Mac International Student Orientation lags behind peers

By Kristina Doan

At the heart of Macalester’s mission lies our emphasis on internationalism. It is a place of diversity where globally aware students have a profound appreciation for other cultures. Our pride in Macalester’s international pillar transcends all our daily lives as we interact with one another both inside and outside of the classroom. However, many in the Macalester community continually question the necessity of an International Student Orientation (ISO). Some voice opinions that ISO is the cause of division among American and International Students (Mac Weekly 9/21/07 International Orientation: Who Needs It?). I would like to correct these misconceived notions of ISO by examining the purposes of International Student Orientation as well as addressing the argument that it creates divides within the student body.Compared to similar higher education institutions of our size, Macalester has one of the shortest international student orientation programs. Within a four day orientation, only two full days of programming are allocated to government regulations paperwork, presentations of immigration and other laws affecting international students and a brief excursion introducing the Twin Cities. The other days are devoted to picking up students every hour of the day from the airport (i.e. international mentors working from 5am to 2am), checking students into the dorms, opening bank accounts, informal shopping trips to Target (a store many have never heard of before) to purchase basic necessities. Arriving early to Macalester allows students to battle jet-lag from 48-hour journeys and adjust to time differences before the myriad of activities during All Student Orientation.

Similar institutions such as Carleton and Grinnell devote an entire week to solid programming, for which Macalester only allocates two days. The activities and objectives of Mac’s International Orientation are concrete and effective; however, it is hardly comparable to the amount of additional programming that could be done. Even with our emphasis on internationalism, similar institutions are providing their students with more time and opportunities to deal with culture shock and adjustment to American culture. Instead of asking the necessity of an ISO we should be asking why we are not doing more.

ISO and All Student Orientation have different goals. Imagine arriving to the states, utterly confused as to why cars are driving on the wrong side of the road and why people keep talking about a place called Target, which for all know you could be a zoo. The purposes and goals of ISO are to alleviate these initial shocks of a new environment and to provide support for students as they learn about the nature of a liberal arts education, the U.S. academic system (what are letter grades?), and U.S. culture. This time is also used to inform students of government regulations and fill out paperwork to abide by U.S. laws to remain in status. These regulations have an impact on the four years that students are at Macalester as well as beyond graduation. It is essential that we provide guidance for all these matters. All Student Orientation begins with a different agenda of campus tours, information on services offered at Mac and extracurricular activities that bring the first-year class together. Both orientations provide students support in their first few days at Macalester.

International student orientation is not the cause of the many divides present at Macalester. Finding commonalities and sharing similar experiences is only the beginning of adjustment to a new environment, this is true for both Americans and Internationals. There is no greater comfort than recognizing that someone shares similar customs, speaks the same language, or is simply a reminder of home. When we chose to expand our knowledge of other cultures is when we begin to value the true essence of a Macalester education, one that is focused on our diverse experiences. This process simply does not happen overnight and takes effort from the entire Mac community. As Macalester students, we should be aware of our own prejudices and misconceptions and not be quick to blame programs that seek only to support students. We know we are better than that.

For a college community that values internationalism as much as Macalester, we need to reexamine our focus on the real issues that create social divides, not on programs such as ISO that aim at our college’s mission to support every student. American students and international students share the responsibility of bridging the social divides within our community to eliminate false conceptions of identity politics. Appreciating internationalism requires us to support institutional frameworks like orientation that enable international students to succeed from the beginning.

Our experiences at Macalester are shaped by our choices, our attitudes and the bonds that we form with others. Let’s take this opportunity to embrace the diversity on this campus and breakdown socially constructed classifications to see for ourselves what internationalism really stands for. International orientation is vital in helping students adjust academically, socially, culturally to a new environment so that we can all benefit from an international perspective on our campus. So why can’t we all just be friends?