Amherst is currently one of only seven institutions across the United States that is need-blind for international students. Yet, looking at student experience after matriculation, it’s clear that the college and community is failing its international student population. We comprise around 11.5 percent of Amherst’s population, and yet are given so little physical and discursive space in comparison.
First off, there is a major problem in the amount of physical space allocated to international students. Unlike other affinity groups on campus, international students have no identity-centered theme houses dedicated to them, forcing any international students to “borrow” other spaces and locations in order to hold community-building events. The Center for International Student Engagement (CISE) is the only space on campus solely dedicated to international students, and it is also the second smallest of the resource centers: this, despite the fact that any time you walk into CISE, you’re likely to see it filled with students talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s not as if the demand for international community spaces doesn’t exist — the International Students Association (ISA) has been campaigning for an international student theme house for a while — the college simply has been delaying its implementation.
In addition to the shortage of physical space that they are given, international students are also made to feel unwelcome in the broader academic and social spaces at the college. Much of what is discussed in our classes, for example, is U.S.-centric — perhaps to be expected when studying in an American school — but nonetheless feels deeply isolating when the only “news” that gets brought up in classroom discussions is American politics (with the exception of the Ukraine War, which, likely because U.S. national interests play a role in it, is one of the only foreign events to have entered our conversational cultural zeitgeist). (In general, there is an argument to be had that many Amherst classes and departments are too American or Western-centric, though that’s an article for a different time.)
Moreover, even when they are acknowledged, international students are often made into a stereotyped monolith, with the individuality of each of our cultures, countries, and identities reduced to the mere state of being foreign. This feels deeply problematic, because to some extent it feels as if our identity is defined by our being rendered “outsiders” by society to some degree, rather than the parts of our identity we wish to honor and claim. This simplification of our identities ignores the uniqueness of our experiences. For example, one of the authors remembers, in response to mentioning their being on financial aid, someone asking, “Oh, but aren’t you international?,” as if international-student status automatically reveals something about our educational journey and socioeconomic status.
In particular, the authors would like to discuss the relationship between the BIPOC international and non-international community. Firstly, in our experiences, many of the BIPOC affinity spaces on this campus are geared towards American students — not in name, perhaps, but in spirit. The conversations that are had and the speakers brought in tend to be tailored to the immigrant or BIPOC American experience. These are certainly extremely important topics to focus on, but it feels isolating for us international students to have to strain to relate our unique life experiences to these discussions. To that point, we think there’s nothing wrong with affinity groups that focus specifically on the BIPOC American experience, but there’s a frustrating discrepancy between their claims to inclusivity and the American-specific angle of much of their programming. As a result, many international students interact much more with their fellow non-Americans than they do with domestic students sharing the same racial or ethnic identity, and a subtle line is drawn between the international and non-international community.
In our experience, this divide is a big detriment to our social community. Tensions often arise between BIPOC domestic and international affinity groups, extremely counterproductive on a predominantly white campus that upholds systems working against students of color. When intergroup conflict does take place, we international students often feel unable to defend ourselves in a way that many other groups on this campus can. This is due to the (perhaps only perceived, but constantly emphasized) precariousness of our visa statuses. Many of us are told by our parents to keep our heads down and study hard, lest we get in trouble with the administration — and the U.S. government. This only causes the further self-isolation of the international community. Rather than maintain this divide, we hope that domestic affinity groups can make greater efforts to welcome their international community members — and we hope to reciprocate in the same way.
International students are also given less space in terms of allocation of funding and resources by the college. The ISA has historically received little to none of the AAS funding it requests compared to other affinity groups (which already get such a low amount of funding to begin with), often being told to reach out to other resources such as CISE or the Office of Student Activities for emergency funds. One main reason for this, according to the Association of Amherst Students (AAS), is that the ISA doesn’t have “signature programs” — programs held by clubs that have a long-running history of being well-attended. However, considering the ISA’s newness as a student group, this feels needlessly discriminatory and counterproductive. After all, how is the ISA supposed to establish any new signature programs now if it can’t even get the funding for it? Why should the ISA look for other sources of funding at all when there is a student organization whose job is to provide resources for clubs and organizations?
Being an international student at Amherst has allowed us to have amazing experiences, meet a plethora of new people, and given us opportunities we never might have had in our home countries. At the same time, being an international student is a deeply isolating experience. Being thousands of miles away from our homes, often not being able to talk to our loved ones due to time differences, and adjusting to a completely new culture and country — it’s difficult to explain until you’ve actually undergone the experience. In the end, all many of us want is a place that we can feel safe and welcome, a home away from our home. But as we’ve discussed above, Amherst often hasn’t felt like the home we hoped and dreamed for it to be.
The Amherst administration and community alike need to do better for its international student population, and give us the spaces and resources, tangible and intangible alike, that we need.