International students reflect on political involvement in the U.S.

Dheera Yalamanchili, Contributing Writer

With various politically-affiliated student organizations, civic engagement opportunities and activism-oriented events, there is no shortage of opportunities for the Macalester community to get politically involved. While there are more than 300 international students at Macalester, they have very low participation rates in political activities on campus in comparison to the remaining student body.

According to MacDems student leader Jimmy Cooke ’20, there have been overall low participation rates so far this year, and there are currently no junior or senior international students that regularly attend meetings.

For first-year international student Shosuke Noma ’23, this news does not come as a surprise.

“Arriving at Mac, after two or three weeks, I’d be at the dinner table and everyone would be talking about which candidate is better,” Noma said. “I actually didn’t know any of these names. With schoolwork I was just too busy to be fully committed to getting to know more about different candidates.”

For many international students, their inability to vote is an important reason for forgoing political involvement on campus. 

“Because we don’t have the right to vote, which candidate is elected wouldn’t matter to me that much in comparison to a US citizen,” co-chair of the Chinese Culture Club, Long Hei ’22, said. “If there are issues that international students are involved in or will be influenced directly by, there will likely be more involvement.”

Hei also emphasized the significance of his background in his choice to stay politically uninvolved on campus.

“I wasn’t involved back in China,” he said. “There are not many opportunities to get involved in political issues. I think many of the Chinese students are a little bit conservative or not that eager to participate in political issues. We didn’t have a tradition of people participating in [political activism] back home.”

Despite low participation rates, Cooke believes having a diverse member population is uniquely important to the student organization, and makes an effort to discuss international issues regularly at weekly meetings. MacDems is currently planning new strategies for outreach in order to better connect with the student body and recruit a wide range of future members.

“We strongly believe that having international members would add to the MacDems community, and it is very important to us,” Cooke wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly.. “Greater participation from international members provides a tremendous boost to all political conversations and activities we engage in, as international students contain their own unique perspectives and opinions that are not only underrepresented on campus, but that also allows other members of MacDems to challenge their own opinions and assumptions in ways that benefit everybody.”

For Jessica Ding ’22, having an understanding of the political environment, particularly relating to international issues, is very important as she figures out if she wants to stay in the U.S. after her time at Macalester.

“Some of the candidates’ viewpoints towards international students and immigrants are totally different and as international students, if we want to stay and continue our employment we need to know the details and which candidate is the better choice,” Ding said. “It gives me a better sense of whether I should stay here and work or go back to my home country.”

However, she also notes that many international students have other priorities and may see political involvement as less important in their experiences at Macalester

“Macalester is a very academically-intense college: people are looking for employment, people are busy, many are looking for other ways to get involved,” she said.

For Rina Morisawa ’20 from Japan, this is something she can relate to all too well.

“I have other priorities in my life,” she said. “Right now, I’m focusing on my thesis. To me, getting involved on campus is a lower priority.”

Although there are indications of low international student participation in political processes on campus, the participation rates of international students in civic engagement is proportional to the overall international student population.

The Civic Engagement Center (CEC) prioritizes international student involvement and regularly partners with other departments on campus in order to attract a diverse array of participants.

“In all of our nonpartisan election engagement and advocacy work, we are deliberate in our framing so that they are inclusive of international students, DACA students, etc,” Department Coordinator for the CEC, Rachel Weeks, said in an email to The Mac Weekly.  “We also regularly partner with ISP [International Student Programs] to communicate and connect with international students. We also reach out to student orgs each year (i.e. Chinese Cultural Club) that have traditionally had a lot of international student involvement.

“We try to create entry points that meet the interests of our diverse student body, however, it is important to note that we typically don’t know when we are working with a student if they are an international student unless they bring it up,” she wrote.

Given the low participation rates from international students in politically-affiliated clubs on campus, some believe having political events closely related to international issues would help in gaining more international student interest.

“The Democratic party and the G.O.P have their own issues and topics, that are really not relevant to international issues or issues happening within our countries,” Morisawa said. “In Japan, we have conservative and liberals poles but they are completely different from the divisions that exist in the U.S.”

“Macalester is known for internationalism, it would be best to have more events or clubs that are more related to international issues,” Ding said.

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