OPINION: The not-so-glamorous truth of being an international student at CMC

Drawing of a girl in front of a virus, a passport, and a cancelled airplane ticket
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

The sensation of the American Dream is a compelling one. So much so that the United States is the most popular country in the world for international students. With the promise of idealistic possibility in hand, international students make dramatic, significant and life-changing moves from their homes to forge new paths on American college campuses. Some schools, however, are better than others at serving international students.

Apparently, Claremont McKenna College is supposed to be one of those schools. According to College Factual, CMC is ranked 92 out of 1232 of Overall Best US Colleges and Universities for International Students. Compared to other small liberal arts colleges, CMC’s international student body population of 17 percent is notable. The deliberate internationalization of US college campuses is a commendable feat. Unfortunately, at CMC, the enthusiasm with which international students are recruited evaporates once real work is required to make sure that international students have the help that they need.

The discontinuation of the International Place, the jointly funded 7C program and resource center for international students, left a gap in international student service delivery. The closure of I-Place has led CMC to adopt a new “independent CMC-based” international student services model. The new CMC-based model saw the absorption of international student services into existing roles, such as the Senior Associate Dean of Students assuming responsibility for the strategic management of CMC programs and services for international students. 

Absorptions such as these ignore the reality that international students face significantly different experiences from domestic students. This means that effective programming for international students requires intentional, specific work. For instance, by design, career services for international students necessarily need to recognise the nuances of work authorization considerations. 

The absorption of international student services into existing, general scopes of work is reflective of the secondary regard with which international students are treated at CMC.

As an international student, the general modus operandi is to refrain from asking for too much. The ever-present sense of your experience as being a deviation from the norm accompanies your college experience. That experience is made even more unpleasant when there is a clear indifference and neglect for your struggles. For instance, on Nov. 18, global news headlines trumpeted a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, that was identified by scientists in South Africa. In the following days, there had been news about different countries, including the United States, imposing travel restrictions. There are international students from the countries affected by the variant here at CMC. Days continue to pass and there is no institutional communication to acknowledge the distress currently being faced by international students, let alone work to communicate contingency planning.

More significantly, CMC’s neglect and dismissal of international students is also evident in its unwillingness to seriously explore online learning options for international students who may not be able to return to the United States in the wake of current and/or future travel restrictions. Consequently,  if an international student is unable to return to the United States in the wake of any travel restrictions, they are essentially forced to take a leave of absence. Arguably, this may not have been a problem had CMC not characterized itself as possessing the capacity to work with students to identify courses that are best suited to recordings or hybrid online learning options. CMC did an incredible job at presenting itself as an institution that has “developed a number of instructional tools and resources to help support online teaching and learning.” Unfortunately, the school has done a disappointing job at living up to that promise when it really matters.

The insensitivity for international students is reflected in countless consistent and dehumanizing ways. For instance, communication about availability of winter break housing was shared on Nov. 19, less than a month away from the start of winter break. The disregard for the logistical planning required to secure accommodation in a foreign country is evident. Winter break housing will not include any meals, and “24-hour quiet periods” are in effect until the beginning of the spring semester. Yes, international students are expected to observe 24-hour silence periods with “no overnight guests or parties” as we look on and watch everyone else have a blast during the festive season, reunited with their families.

This is not a call for the special treatment of international students. It’s a request for dignity. It’s a call for, at the very least, consistency in CMC’s communicated capacity to facilitate an experience for international students, and the actual practice of that capacity. The bottom line? There is a deceitful, insidious self-contradiction between what CMC says they are able to do for international students, and what they actually do.

Currently, international students are being forced to face the difficult decision between traveling to their homes for the break, and facing a potential leave of absence as a consequence. This negligence is present because international students are treated as dispensable. As cases of the new Omicron variant rise across the United States, it is important to observe CMC’s response once domestic students become impacted as well. Does the issue truly stem from a lack of resources, or a lack of willingness to distribute them to those who need them right now?

As it stands, CMC has work to do in regards to international students. An inability to carry out that work sends the clear message that international students are tokens meant to accessorize its campus. Is CMC a brilliant school? Absolutely. Does that brilliance matter in the grand scheme of things when it’s not equally accessible to all of its students? Probably not.

Guest columnist Bertha Tobias CM ’24 is from Namibia and is majoring in International Relations & Leadership. She loves working out, reading and shopping.

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