene was just 20 years ago, and it is a resoundingly far cry from when the University admitted its first international student in the 1850s. Yale’s first centennial showcased no internationals among its student body, and there were “very, very few” during the 19th century, according to Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, the Yale historian and Larned professor emeritus of history. Yet among this select handful was Yale’s first ever international student, Smith said. Meet Yung Wing, class of 1854, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university.
A Chinese man educated by American missionaries, Wing had contact with other Yale missionaries in China, who provided for him to come to the United States, where he went to high school in the Hartford area. After graduating from Yale, he went back to his motherland as a great modernizer who aimed to model his own country after the U.S. He eventually married an American woman, had two children and died in Hartford in 1912 after dealing with a series of immigration issues.
Despite Wing’s missionary efforts to mobilize the Chinese into considering an American education, by Yale’s bicentennial only 30 internationals attended the University, half of which were Japanese missionaries. (Smith said he excluded Canadians from the numbers he provided due to their close ties to Americans.)
At Yale, Smith said, there was a lack of real interest in international issues for a long time, not only in academics but also in terms of recruitment. After the turn of the century, this small fraction of the College failed to increase due to a long period of world wars and harsh economic conditions. By 1950, there were just four international students in the entire freshman class, including the son of a Greek shipowner and two other wealthy Latin Americans.
The end of the Cold War and the extension of need-blind admissions to international students in the ’90s might have been an influential factor for the rise in internationals, but many, including Smith, have cited University President Richard Levin’s ambitious framework to turn Yale into a global institution of higher education as an important force behind the spike in the international population. To make Yale more appealing to the outside world, Levin’s strategy has included revamped resources for internationals, more aggressive recruitment and more study abroad opportunities. The number of international students today has grown by 44 percent to 1,910 from 1,331 since Levin took office in 1993.
“All of those things have led to where we are today. Now [international students] have services that did not exist 20 years ago,” Smith said. “You walk across the campus now, and you can’t help but overhear a group of people conversing in another language. It’s a sign of relative comfort.”
‘DEGREES OF INSULARITY’
When you are an international student, you are not only just “international.” You are also from China, or Colombia, or from a small Ethiopian town, or from one or more of upwards of 70 other countries represented in Yale College. International students may feel the need at some point — once their special orientation is over and they fall into the academic rut — to address cultural needs and ideas — or just eat the one national dish that takes them back home.
The most obvious options lie in the long-standing Yale cultural houses, particularly the Afro-American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Asian American Cultural Center, all of which are meant to provide a safe space for student minorities. But, for some students, a puzzling dichotomy tends to surge between the needs of internationals and the houses’ mission.
The biggest elephant in the room is probably the more-than-occassional friction between La Casa and the Latin American Student Organization. In response to a mixer titled “Colonizers and Colonized” — which was organized recently by LASO and Yale European Undergraduates and was scheduled to take place today before its cancellation — several members of La Casa spoke out in opposition on the event’s Facebook page. While Rosalinda García, director of La Casa and assistant dean of Yale College, said she was disturbed by the event’s colonization motif, a LASO treasurer Ilan Szekely ’11 stressed that political correctness did no more than force people to be conscientious of race and gender tensions.
International interviewees said members within the houses do not share similar backgrounds despite the apparent cultural overlap. And while Oscar Pocasangre ’11, political and cultural chair for LASO, guaranteed there is no longer a wide division like in previous years, Mariel Novas ’10 begged to differ. Novas is the former president of the Dominican Student Association, a student cultural group under the umbrella of La Casa, and she cited various reasons, including socioeconomic differences, behind the rift.
“I think there’s tension and dilemmas about cultural authenticity,” Novas said.
Ten of the 16 international students interviewed said cultural houses do not help internationals adapt to the U.S. at all, establishing the international community and cultural houses as different components.
Though García and Pamela George, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, declined to comment, Novas said she considers this belief to be a misconception that prevents both groups from working together well.
The nature of this discourse, in theory, should not strike anyone as surprising. After all, the creation of the cultural centers in the 1970s aimed to offer a safe space for ethnic minorities at Yale, a role that is perceived to be unchanged by international students. Most internationals interviewed agreed about where their own haven lies.
“OISS [the Office of International Students and Scholars on Temple Street] is our home away from home,” said Kunal Lunawat ’11, president of the International Student Organization. “It is our cultural house.”
Meanwhile, for instance, members of the Chinese Undergraduate Society at Yale (CUSY) — which is affiliated with the Asian American Cultural Center but is separate from the Chinese American Students Association — Betty Li ’10 and Eva Song ’13 admit to their group’s exclusivity, not without accrediting it as the result of a very tight-knit culture.
