Building Relationships Across the Pond; Embracing Diversity in the Classroom

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As students who have reached this point in their education know, learning is not just about sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor. Sometimes the most powerful learning comes from our peers, especially those who offer a different perspective from our own.

Yet at Occidental, a school of around 2,000 students, the potential for random encounters and meeting new people is limited. As first-years, friend groups are initiated in residence halls, as it is easy to become friends with the person you brush your teeth next to every night. These friendships typically last throughout the years, and by senior year the cliques of Occidental are nearly impenetrable.

So it is unsurprising that a liberal arts school such as Occidental encourages the exchange of students around the world, both through the presence of international students on campus and our own students traveling far afield. In fact, 54 percent of this year’s student body has studied abroad, and this fall witnessed the highest intake of international students in the college’s history.

As a result, Occidental gives its students the opportunity to engage with those from different countries, whether they go abroad themselves or not. But unless we make the concerted effort to learn from each other, we lose the diverse, interdisciplinary benefits that this close-knit liberal arts college has to offer.

Too often, students who go abroad find themselves only socializing with those who come from a similar background. Without experiencing risky, uncomfortable and new situations, the benefit of international studies is lost.

Between Britain and the United States, the cultural differences are as predominant as anywhere else. Despite the lack of a language barrier, the social contrasts between the two countries are much more prevalent than one might imagine. This is especially obvious in the university system itself, with students from both countries benefiting from these contrasts in different ways.

In comparison to European universities, American colleges are vibrant campuses where students actively participate in a wide variety of societies, sports teams and clubs. Whereas an Occidental student is required to complete a core curriculum throughout his/her college career, European students choose their major before university and only take classes within that discipline for the majority of their schooling.

Faculty Director of International Programs Professor Eric Frank agrees that within a liberal arts institution, the opportunity to make these types of comparisons is essential.

“I think that Oxy, and in fact many liberal arts campuses that are like Oxy, don’t do enough to activate the intrinsic diversity within the student body,” Frank said.

Frank encourages social integration between students from different countries, suggesting that the students who get the most out of their time abroad are those who pursue their academic and extracurricular interests in order to fully immerse themselves in their new environment. Furthermore, within the classroom, a mixture of cultures and opinions makes for a better education.

“Intellectual diversity comes from different points of view and points of interest, and that comes from being in a small classroom in a liberal arts environment,” Frank said.

Occidental has a number of pre-matriculation activities that establish early friend groups and prevent integration with the entire student body. These orientation week activities place international students with other international students, rather than allowing for complete integration into the American student body.

This is where Occidental needs to change: Getting rid of separate events for international and American students would bridge the initial divide and make it easier for students to commingle in the long run. The college should encourage commingling between the American and international students early on, so that students can integrate with each other on their own terms.

Occidental largely incorporates an interdisciplinary approach to its curriculum, but there is still more that can be done. For students, that includes building academic and personal relationships with our peers from abroad. International students should involve themselves in campus activities, just as domestic students need to immerse themselves when abroad. As liberal art students, it is vital that we embrace this type of intellectual diversity in all its unpredictable and unfamiliar glory.