In 1953, Columbia became the first American university to have more than 1,000 international students enrolled. In one of my classes last week, I heard the argument made that international students, just by being here, do more harm than good. It felt like a slap in the face. The reasoning was this: Columbia is an American university. Since it is an American university, Columbia’s primary duty is to educate as many American students as possible. Therefore international students, by occupying spots that could be occupied by more American students, are a detriment.
I’m sure several of you reading this now agree with that argument, and that’s OK. But as a non-American student at Columbia, I have functioned under the impression that, just as I cherish and learn from having classmates from Bulgaria and Boston and Brooklyn alike, my classmates cherish having my perspective in the conversation as well. I’ve been under the impression that my presence here is important for at least a couple of unselfish and education-enhancing reasons.
So, self-assured in my value here, I’ve justified trudging uphill in the snow to the International Students and Scholars Office to get form after form after meaningless form signed. I’ve tolerated being accepted but then turned away from internships that I’m legally entitled to, just because it would mean more paperwork for some HR intern. I’ve gritted my teeth and walked by drunken homeless men in Washington Square who want me to “go the fuck back to where I came from.” When I got off a 22-hour plane journey only to be pulled into an interrogation room at JFK, have a bright white light shined on my face, be asked to be a good girl now, and tell the officer, honestly this time, why I really came to America, I smiled through it because I knew I was of some value here. But in that seminar last week, for the first time in my three years in New York City, I had no defenses. For the first time, I felt unwelcome.
It was the first time I was told—by people whose opinions I respect, no less—that I am just taking up a seat they’d rather have someone else sitting in. It was the first time I was told that my being in that seat held no educational benefits whatsoever. It was selfish of me to be there. I was unnecessary and, moreover, I was a barrier in Columbia’s way to its goal of educating as many Americans as possible.
I’ve thought about that argument a lot since. Are acceptance and cultural sensitivity not essential components of a wholesome education? Even if Columbia’s duty, as an American university, were to educate as many Americans as possible, would we consider them educated if they hadn’t learned a thing or two about dealing with difference? As I see it, a university’s role in a global city is not all that different from a university’s role in New Haven or Providence or Hanover or Ithaca. In terms of globalism, a university’s role, no matter where it is, is to cultivate an ethic of acceptance. A university’s role is to hammer home the fact that you learn a whole lot about the world from interacting with it. When you’re already in a global city, rubbing shoulders with the world every time you get on the 1 train, it’s just a little more urgent.
From my years living in Mumbai and in New York, I’ve come to understand that a global city is one that understands and thrives on diversity. It is an open and enthusiastic invitation to the world. Come visit, come stay, come let us learn from you! On the one hand, Columbia’s role in New York City is to cultivate that ethic ASAP. On the other hand, by bringing in scholars from around the world, sending them out into the workforce as interns and graduates, displaying their artwork, and publishing their writing, Columbia should be leading the city with an example of acceptance.
I know that I’ve learned far more about the world from my friends than I have from my classes. I’ve learned far more about America from dating a Kansas boy than I would from any book or seminar. Columbia has prepared me to thrive in a global city because it has forced me to work with and understand the value of befriending people of all nationalities, religions, and political orientations. I can only hope that when it’s time to don blue caps and gowns and walk through those 116th Street gates into the most global city in the world, Columbia will have done the same for everyone here.
Rega Jha is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. She contributes regularly to The Canon.