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Activism Focus

International Student Controversy At Duke University Serves As A Lesson

Emma Krampe February 21, 2019

On January 26th, the graduate adviser of the Masters in Biostatistics program at Duke University, Megan Neely, sent an email out to international graduate students expressing the dissatisfaction that two faculty members had with several Chinese students speaking Chinese loudly in the break rooms instead of English. The letter went on to warn students that continuing to not communicate in English might result in loss of research and internship opportunities with faculty members in the future. “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building,” the email went on.

Screenshots of the email immediately went viral, many pointing out that the United States has no official language and casual conversations out of the classroom should not be regulated by the program. Additionally, the email left many wondering what the consequences would have been had the students been from a different country.

While the adviser has since stepped down and an apology has been issued by the program and the university, the incident recalls the age-old debate about the necessity of speaking English in the U.S., a belief that is supported by many Americans across the country. President Trump was quoted in 2015 saying, “We’re a nation that speaks English, and I think that while we’re in this nation, we should be speaking English.”

This kind of rhetoric, evidently present not only within political mindsets, but within the upper echelons of academia as well, is concerning because it emphasizes the opposition that many have towards globalization while ignoring how important international students are to the U.S.. The ever competitive business of higher education in the U.S. hinges upon schools continuing to promote internationalism and diversity. With numbers of those seeking higher education declining, pulling students from outside the U.S. is essential to continue to fill classroom seats. This means enrolling students from various backgrounds and nationalities, hiring faculty members from across the world, and maintaining an image that everyone is respected on campus. But how can higher education achieve these goals when international students are under conditional obligations to “be more American?”

Benefits of international interaction for domestic students are clear with engaged U.S. students exhibiting improved cognitive skills, empathy, and intercultural communication. But beyond providing diversity and different cultural perspectives, international students have supported the U.S. economy and graduate degree programs for decades. Data released in 2017 showed international students contributed $30.5 billion and filled 373,000 jobs during the 2014-2015 school year. Perhaps even more than dollars, international students’ willingness to earn higher degrees in the U.S. has sustained graduate programs for decades. A report by the National Foundation of American Policy in 2017 showed foreign nationals outpacing U.S. citizens in U.S. science- and engineering- related graduate programs since 1995. The report lists 9 STEM majors where in 2015 over 50% of the slots were filled by international students and 4 majors where over 75% of students were international, including electrical engineering, petroleum engineering, computer engineering, and computer science programs.

These statistics confirm the financial value of international students to a university, and with that value, it is necessary to assess what American universities offer in return. With an expanding market for international student programs, the U.S. faces much more competition against other countries. Enrollments in the 2017-2018 school year show declines of 6.3% at the undergraduate level, 5.5% at the graduate level, and 9.7% at the non-degree level. As there are a variety of factors, including cost, at play, it is difficult to sort out how political and social climate are affecting enrollment numbers. However, institutions are right to be concerned about its effect when the President suggests that all Chinese students are spies or institutes a Muslim ban.

Overall, regardless of whether the Duke incident was well-intentioned or not, an isolated case or an admission of sentiments that reflect a broader sphere, perhaps what can be taken from this story is a growing need for cultural awareness and empathy. Certainly, even Temple University has room to grow in promoting acceptance and appreciation for its international students by encouraging international and domestic students to interact more. If the United States wants to continue to be competitive in the higher education market, its institutions will have to prove that they support internationalism, value global students, and can rise above xenophobia to offer opportunities to all students.