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Yvonne Yen, a senior studying strategic communications, poses for a portrait in Schoonover Center on College Green in Athens, Ohio. (HANNAH SCHROEDER | FOR THE POST)

International students find home in Athens, despite perceived American indifference

When Yvonne Yan came to Ohio University, she met students who were about 30 years behind in their understanding of her country.

Those students believed China was in economic turmoil, that its people worked primarily in factories and wore outdated clothing.

That was enough for Yan to realize some American students were completely detached from global affairs in ways she didn’t expect.

However, as an international student from Qingdao, China, Yan said she is committed to understanding different cultures from around the world.

“I just want to know the world,” Yan, a senior studying strategic communication, said.

With some American students expressing little interest in global issues, Yan said it can be difficult for international students like her to make deep connections with domestic students.

Global Disinterest

Indifference toward the international community has been instilled in many Americans from a young age, Amritjit Singh, the Langston Hughes professor of English and African American Studies, said. Being from Ambala Cantonment, India, Singh said it is often the opposite case for developing countries around the world.

“If (one is) growing up (in India), anything that happens in (Washington) D.C., whether they want it (to) or not, has an effect on them, ” Singh said. “That’s not true for American kids. What happens in New Delhi, what happens in Beijing, what happens in Cairo … it doesn’t have any material difference.”

For example, Singh said he suspects few students know of periods of historical consequence such as India’s partition, which began in 1947 and split the British-Indian Empire into Pakistan and India, leading to a legacy of violence that is still ongoing. Singh taught a course during Spring Semester of 2016 titled "Literature of India’s Partition." It attracted only six students.

Hannah Truman, a freshman from Lima, Ohio, studying studio art and psychology, said she sees truth behind the stereotype that suggests Americans are uninterested in matters outside their country. Truman said she stays informed through what she is taught in classes and what she hears from friends who follow global news.

“I personally am guilty of not being very aware,” Truman said.

Growing up, she said her family was not always informed or interested.

“I know that there are very many people who don’t bother worrying about (issues outside of) the square of what’s going on in their lives,” she said.

Yan saw the disinterest firsthand when she attended the 9th UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, France, in 2015. Under the supervision of the U.N., approximately 500 youth representatives from countries around the world discussed the effects of climate change and the goal of a sustainable future.

Last year, after applying for the position, Yan was selected to be one of the 25 representatives from China. However, she said she was not aware of any American representatives at the conference, which surprised her.

“It’s important that young Americans who are going to be responsible citizens, who may have positions where they affect policy and the future, are as well-informed as they can be,” Singh said. “But the incentive is not very strong.”

In a lecture series called the Global Awareness Program, Singh and other professors used a grant from the 1804 Fund, which was established by the Ohio University Foundation, to create a three-year series focusing on topics such as the perception of women globally, the Islamic faith and global poverty. The lectures held in smaller spaces routinely attracted 30 to 40 students, and the sessions held in an auditorium setting brought in up to 200 attendees. Singh said he hoped the program’s success would lead to an added international studies course as part of the general education requirements for all students. It did not.

Western Bias

When searching for news about the U. N. youth forum she attended, Yan said she found in-depth coverage of the event through news media reports in China and other countries, but saw little mentioned in American publications. Yan said the lack of in-depth international coverage by American news outlets could be leading to disinterest in domestic readership.

Using Google Trends, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog explored American interest in countries around the world. It compared the number of times a country was searched on Google to the number of times each country was mentioned on U.S. television news from 2009 to 2016.

The search found the U.S.’s closest neighbors were among the top countries searched by Americans. Mexico held the No. 1 spot, while Canada held No. 3. Searches showed little interest in countries in Africa and central Asia.

The number of times people searched a country mirrored how often American broadcasters mentioned that country.

In a Forbes article reporting with the same data, Kalev Leetaru wrote, “media outlets are themselves reflections of the distinct interests of their respective readership.”

Data showed a clear interest in Russia, China and the Middle East in American media. Central Africa and central Asia were little-discussed by broadcasters, and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Northern Africa and South Asia were discussed on even fewer occasions.

Content often focused on countries close in proximity to the U.S. as well as those experiencing conflicts with the potential to impact the U.S.

Without coverage of international issues readily available, Yan said interested students may have trouble staying informed.

“Some people are very interested in global affairs, but they don’t know how to get (involved),” Yan said.

Embracing Diversity

International students can add diverse opinions to conversations in classrooms and social settings, which would otherwise be quite “homogenous,” Singh said.

“(Diversity) has a completely dramatic effect on people’s consciousness and people’s thoughts,” Singh said. “(In the classroom), it will be one discussion if all of the students are white men and women, but a completely different discussion when you have some African-Americans, some Chinese-Americans, people from India, people from Ghana, Korea.”

Winsome Chunnu-Brayda, the strategic director for diversity and inclusion and multicultural programs and initiatives at the Multicultural Center, said students should work on building unity between people of different nationalities.

“What we see is a lot of diversity on college campuses, but what we do not see is all those diversities coming together. So the international students stay together, the white students stay together, … the LGBT students stay together, the black students stay together,” she said. “What we’re not seeing is those students working together.”

Yan said she sees that happening when international students group together in the classroom. In some cases, she said students from the same country set up group chats to discuss what classes to take.

Last semester, Yan took a class with 10 to 15 Chinese students. They all sat together in the back of the class. The goal was not to avoid American students, Yan said, but rather to sit with friends, just as American students would.

“I think it depends on your personal social network,” Yan said.

Acclimating to Athens

Despite the challenges they face, international students find a temporary home in Athens.

Shivam Agrawal, a sophomore studying economics and philosophy and an international student from New Delhi, India, said he is not “picky” when finding friends.

“Culture is a coincidence; it doesn’t always form who the person is,” Agrawal said. “You grow up in a culture, but you may not like it.”

Agrawal said he is completely comfortable associating with students outside of his culture. He even said it is sometimes more difficult to associate with Indian students than American students because not all Indian students speak the same language. Agrawal speaks Hinglish, a language combining Hindi and English. Exclusion often boils down to a language barrier, he said.

“I think there are some people who prefer to be with people of their culture versus any other culture or domestic students,” he said. “It is wherever people feel more comfortable.”

Still, some international students best adjust to the U.S. by connecting with other students from their home country.

Agrawal joined the Indian Students Association, a group whose Facebook page states its mission is to “connect all the Indian students at Ohio University,” and he thought the group helped him acclimate to life in Athens.

“When (international students) go to (international) events, there is a familiarity of the community there,” he said.

But Agrawal said it is still important to be accepting and open to diversity while making friends.

Chunnu-Brayda said there will always be “room for growth” in that area.

“Bridging isn’t going to happen on its own, and we need to be intentional about gaining as much experience and learning as much as possible from each other,” Chunnu-Brayda said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re always going to be better off for it.”


Correction: A previous version of the photo captions incorrectly spelled Yvonne Yan's last name and misstated the location where one photo was taken. The captions have been updated to show the most accurate information. 

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