Bringing the international experience to the diversity conversation at CMU

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Being an international student at Carnegie Mellon is a strange experience, and each of us has our own anecdotes about what exactly makes it weird. Too often we find ourselves in social situations where we feel out of place, as if perhaps administrators, professors, and colleagues don’t know exactly how to interact with us. This is, of course, not to say that some domestic students don’t have very similar or worse experiences or not even that all these experiences are necessarily negative or discriminatory, but in our essay, we want to make the case that our poorly defined role within the university often works to our disadvantage and serves to exacerbate or perpetuate prevailing injustices.

Let’s start with the assertion that by nature we should be a strong voice on campus simply because there are a whole lot of us. This is the case despite the abusive treatment we have received throughout the Trump administration, ranging from Muslim bans to unflattering descriptions of our homes such as “shithole countries.” During the pandemic, we were politicized and used as bait to exert pressure on universities to revert to in-person instruction quickly with the latent threat of otherwise kicking us out of the country. We would also be remiss to leave out the whole discourse around the pandemic with terms such as the “Kung Flu” and “Chinese virus” being used by even certain members of our university’s faculty.

On top of this, other immigration policies and enforcement that targeted specific portions of our international student population have been introduced. At the same time, the university administration was slow at communicating the impacts of these governmental attempts at making our lives harder, and it too put pressure on us to not travel to our homes to visit our families because it would lead to an added administrative burden for them. To this day, we hear on a regular basis anecdotal evidence of poor treatment of international students, the verbal attacks on Chinese students went uncommented, and it is unclear to us how the administration plans to guarantee that many of us will graduate safely into a pandemic labor market where our difference in immigration status is already a major disadvantage. When we inquired with administrators if we could obtain numbers of current students who are not even physically present on campus because they couldn’t obtain a visa, we were told Carnegie Mellon does not currently collect this data accurately. Despite all these obstacles, we still constitute a solid 60 percent of the graduate student population, majorities both among MS and Ph.D. students, and a significant minority of undergraduate students. These numbers have only recently started to stagnate and now decline with COVID-19.

Differences in citizenship or immigration status are of course not the only prerequisites for discrimination. Latent and sometimes not so latent classism can affect Korean nationals just the same as it can affect ethnic Korean U.S. citizens. Because Black and brown people in the United States suffer from a system of racial authoritarianism in how they are treated by the state that endures to this day, it is only right that this issue is a central piece of the university discourse these days. Yet, in all of these efforts for diversity and inclusion now en vogue, there are no concrete items addressing the international student community.

We strongly feel that this is to the detriment of not just our own wellbeing as a constituency on campus, but also the notion of “inclusivity.” Many of us have a wealth of experience to draw on to contribute to current debates on campus and would be eager to participate, even if we sometimes lack depth on U.S. issues or face linguistic barriers. What we should realize, though, is that doing so is extremely difficult if the framing of diversity issues remains one with only a domestic perspective in mind. One example of this is the strong urge to “categorize” people into groups such as “Asian” and “Hispanic,” which often leads to head-scratching among international students. It is unfortunate to constantly use such a limiting frame for this debate because international students can often bring very interesting and informed perspectives to the table, e.g. in talking about their experience with Hispanic identities and how it might add to the understanding of current domestic trends in the U.S. Some of us also hail from countries with very dark and painful historical records and our own experience of how to grapple with grave injustices could greatly enrich the discourse on topics such as modern-day apartheid systems or extreme right-wing terrorism, to name just two pertinent examples. For this to occur, however, we need institutional support too. The administration and student government leaders should come up with a coherent vision for their diversity efforts that fully integrates international students and our experiences into the whole.

Carnegie Mellon prides itself on being a world-class institution that is able to attract talent from across the globe. University leaders don’t shy away from attending global fora and use tools like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to justify our tepid efforts on sustainability issues. Our presence here as international students is beneficial to its reputation and bottom line and is often used in metrics to rank academic institutions. So our conclusion is a simple one: our voices matter, and they deserve to be heard. So why are we so often left out?

The authors are Ana Cáceres and Peter Tschofen, Ph.D. students in Engineering and Public Policy and founding members of ISA-CMU, a new student organization which advocates broadly for international students.