Monday, July 27, 2009

International Students and Faculty Enrich Ripon College

“I was dying inside as I watched my family forced outside
Pulled by their hair, kicking and screaming as they were dragged through the dirt…
“Get on your knees and stop pissing from your eyes” they said…
My days are haunted by the thoughts of how cold steel
would feel
if were laid against my temple.
A simple thing such as the size of a nose or the shade of my eyes
All were my spies
& I was labeled an insignificant perp
Made to plead my case to the very African dirt
that God used to create me and the black soldiers that murdered my family.
They hid behind their uniforms and called it the reformation
of an unpure nation…

from a poem by Joyce Ngabire and Meshelle Davis, Ripon College Students

Joyce Ngabire, a student from Rwanda, reads her poem aloud to a hushed audience at the annual Martin Luther King week poetry reading at the Ripon College Pub. She was seven years old when Rwanda’s genocide claimed much of her family and many friends. Since then her odyssey has taken her to Kenya, where she lived for three years, to the Philippines for four years, and eventually to the United States. In 2002, after four years of waiting, she and her brother received visas to come to the U.S. She enrolled as a freshman at Ripon College in 2006, one of about 25 international students currently enrolled at the College out of a total student population of about 1000.

Most students can scarcely imagine the scene she describes – and that is precisely why it is so important to her to describe it. “When I came here,” Joyce recounts, “nobody knew where Rwanda was. ‘Oh, what state is that?’ they would ask.” But if Joyce has encountered ignorance and stereotypes – “They think I lived in a hut!” – she has also found a country that offers her more freedom and opportunity than she could have had in her native Rwanda.

“Here, we have a voice. Back home, we do not. Boys go to school, girls stay home, get married, and do what the man says. Here, the education is better. We’re not here to mooch off anyone, but to better ourselves.”

Jessica Sewase, another Rwandan student who hopes eventually to get a Master’s degree in clinical psychology, echoes Joyce’s sentiments, and adds, “I’m really big on education. I wish people could appreciate the struggle we went through to get here.”

If international students find compelling reasons to be here, Ripon College is at least as eager to have them. John Kruse, the Program Coordinator for Multicultural and International Student Affairs, explains the importance of having international students at the College. “They expand the cultural horizons of our domestic students, as well as our faculty and staff. They also provide a chance for our students to experience their own culture – to look reflectively at themselves. The best lens for doing that is often a foreigner.”

He also finds that in general, the international students are eager to share their culture, language and perspective with Ripon College’s native-born population. “They have such an interest in giving back. They start language classes, the African students are active in the Black Student Union, and many of the Hispanic and foreign students are involved in FUERZA. Just by being here, they’ve expanded the learning opportunities for everyone.”

Diana Perez, a Hispanic student, describes the mission of Fuerza: “We come together as a support group for ourselves, and to bring events that reflect the cultural diversity of the world to which we contribute a collective Hispanic heritage.”

Elena Morales Rivas, a Spanish language assistant, adds “This year we celebrated Las Posadas (an enactment of Joseph and Mary looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem) and prepared a big dinner afterwards. If we know there’s a Hispanic family in need of help, we do what we can. We translate for doctor’s appointments and things like that.” FUERZA has also taken a lead role in the last two years in local organizing for the national immigrant rights rally on May 1.

Hiam El Hilali, a Moroccan senior, organized an Arabic language club which met for 2 ½ years. “When I came,” she says, “there were a lot of people with really negative attitudes about Islam who made assumptions about what Muslims were like. They were surprised that I didn’t wear a black robe and veil, and that I didn’t ‘look like’ a Muslim. I was always afraid to take a political science course, or religion – I didn’t want to lose my temper! There is so much ignorance! But there was interest in the Arabic club, and I’ve gotten lots of invitations to speak.”

Vanessa Arboleda, an Ecuadorian student who came to the U.S. as a teenager, also wants to share her language skills and culture. A frequent volunteer interpreter for local Hispanic residents, she also tutors the author’s daughter, Savannah Hauge, in Spanish, walking over to the Middle School once a week to read and discuss Spanish literature with her.

Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, always has a list of Hispanic students eager to volunteer. Some become tutors for local English Language Learners in Ripon’s school district. “The service our students provide to the community is invaluable. Not only do they help children with their homework but they also frequently provide English lessons to the parents and assist in other ways, such as accompanying someone to the doctor or dentist to interpret for them.”

International students also contribute in other ways. Taiyi Sun, a gifted musician from China, became Ripon College’s first chair violinist, and at his final concert introduced his audience to a concerto by a contemporary Chinese composer – the score, purchased in China, is unavailable in the U.S. Missy Nygard, a senior music major and bassist in the orchestra said of the experience, “This was a completely new style of music for the orchestra, we’d never played anything like it. Some aspects of it were challenging, but everybody really liked the piece.”

Taiyi also became a familiar face in the community, performing at a variety of venues including the Kiwanis Valentine Banquet, a local wedding reception, and a worship service and the 2007 Baccalaureate service the First Congregational Church in Ripon. He often treated his audiences to arrangements of traditional Chinese music.

In addition to welcoming foreign students into its student body, the College makes a special effort to recruit Foreign Language Assistants, college graduates who are native speakers of Spanish, French or German who hold small group conversation classes for language students and participate in the life of the College. As Kruse says, “I hear a lot from our domestic students how helpful it is to have native speakers to talk with when they’re trying to learn a language.”

If life at the College and in the community is enriched by the presence of international students, it’s not always easy for the students themselves. Several talk of their frustration with the level of ignorance of world affairs and geography that they find among American-born students. They also speak of their sometimes difficult adjustments to the weather, the food, and the culture they find in Ripon.

“For the first month, I basically wasn’t eating. Everything was totally different!” says Natasha Omende, from the Congo. “And the snow! Too cold! And people here are so busy. It’s not like in Africa, where we talk, we laugh, we have time to spend together. Here everyone has to do this and do that… no one has time.”

Nadine Munezero of Rwanda said, “I’m a big town kind of person, and I'm used to a lot more diversity. In big cities people don’t care how you look, how you dress. I was afraid people here would pay more attention and that I would be too different. I wanted to be part of the community. But I find that people want to get to know you because you’re new and different, and if you try to get some privacy people think you don’t like them!”

Pa Demba Camara, a junior from Gambia, says one of his challenges is dietary. “I’m Muslim and I can’t eat pork. When I go to the Commons and they’re serving pork, I can’t always tell. Sometimes they warn me, but sometimes I eat it accidentally.” He and other international students also struggle with the lack of public transportation options. “Sometimes my friends pick me up and we go somewhere – otherwise I stay in my house all day!”

Another issue for some students is visas. Depending on their country of origin, they may face substantial obstacles to coming to the U.S. Both Joyce and Jessica agree that many Rwandan students are able to get visas. Natasha says “They give more visas to Rwanda because of the genocide, but they should give more to the Congo too because after all, we survived. When I went to the embassy for my visa they said ‘You Congolese, we know about you.’ They think we’re just coming for alcohol or to escape the country.” She estimates that only about 2-3% of the student visa applications from the Congo are approved.

Hiam of Morocco says that things changed radically for residents of Muslim countries after 9/11. “Pre-9/11, I would say about 80% of Moroccans applying for student visas could get them. Now it’s more like 20%. There was one period of six months when only women could get them, no men at all. I had no trouble – I was approved right away – but you have to prove that you’re going to go back and not staying in the U.S.”

Michele Wittler, Associate Dean of Faculty and Registrar, described a somewhat harrowing experience with the immigration service shortly after 9/11. Ripon College’s male Moroccan students, who were part of a family connection to the College going back 30 years, were summoned to immigration offices in Milwaukee and had to submit to interviews with officials there. “They wouldn’t let me in on the interviews,” recalls Wittler, “and I had no idea what was going to happen to those students.” Fortunately, they were allowed to stay.

