Ethnic student social groups are a negative.
Crazy statement, right? It’s even crazier if you know that I grew up in one of the least diverse places in America, Lyndonville, Vermont, which has a population of 5,900 that is 96.82% white.
But wait… before you start calling me a racist, idiot, or some other terrible name, you should know that I’m the President of Culture Adapt, the company that’s innovating the way people learn cross-culturalism.
So now that you’re thoroughly confused, your mind should be open viewing the world in a different way. Maybe you realize that not everything is as it seems and that there may be some truth to my initial statement. So, without divulging too much information too quickly, let me first tell you about my journey and how I came to this realization.
It was 2003, and I was about to start freshman year at WPI. I received an email stating that my freshman roommate would be Ivan LaBruna, from Italy. I thought to myself, “Wow. That’s really cool. Can’t wait to meet him!” Not a single negative thought like, “I hope this guy speaks English” or “I hope he acts American”, went through my head. I wanted to meet someone different, with a different background and different view on life.
Within the first week I could tell Ivan would be a lifetime friend of mine and because we got along so well, I was invited to events that the International Student Council held. It was great meeting such diverse, nice, intelligent people. Students from India, Cyprus, Venezuela, Costa Rica, China… it was an eye opening experience for this redneck kid from the middle-of-nowhere, Vermont.
I couldn’t get enough of the international events and crowd. I went to so many that I started being known as “The American”. Why? Because I was the only American at them. Maybe it’s changed since I was in school, but Americans weren’t encouraged to go to these international events.
Some of my Latino friends would throw insane parties and every time I walked in the door they would yell, “Gringoooo!!!!” It always brought a smile to my face. My Turkish buddy liked to jokingly call me “White Trash” because of my small town upbringing. Were these names offensive to me? No. In a way they were terms of endearment and even acceptance. I was the one American that they had grown close enough to joke around with. I was happy that I was able to connect on a personal level and become friends with these people.
So why was I able to “infiltrate” this group of international students? Was it my knowledge of cross-culturalism? Was it the fact that I’d been around the world and was culturally competent? No. It was simply the fact that I wanted to learn and had few pre-conceived notions about other ethnicities.
This open-mindedness led me to another life-changing experience, which was joining a fraternity. It was an experience I’ll always appreciate and one that has given me other lifelong friends. In some ways joining a fraternity is similar to joining a cultural club. All members are put through similar activities, surroundings, and experiences before being accepted. A culture you learn in months instead of years.
I was happy to have been accepted into two different groups but there was a problem. A barrier between my international friends and fraternity friends. A lack of understanding. A lack of cultural competence. Not just with the drunk fraternity guys… but with the intelligent, diverse internationals as well.
From my sophomore year to my senior year, I had two lives; one with the fraternity brothers and one with my international friends. I lived in the middle hoping one day, both would able to co-exist…but that day never came. As time went on I noticed that something similar had happened with the different ethnic social groups. Latinos hung out with Latinos. Turkish hung with Turkish. Indians hung out with Indians. Whereas, my freshman year we were all one happy international family. It was like people slipped back to a time before planes, the Internet and cultural diversity. I didn’t understand it and left school questioning why the world was this way.
Since my graduation day, I’ve lived as an expat in Suzhou, China, traveled to over 30 countries, started 2 companies and employed people from 8 different countries. All of the people from these experiences have one commonality: ethnic groups exist everywhere in the world. Not just at universities, but in offices, countries, and clubs.
Few publicly state the obvious but in 2011, Abrahao Araujo, a professor at the University of Hartford, published a paper called “Adjustment Issues of International Students Enrolled in American Colleges and Universities”. In the paper, Abrahao wrote that “…findings indicated that perceived support from interpersonal networks in the host country and from online ethnic social groups was negatively related to social difficulties.”
I too will state the obvious and say that I have seen these groups negatively affect students, employees, coworkers and friends. Only when people from different nations have a way to become educated on cross-culturalism and are then pushed beyond their cultural comfort zone… will we actually begin to understand each other.
I would ask you to go beyond your comfort zone… and see where it takes you.
Mike Miller, President of Culture Adapt