Kenya flags fly high at SLU on laptops, hats, and wristbands, but you’d be mistaken to think that this public gesture reflects student engagement with African issues and events on campus. You show up for an African Student Union meeting and notice the absence of those laptop flags, hats, and wristbands. Then you go to Africa night and don’t see the faces you expected: the same faces that fly high on the Kenya Semester Program (KSP) blog.
The obvious conclusion is that impostorship is at play, but it is much more than that. After discussing this topic with close friends, a pattern emerged and an underlying problem surfaced. For many, studying abroad has turned into tourism: visiting exotic places only to return and boast of their privilege. Study abroad programs are commodified for use on resumes, used to prove that one isn’t racist, and to mark worldliness.
For those who come from these nations, it can have a rancoring effect. Why wouldn’t you engage with ASU meetings and events after spending months in Kenya?
I asked the few former KSP students this question, and the answers were insightful. One student said, “I fear acting like some kind of local Kenyan expert after being there for four months, nothing compared to the people who have lived there for a majority of their lives. I don’t want to step on any toes. I think it is also easy to assume that groups like ASU are more exclusive than they are meant to be.” This reply showcased an irrational fear, what another interviewee called “white fear.” To them, this fear ran contradictory to the observation that “the few international students I connected with have been some of the most influential and important friendships for me, helping me reflect and build upon my experience abroad.”
The fear of judgment and rejection was a running theme. One student mentioned “It’s so easy when you hear of an ASU to subconsciously excuse yourself because you’ve already done your part to learn about systemic oppression and other cultures, and it is other people’s turn.” This shows the willingness to diffuse responsibility on campus when it comes to social issues.
Fulfilling one diversity requirement does not mitigate the social issues that surround us. Furthermore, internationalism should not stop when study abroad programs stop; there are many opportunities to continue engaging with difference on campus. This goes to show how flawed the diversity and inclusion machinery is for many colleges with study abroad programs.
The privilege of choice continues to constrain interactions that could be beneficial. This manifests the question: should study abroad programs institute bridging programs so that returning students do not waste the time and money programs like KSP spend to promote intercultural connections, when clearly some individuals are regressing from the experiences they had abroad.
A failure of some KSP students to engage with ASU events is an indication that study abroad programs fail to create a student body that continuously engages in difference. International students have long felt used as ornaments of diversity. Resentment builds when an international student witnesses their fellow students or friends go abroad, take pictures, indulge in their cultures, and return to be indifferent to their efforts of furthering internationalism at SLU. The dearth of enthusiasm sometimes extends to classrooms, discussions are always filled awkward silence, even though everyone has an opinion that is worth hearing.
In the attempt to create intercultural connections, we have somehow created a system that celebrates differences but also reinforces them. The KSP program is valuable, and in isolation is an intimate educational experience for those who are passionate to learn more about Kenya. SLU students are welcomed into homes, shown ways of life that even some Kenyans are oblivious to, and given opportunities that many of us Kenyans would not land if we were to return home. SLU students are given guidance, institutional protection, and form fulfilling friendships.
This point is illustrated by a reflection posted on the KSP blog: “I am so incredibly grateful for my experience with my urban host family— I wish it was longer than three weeks! I was able to get very close with my two host brothers and two host sisters. I didn’t realize how alike we are; we all loved similar music and movie genres, as well as being outdoors and spending time with our families.”
To this comment, I say that the KSP experience can be prolonged. Whenever you see an ASU themed event, take the initiative and go! It’s the same initiative you took to decide that studying abroad in Kenya was something you wanted to do.
One interviewee found it easier to connect with her fellow classmates abroad than on campus. She said, “I engaged with difference while in Kenya because the other students were way outside of my social group, and I don’t think I would have otherwise interacted with them.” Upon their return, these bonds are maintained through KSP mixers and close friendships.
The question remains: why don’t study abroad students use their experiences to aid the spread of internationalism on campus?
I acknowledge that it must be analyzed case by case, but the current college climate inhibits interactions. Clubs and organizations at SLU are correlated to our identities. It is a production of America’s history and continuous struggle to include those who have been excluded. Because of this ASU can be perceived as a Black Africans only club, this assumption is FALSE. There is no need to segregate ourselves based on identity. I don’t blame KSP alumni for seeking out what makes them comfortable; as a foreigner on campus, I can relate to that.
It is a reality that one cannot comfortably join a club unless they identify with it, but it is through discomfort that we change the status quo, hence me sharing my opinion and criticizing people who willingly went to Kenya.
However, the reality is that there has been a dearth of hospitality for international students from the student body. Our events are less attended, our insights ignored and our presence unwelcomed.
I will finish by sharing a personal experience that still lingers in my mind. During a class, I witnessed my fellow classmates ignore a stunningly ignorant statement. This is partially out of context, but during a presentation, one student said, “This was surprising, especially considering how dirty international students are.” The student later realized their slanderous statement, but the lack of response from her fellow classmates who knew better disturbed me. Instead the class resorted to first looking at me, then to having critical side conversations, and then the matter went unattended.
I would have loved a student who studied abroad to offer some support and counter such inanity. However, the reality is that many continue to remain quiet and uninvolved, and it is hurting the integrity as well as the trust of international students.