Lunawat drew the technical distinction between OISS, the houses and smaller cultural groups.
“By definition,” he said, “ ‘international’ is a broader term than ‘South Asian’ or ‘Latin American.’ The degrees of insularity and inclusiveness vary.”
VISITORS COMING HOME
Yung Wing might have appreciated Yale’s concern today with easing the adaptation process and providing its international students with the tools to adjust to life abroad.
For one thing, internationals have the option of arriving on campus a few days before Camp Yale for the Orientation for International Students — commonly known as OIS— specifically designed to meet the needs of international freshmen. The orientation, which has been organized by OISS since 2000, is meant to help students not only take care of practical matters (bank accounts, cell phones, etc.) but also fosters a community of potential friends and acquaintances experiencing the same challenges, which OISS assistant director and adviser Monica Weeks said develops a solid network regardless of where you come from.
In fact, OIS is mostly run by international upperclassmen who guide the newly arrived students in discussions and skits about classes, annoying roommates and what exactly is a hipster. You play a gargantuan game of “Never have I ever” in Beinecke Plaza where taking your shoes off and running substitutes drinking. You learn about the party scene at Yale, you take shopping trips, and you garner laughs with geographical stereotypes at a talent show. On their own, every talk and every activity is meant to present freshmen with a different and relevant aspect of the college lifestyle, be it social, cultural or academic. As a whole, these initiatives provide a succinct introduction to life at Yale.
“I loved it,” said Teresa Benet ’13, an OIS attendee from England. “It gives you a friendship base before getting to college, plus an extra week to adapt while having the campus to yourself.”
Students enjoy four days of empty Yale grounds before freshman orientation, as well as an earlier move-in date. As soon as these days are over, the campus is flooded with the remaining undergraduates, and culture shock inevitably takes hold.
“One day, you’re just with internationals, and then the next day you’re surrounded by 1,000 Americans,” Benet said. “But how else is it supposed to be?”
Weeks estimates more than 80 percent of the incoming international freshmen attends OIS every August, starting out their Yale experience surrounded by people who share what Weeks calls “an additional layer of challenges.”
This shared experience, said Netherlands native Anne van Bruggen ’13, inherently brings international students together, which can seem like exclusive behavior to Americans. This connection brings about what many of those interviewed agreed is a natural inclination toward islation; wanting the company of those similar to you is the comfortable choice — a social phenomenon so innate and simple you can even see it in the dining halls, in tables where students speak only one foreign language over dinner. Even within OIS, Benet said, one could notice a loose formation of geographical cliques, parallel to the way people find niches in extracurriculars due to mutual interests.
Weeks acknowledged that in some ways OIS might reinforce the seclusion of internationals for the sake of developing a strong support system for students to start with. But Laura Gonzalez ’11, one of the head OIS counselors last summer, said OIS is meant to be a resource, not an experience that defines your path for the next four years.
“It’s a base you’re meant to leap out of,” she said. “We are all tabula rasa when we get here. We have varying levels of success, but you have to branch out.”
For Gonzalez, adaptation has no relation to nationality; instead, it is a personal process that involves all undergraduates as they delve into college life. The international students who do not leave the international niche, she assured, will not enjoy their time at Yale.
In some cases, OIS is the road not taken. When she decided to do the FOOT pre-orientation program instead of OIS, Song only wanted to camp, something she had never done before. In hindsight, she said, it took her a while to “take care of business,” like getting a cell phone. What’s an even more sensitive situation is her minimal contact with American culture prior to coming here. But Song now seems less concerned on this latter point.
“Internationals, we share a bond,” she assured.
Benet identifies herself as British. In spite of her dual citizenship (she has an American passport) she has always lived in the United Kingdom, and she has the captivating accent that Americans love to prove it. So when a representative from La Casa reached out to her, she was taken aback.
It turned out she was contacted because she had mentioned in her college application that her paternal grandfather was Cuban, and so she said La Casa made the connection just in case she needed any kind of counseling — assistance, she was sure, she did not need.
“You get put into so many different categories, it’s a little overwhelming,” she said, with a laugh.
Benet had been contacted by a peer liaison, an affiliate to any of the cultural houses or a particular office — including OISS — meant to provide a second hand for freshman counselors, be it through cultural, spiritual or just regular one-on-one counseling. The Peer Liaison Program, heir to the now extinct ethnic counselor program that started in 1972, is undergoing its pilot year, and a major difference consists in how freshmen must now opt into the program. However, Af-Am peer liaison Akina Younge ’11 clarified that the peer liaison must make the first move: he or she has to reach out to his or her freshmen and let their presence be known. But in terms of who gets to identify whom, matters can get tricky.
