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Spinning the wheel of competence for international students


<p>International students are not always seen as equals. Oftentimes, they are seen as less competent and requiring special education to progress alongside American peers.</p>

International students are not always seen as equals. Oftentimes, they are seen as less competent and requiring special education to progress alongside American peers.

International students at Miami University make up only a small portion of the student body. To be exact, there are 1,470 of us according to the Office of International Scholars and Services, and this makes it possible for us to cut slack to those who forget about including us in the conversation, the public space, the policies, initiatives and the student body. 

What makes this particular exclusion interesting is not that we are excluded, but that we are prevented from inclusion on the basis of our (in)competence. 

You might be asking yourself: “What are you talking about?” Isn’t the popular stereotype of an international student the one in which they are portrayed as the smart, hard-working students who try so badly not to disappoint their parents laboring in a communist country? Or the one where they are so wealthy they could practically buy the world?

I think we can all agree that stereotypes are just stereotypes, and we are past the point of dismantling exhausted movie tropes that try to subsume a whole identity within one story. 

However, the first stereotype has started to emerge only recently as compared to the second one. In making a more profound analysis of this stereotype, we can conclude that on those terms, a conventional international student will always be competent in a sense that they will be working to achieve that competence. Flipping the coin, if we take education into account, most international students have completed a “Miami Plan” equivalent during high school.This idea of “international competence” is common in academia. Although there is a consistency in portraying the international identity as intrinsically smart or educated, capable or hard-working, there is an even stronger insistence on that body simultaneously lacking competence.

For example, I was once discussing gun culture with a fellow peer who is American, and I was told that I cannot comment or make claims on the issue, particularly because I am unable to comprehend the lived experience of Americans and because of the size of my country. “It is no surprise that you do not have shootings in your country when you are only 2 million people,” they said. 

This is an empirically sound argument. A seemingly strong one, for that matter. What this argument does not capture however, is that the gun issue is not a matter of a country’s size, but it is profanely an American issue. And for that, it is not that we do not have the authority to comment on any issue, but that we do not have the authority to comment on American issues. 

Nobody gets an ick when we comment about China, India, Macedonia or Nepal because these are the countries normalized to already have issues not part of dominant political culture. 

What is also very important to understand about an argument like my friend’s is that this opens much more serious and profound questions. One of those is the question of the self as a source of epistemic authority. 

Epistemic authority strictly relates to our being, the self as a knower and as a source of knowledge. We ask ourselves: How much can I know? Can I even know at all? And if I do not know anything, can I turn to my own experience and my shared experience with others to learn something? And, if my experience has nothing to teach me, can I trust myself and how?

The problem for international students then dealing with the former is that it automatically degrades them to being unknowing; if you cannot relate to experience you cannot claim any right to it.

But when you relate it to your own experience, what happens?

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The truth is most of the time, this experience is invalidated and you are told to “stick by the facts.” This especially comes out forward in academic spaces.

Natural sciences are already rigid enough with the facts to not allow for error, but even they sometimes make primarily “American” judgments. There is a whole literature developed behind the need for making physics instruction more equitable in American colleges because it fails to take into account the social context from which students are entering academia.  In the social sciences where shared judgment is crucial to make conclusions, this practice is detrimental to international students.

Politically speaking, to return to and revisit your principles, you have to commit yourself to the principles of the community. From this standpoint, it is easy to exclude international students from the spaces they enter because from the dominant stance they do not have the right to a community yet. 

We might be given a material reality to enjoy, but those objects never become an actualized sense. Because of this, it turns out that to be an international student is a political choice — you have to constantly declare and revitalize their competence in some wild, innovative ways, and every time the wheel is spun, it lands on their heritage. 

It is almost as if international students serve as decorations, as trophies to the progress this “country of immigrants” has always worked toward. Ironic, no?

You are never competent enough as a knower of your own experience and those of others. Truth is, you are never competent enough as a body of knowledge in an American state. University is just a reinforcer. 

I am not going to spin it back and say Americans should be nicer to us and that we contribute to diversity. It is frankly not my intention to pretend that being an international student everywhere is not hardcore business, sweat and toil. However, I will say that we need to keep spinning the wheel until it lands on factual reality. We need to try breaking the facade of the double binds that prevent us from acting as our most authentic selves. 

We need to understand that knowledge is not given, it is earned, and competence on the other side means sharing that knowledge with those who have earned to hear it.

Anastasija Mladenovska a first year political science and philosophy major from Macedonia. She sits on the Safety and Wellness Committee of Associated Student Government and the Executive Board of the Diversity Affairs Council.