Growing up, Betsy Fruechte was eager to explore different cultures and meet new people.
But the University of Iowa junior’s family traveled outside the United States only once—after her high school graduation—and her high school in Lansing, Iowa, had hosted just two foreign exchange students while she was a student there.
At Iowa, Fruechte found a passport to the world. During her first year on campus, she met peers from around the globe through a friend who lived in the International Crossroads Community, an international-themed learning community in the residence halls. She also joined UI International Student Ambassadors, a student organization aiming to increase and improve interaction between American and international students. The following year she spent a semester studying in Chile.
“It’s really easy to become the center of what is happening around you and assume that everything is like it is here in the U.S.,” explains the English and Spanish double major. “Talking with people from another culture helps break down stereotypes you didn’t even know you had.”
With a population of nearly 2,000 international students, the University offers opportunities for American students to discover new cultures and confront stereotypes every day. Since most UI undergraduates do not study abroad—about 800 did so last year—interacting with international students on Iowa’s campus may be the only face-to-face experience American students have with someone from a different country. That experience is crucial in today’s world, says Diana Davies, director of International Programs.
“Many students here are from smaller towns, and it’s very important for them to meet and talk with people from other cultures,” she says. “In this globalized society and cross-cultural marketplace, they will definitely need this experience when they graduate and enter the workforce.”
American students can cross paths with their international peers in a number of ways. They may share a class with an international student, or have an international student as a graduate teaching assistant. They may also work side by side in a lab, participate together in an extracurricular activity, or live next door to each other.
Scott King, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, says an international student presence is a key component of a world-class university.
“We’re not here just for book learning,” he explains. “We’re preparing students for the life ahead of them, and that life will involve different cultures. It is our responsibility to help internationalize them. Sitting in a classroom next to a student from India, for example, is at least part of that process.
“When American students get to know international students, they start thinking about their own views. ‘Why do I believe this? Why do I think that?’ That’s a healthy process, and it’s one of the goals of a university education—to examine values, to strengthen them, to adapt others.”
Su Zhang agrees. The China native has been in the United States for four years and is working toward PharmD and MBA degrees at Iowa.
“Since being here I’ve learned a whole lot about myself,” she says. “If you’re not exposed to people from a different culture as an India 319undergraduate, you will be at some point in your life, and I think the earlier it happens, the better.”
Zhang serves as president of OASIS (Organization for the Active Support of International Students) and notes that she, too, benefits from international students on campus.
“I know people from everywhere,” she explains. “China is open compared to 20 years ago, but you don’t get to interact there with people from all over the world. Here, I’ve met people from Africa, India, Southeast Asia.”
Students don’t have to wait for a random introduction to an international student, insists Fruechte. As president of UI International Student Ambassadors this year, she organizes several events that are open to the public, such as Soccer Saturdays in Hubbard Park where participants team up for a casual game of soccer. Students also can volunteer each August to help welcome international students to campus during orientation. They can attend the annual Cultural Ball at the Iowa Memorial Union in the fall to sample international food and music. They can sign up to live in the International Crossroads Community at Mayflower Hall. Or they can join Language Connection, a new student organization that pairs international students with native English speakers for casual conversation.
In addition to creating friendships and giving undergraduates a head start on a global career, these interactions benefit the world as a whole.
“It’s hard to be complacent about war or natural disaster across the world when you know and care about someone who lives in that country,” says Davies. “It makes you less apathetic.”
by Sara Epstein Moninger