“You can’t assume that someone readily identifies with something,” Gonzalez said. Gonzalez started out her freshman year with an appointed Mexican-American ethnic counselor, someone she said shared nothing in common with since Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican, identifies herself as an international student.
Now, with a less aggressive approach from peer liaisons, they have become more of a point of contact throughout the year and less of a second froco. For internationals, the program represents a new addition to the international support grid after the initial transition, a resource that did not exist before this year.
“It’s a positive step,” Weeks said. “It helps to keep up with the students that may have fallen in the cracks.”
The opposite outcome sees students like Benet implicitly opting out of the program, not because they do not see any value in it, but because of an abundance of support that includes the informal advice of the OIS counselor.
Li, the CUSY member and Benet’s international peer liaison, does not think a low level of contact between internationals and their peers is indicative of internationals’ failure to integrate into Yale’s social scene. In fact, it may just mean the student is trying to be more independent, she said.
Younge agreed that it is necessary for peer liaisons to be first to make contact with international students if they do so cautiously, since a student might feel resentment if he or she is assumed to identify with a certain ethnicity.
“For peer liaisons, it’s better to over-outreach and be denied than to miss someone who might need your help,” she said.
At this stage, Younge concedes the peer liaisons are currently in “a guinea pig program” with little structure among the houses and offices. Even so, relationships with peer liaisons may more often than not turn out to be success stories. Van Bruggen, for one, has found close friends behind the role of peer liaisons, a revealing precedent where the resource (whether it’s a peer liaison or any other kind of counselor) that is meant to help students adapt can go beyond its expected duty.
At the ISO’s “Lumina,” the group’s annual cultural review show, a sketch comedy group performed a skit where a group of international students are overly celebrated — and singled out — by a clueless host.
While the overexcitement over internationals grips everyone from President Levin to your curious roommate, Yalies show almost no prejudice. In a world where differences and similarities regulate all kinds of human connections, how internationals view themselves relative to American depends on what aspect of adaptation is being contrasted.
As a class, we face finals, bluebooking, naked runs and tragedy together. But an American does not necessarily have to file special taxes, or apply for special visas, or make special arrangements during breaks. The word of the day is special.
“I feel proud to be international. It makes you feel special,” van Bruggen says with joy. Her eyes light up. “It transforms you but it’s not something you’re always aware of even though comes up a lot on a daily basis.”
It is a given that everybody who comes to Yale is adapting. But the things that are culturally different for internationals, from meals and lunchtimes to going out in sweatpants, do not fetter Americans. These little details present challenges to the international kid, who took the first step out of a bubble when applying to Yale.
When it comes to building friendships of any kind, internationals see how the cultural breach dissipates, stripping the geographical and idyllic boundaries we long to straddle.
“There is no divide; the line is blurred,” Gonzalez declared.
With conviction, she said there is no resource that can replace full assimilation.
“Yale can’t make the decision for you. It’s not black and white — all of Yale is a gray area.”
In Lunawat’s mind, the word of the day is still special: The international factor is precisely what saves the international community from isolation. Yet international self-perception is ever-changing. In American eyes, it’s a status. Through international goggles, the word is a mere fickle idea.
“Being international is such a fluid concept beyond what your passport says,” Pocasangre said. “There’s a little bit of everything here that you’re bound to identify with someone else.”
BEYOND THE NINE PERCENT
What will ultimately happen to our international community remains uncertain, but internationals, faculty and officials alike expressed a consensus: More cannot hurt. Just Thursday, a fresh batch of prefrosh surged up, a bundle of possibilities sparking all kinds of expectations.
Smith, the historian, predicted figures will go far beyond 10 percent, true to Yale’s current mission to expand its global scope. He decided to go a step further, suggesting that if the two new residential colleges are built, an increase in undergraduate enrollment in concurrence with the University’s philosophy may trigger a sharp increase in international statistics.
Weeks’ opinion follows the same line; the larger international community, she thinks, the better for students in terms of enriching college life and adjustment. As the numbers increase, more resources would become available and retain their purposes intact at the same time: to support, not segregate.
“Their goal is to exist for these students, not to stamp people,” Weeks said.
Nine percent is an accomplishment, enough to think of Yale as the most fascinating of microcosms. But more are are likely coming.
Meanwhile, internationals end up understanding that there’s no ideal or single way to adapt. Assimilation is whatever makes you feel at ease throughout the college experience, and while the process may not be smooth or perfect, international adaptation in our current backdrop does not mean adjusting to the customs of America, but to the culture of Yale.