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Building Bridges Across Nations and Cultures

Lisa Spoelstra, Director of International Services, and Don Tuski, Codirector of General Education, Olivet College

Since 1993, Olivet College, a small liberal arts college in a predominantly white, rural area of Michigan, has undergone an institutional transformation. Changes include both curricular and cocurricular diversity programs. Olivet has increased the diversity of its students, faculty, and staff tremendously over the past several years, recruiting minority students from the U.S. and many international students as well.

U.S. minority students and international students, however, still represent only a small portion of Olivet's student population. The student body is 12 percent African American, 4 percent non-U.S. students, 3 percent Latino/a, 2 percent Asian American, and 1 percent American Indian. Olivet has students from fifteen countries, including Bangladesh, Japan, Croatia, Nepal, Hungary, India, Romania, Tajikistan, Philippines, Jamaica, Israel, Korea, Canada, Sierra Leone, and the United States.

International and U.S. Minority Students: Facing Similar Challenges?

Coming to a place like Olivet, U.S. minority students and international students alike face the challenge of culture shock. Their sense of alienation and dislocation is compounded by the lack of public transportation to larger, more diverse areas of Michigan. Especially for international students, homesickness can be severe. Both groups of students must confront the ignorance and prejudice of some majority students, many of whom are living and studying with U.S. minority and international students for the first time. Because of these challenges, Olivet is striving to create comfortable and safe environments for both of these groups of students. But is there value in bringing these students together?

Safe Spaces Apart and Sources of Dialogue Together

In an effort to lend support to these different groups of students, Olivet has opened two cultural centers. Within one year, Olivet opened both an African American Cultural Center and a Global Cultures Center. Both centers are safe and comfortable places for students to socialize, study, and hold cultural awareness programs.

While tensions will always arise in communities with members from different ethnic, national, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, dialogue is possible and provides students with enormously valuable opportunities for learning.

While U.S. minority and international students clearly do share many challenges, they do not necessarily form easy alliances. Their experiences of alienation and dislocation differ in important ways and, perhaps more importantly, their perceptions of their own identities differ. For instance, U.S. minority students describe themselves as "students of color"; they frequently use their racial/ethnic backgrounds to describe their identities. International students at Olivet have made it clear that they do not wish to refer to themselves as "students of color" and resent it when others refer to them this way.

These students have also had different experiences with discrimination and racism. African American students have experienced the racism so prevalent in the U.S. their entire lives, while international students may never have experienced racism. International students, however, certainly do experience prejudice and discrimination as college students in the U.S., even if they have not had similar experiences in their home countries. They are criticized by majority students for using their native languages or simply for being from third world countries. They can also bear the brunt of xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment that some majority students express. These different sorts of histories and experiences, then, present challenges to overcome in building bridges among these students. At Olivet, other institutional factors also contribute to tensions. The newness of the cultural centers, concerns about limited resources, and the speed and degree of other changes all contribute to tensions between the two centers. Campus leaders, however, have worked to garner strong support and donations from alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, and the local community for both centers. Campus leaders are also helping diverse students begin to collaborate and learn from one another.

The two centers have collaborated on several cultural events together, including an international dinner and a "Night of Culture" that included slide shows, speeches, and music and dance from a variety of countries and cultural traditions. These events drew large audiences, including minority and majority students, staff, faculty, administrators, and even some local community members. These are the kinds of collaboration needed to make Olivet a truly multicultural community in which diversity is seen as a source of strength and as an educational resource for everyone.

The Importance of Guidance and Support

Olivet also offers an intergroup dialogue program where groups of students come together to discuss issues of concern in a controlled atmosphere. Led by trained student facilitators, participants engage in a variety of exercises, all designed to build understanding and mutual respect.

To facilitate these sorts of cross-cultural collaborations, it is crucial to have support and encouragement from faculty members and high-level administrators. A key element to Olivet's success is also strong staff and faculty advising for each group. In order to break down both cultural and institutional barriers, advisers also need to actively collaborate and communicate with one another.

While tensions will always arise in communities with members from different ethnic, national, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, dialogue is possible and provides students with enormously valuable opportunities for learning. Meeting the challenges presented by these kinds of collaborations has helped Olivet's students develop extraordinary leadership skills that they will take with them to whatever sorts of multicultural communities or workplaces they may enter.

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