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“Their Homes Encircle the Globe”:
Penn’s International Students

In 1902, the year of the Gazette’s founding, Pennsylvania natives made up the great majority of Penn students, accounting for 1,776 of the total enrollment of 2,517. Even then, however, the University was attentive to its geographic diversity. The very first volume of Old Penn, the Gazette’s precursor, included a report on the organization of a Penn alumni society in Japan, and the November 7, 1908, edition boasted of the students of Old Penn that “their homes encircle the Globe.”

“In the fear of ‘foreign’ people that has come out of 9/11, we need
to make sure that
we remember the contributions that international
students make.”

“University Magnet for Foreign Students” was the headline for a March 22, 1922, article featuring a world map showing the 45 countries from which the 251 students had been drawn, including China, Japan, “twenty republics in different parts of the other Americas south of us,” Australia, New Zealand, “British South Africa,” “all parts of Europe,” “India, Siam, the Philippines, Syria, Persia and also from Armenia and Egypt.”

Noting that, due to a lack of English language skills, these students “may not appear to their best advantage,” the article urged readers to imagine themselves as students in a foreign country “and ask yourself whether your talents would shine out very brightly in those student bodies, with only a limited knowledge of the language … If we would think over this it would give us a little deeper sympathy with the difficulties of those who come to study in our midst.”

Three decades later, in “What Our Foreign Students Think of Us,” Iranian graduate student Ahmad Mesbah ASC’64 G’66 turned the tables, reporting on the results of a survey that questioned international students “on such topics as American education, the American way of life, and American foreign policy.”

There were by then about 1,200 students from more than 90 countries at Penn, according to the article. In these years just before U.S. campuses erupted in protest, the respondents found American students “less interested in politics [and] more attracted by sports,” and had mixed views on U.S. foreign policy, generally mirroring Cold War tensions. They felt that their American classmates had friendly attitudes toward them, for the most part, but that they lacked understanding of foreign students, their languages, and cultures.

For many, language was a difficult hurdle, Mesbah noted; even when students have learned English, “People speak too fast for them and use a lot of idioms and slang.” He told a story on himself involving his struggles with the words guy and cop and reported on the case of a German student who was shocked to find a package left for him bearing the word gift—“poison in German.”

The concerns raised above would sound familiar to Shalini Dev Bhutani GEd’86 Gr’94, director of the international students and scholars program in the Office of International Programs (OIP). Overcoming language barriers and strengthening the relationship between international and American students remain at the top of her list of issues.

As of Fall 2002, there are 3,820 international students at Penn, of whom 944 are undergraduates, and they come from about 125 countries. The top five “feeder” schools are China, Korea, India, Canada, and Japan. The Wharton MBA is the most popular graduate degree, while the College attracts the greatest number of undergraduates, with majors that “run the gamut,” she says.

To introduce students to the U.S. and the University, OIP schedules a two-and-a-half day special orientation prior to the regular new student orientation. “The first thing that students need to do is get used to their new cultural environment—new housing, new cultural norms. As classes start, the new academic environment becomes a big issue,” she says.

Both undergraduates and graduate students “would like to see more interaction between American students and international students,” Bhutani says. “Often as I’ve spoken with international students, they seem to identify with other international students.”

One “wildly popular” program aimed at fostering cross-cultural interaction is Talk and Taste, to which international students and students interested in Penn’s study-abroad programs (which are also managed by OIP) are invited to meet and sample
various national cuisines.

Ease with English continues to be an obvious help in acclimating to the U.S. For students from parts of the world, such as East Asia, where English tends to be “a language learned later on in life, it becomes an issue,” Bhutani says. “There are a large number of clubs on Penn’s campus, and I think the international students seek solace within those groups,” she adds. “There is a very strong network” formed at these clubs, although they don’t address the issue of bringing students together across cultures, “so while it offers some solace, it offers perhaps a less than perfect solution.”

To the perennial challenges facing international students, laws passed in the aftermath of September 11, such as the USA Patriot Act of October 2001, have added a new wrinkle. While overall numbers are up by about 350 this year compared to Fall 2001, there were a “record number [of international students] either denied or delayed in the visa process” because of “issues of homeland security,” says Bhutani.

For students in 26 identified countries, mostly in the Middle East, new requirements for visa applicants have been imposed. “It has subjected them to greater scrutiny and lengthier security processing timelines,” she says. In some cases, the students managed to make it to the University in time, others deferred admission until Spring 2003, “and we’ve lost a few students to other countries,” she says.

Bhutani calls on the rest of the Penn community to recognize the unique value that international students bring to the University. While recent events give her words greater urgency, it is the same sentiment expressed by the Gazette writer in 1922—and one that would also ring true to members of other groups, once unwelcome on campus, that have enriched the Penn community (see accompanying article).

“In the fear of ‘foreign’ people that has come out of 9/11, we need to make sure that we remember the contributions that international students make—that we go out of our way to accommodate their needs,” she says. “We at the University have a responsibility to these people who have come here sometimes at tremendous sacrifice on the part of their families. We need to make them feel comfortable, we need to provide resources to them, we need to provide support to them—not necessarily more than we do for other students on campus, but certainly this is a large and very important part of the University.”

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/04/02