Nationwide, the number of international students granted visas plummeted in the wake of 9/11. It has since rebounded substantially. Wittler says that while working with the Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is complicated and often seems arbitrary, “It’s better than it was before. Now I can actually call USCIS and talk to somebody – that never was the case before. There were no people to talk to, no phone numbers… it was all based on connections, and I’d finally get this double-triple-secret phone number… It was just incredibly hard! It’s still very complicated but it’s better since 9/11.”

Students applying for student visas must show sufficient funds or scholarship aid to cover their studies, must be enrolled as full time students, and must not be planning on trying to stay in the US after their studies are ended. Many of the College’s foreign-born students actually do not have student visas – many immigrated to the U.S. before starting college.

While Wittler finds that most students who can prove financial means are able to obtain student visas, she has found that “Our relationship with their country at that time, the history of our relationship with that country, the content of the student’s application, what they say they want to study, local bureaucratic quirks, and timing can all affect the outcome of a visa application. Some decisions are mysteries we cannot explain.” She says right now it’s particularly tough for students from China and Hong Kong.

The biggest challenge for most international students is proving their financial means. According to Steve Schuetz, the College’s Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid, “Most of the students have little or no means to cover the expense. We offer them some assistance but by no means does it cover the whole cost.” International students are not eligible for federal or state financial aid – if they cannot pay the full tuition, their only recourse is to hope for private aid and/or merit scholarships.

Visa support has also been an issue for international faculty. Dean of Faculty Jerry Seaman notes the importance of international faculty to the College. “International faculty bring things that further the College’s mission. This could be based on their training, their exposure to different knowledge bases, or intangible things that come to life inside and outside the classroom.” He also says staying abreast of immigration regulations is an effort.

“I work with a very experienced attorney and a reputable law firm that knows how to do this stuff very well. It used to be that a non-specialist who was persistent could handle immigration issues. Now there’s no choice but to retain an expert to do it.”

The law changed recently, requiring employers to pay 100% of the cost of obtaining a visa. “We are the petitioner, not the employee,” explains Seaman. “The cost depends on the complexity of the case – an H1B visa is usually about $3000. We’ve never been turned down.”

The Economics Department recently hired a Chinese economist, Peng “Roc” Huang. Although Roc had working papers, the College had to undertake two studies to prove to the Labor Department that it was paying the area’s prevailing wage for an individual of Roc’s credentials.

Paul Schoofs, Ripon College economics professor, notes that “During the past two decades, over half of our qualified applicants have been foreign-born – nearly all of them have their Ph.D.s from American graduate schools. The U.S. market for professional economists is quite competitive, so applicants normally have several attractive options. Given this fact, we could not provide the high quality of curriculum and teaching that we do without access to foreign-born applicants.”

The Spanish Program is currently interviewing candidates for a position in Peninsular (from Spain) literature. Dominique Poncelet, a French professor from Belgium and chair of the search committee says “A high percentage of our candidates are from Spain. We think this is great! We’re happy to attract people from foreign countries!

While Ripon College may not feel “diverse” to its minority and foreign-born students, there are students and faculty from at least 20 countries and five continents. Most individuals interviewed for this article wish there were more international students and greater representation from ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. As Michele Wittler concluded, “Many fabulous international students would enroll at Ripon College if more scholarship funds were available.”

Are there possible trade-offs between opening up the doors more widely to foreign students and faculty and keeping the U.S. secure? Marty Farrell, chair of the Politics and Government Department and Coordinator of the Global Studies Program, doesn’t think so. As he sees it, we’ll do more to make America safe by exporting what’s best in our culture than we will by trying to seal our borders.

“Even during the Cold War, it helped that we were the world leader in hosting international students. Most of them went home with a positive impression of our country. Today it’s even more important. We live in a globalized world. I’ve seen it in the many international students we have: they go home with a better idea of citizen involvement and democratic decision-making and the need to tolerate different viewpoints without turning to violence because you disagree. Since 9/11 we lost our leadership position -- I think it’s crucial for us to regain our role in hosting international students.”

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