Missed Opportunities at Iowa Colleges For Intercultural Experience

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Iowans and international students at Iowa colleges are missing out on a huge opportunity – each other.


The colleges don’t always provide the means for international students and American students to reach out to each other and create bonds, a variety of students and faculty on several Iowa private colleges said in interviews for an IowaWatch project that examined overseas studies.

When they try to create programs and events, the invitation is not always extended clearly to both sides, creating hesitation or apprehension about mingling, the IowaWatch project, undertaken by spring journalism students at Simpson College, revealed.

“When you have somebody different I think it’s a chance to get a different perspective on something,” said Leah Otieno, a senior from Kenya studying economics and finance at Simpson, in Indianola. “I think it’s a chance to get a different perspective on different cultures.”

The relationships are important in a growing global economy, with an Internet that can connect you with almost anywhere in the world, educators said in several interviews.

“The world is shrinking,” said Amy Webber, international student coordinator at Luther College in Decorah. “American students need to know how to interact with people from other cultures and how to reach out to them because in their work life in the future, they are going to work with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. They need cultural sensitivity.”

Several studies done across the United States have indicated that international students often fail to form significant relationships with their American peers. In Iowa, that means students from the United States and international students, alike, are missing the chance to expand their horizons, create an international network, and learn about cultural similarities and differences.

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Iowa ranks in the top half of all U.S. states when it comes to having foreign students in the state. The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Fact Sheet from 2013 ranked Iowa at 21st, with more than 11,500 international students.

Most can be found at the three state universities. Numbers from the 2013 report have been updated. Iowa State University reported 3,797 in fall 2013, the University of Iowa was up to 4,049 and the University of Northern Iowa had 520.

But many international students also can be found at the various private colleges around the state.

The numbers vary. Simpson College, for example, had 18 international students this school year. Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, had 89; Luther College in Decorah had around 140 and Grinnell College had 197.

Though they account for a small fraction of the student body at each school, they still have a noteworthy presence. “They add the biggest spice ever,” said Deanna Jobe, international student advisor at Coe.

Each fall Coe hosts a cultural show, where international students are able to show their talents to the Coe and Cedar Rapids communities. “It’s kind of like them giving back: ‘OK, you’ve helped us adjust to the U.S., now we’re going to show you what we can do,’” Jobe said.

Coe also has a program called the Coe Diplomats, which consists of junior and senior students from the United States and other countries. These students volunteer to greet new international students on arrival day, show them around and acquaint them with their new environment.

Grinnell hosts a similar program, known as Amigos. A leadership team of juniors and seniors acts as mentors to small groups of international students, said Karen Edwards, Grinnell’s associate dean and director of international student affairs.

Many schools have introductory classes that mix American and international students. “On a small liberal arts campus that first-year tutorial class is a pretty important first step in terms of finding your academic niche and it also does a lot for social connections,” Edwards said.

Another approach several private colleges in Iowa use is trips around the country. International students from Simpson went to New Orleans earlier this year during spring break.

Coe organizes an overnight canoe trip for international students as well as a trip to Chicago during the fall. “Is that a bonding trip? Oh yeah,” Jobe said.

Moreover, colleges rely on host families to give international students a more in-depth look at life in Iowa.

But international students, who have common backgrounds and go through similar experiences of leaving their home countries to study here, still stick close to each other, interviews revealed.

That can be detrimental to both international and Iowan students, students who were interviewed said.

“If you stay with the international friends, those are the only people you are ever going to know,” Simpson’s Otieno said.


Graphic By: Katie Buchholz

Katie Buchholz

The bond international students at Iowa colleges develop with each other evolves naturally. “I think we kind of just have a bond because we are all from different places, and sometimes we go through the same experiences as far as adjusting with just, you know, missing home,” Otieno said. “So we have things to talk about.”

When discussing her friends, Otieno listed several from countries ranging from her home country of Kenya to Spain to Mexico. Yet, she only mentioned two friends from the United States. Brooke White and Sami Salmon, both of whom have been Otieno’s college roommates, have been friends with Otieno since their freshman year.

Manish Khadka, a student from Nepal studying accounting and business at Coe, said building a relationship with his freshman year roommates, Nick Havens and Evan Troendle, helped him adapt to being in Iowa. “They have helped me during bad times, taught me a lot about American culture and also showed me how friendly Iowans are,” Khada said.

Manish Khadka, Coe College

Submitted by Manish Khadka

Manish Khadka, Coe College

“College is about learning,” Khadka, 22, said. “The cultural differences (between American and international students) will teach you so many things about life in general that you may end up questioning your own strong beliefs.”

Grinnell’s Edwards said international students who integrate the best or the most successfully actively chose to participate in activities that give them a new or unexpected experience.

Grinnell officials help “to encourage people to find support in each other but also find support in a way that then helps facilitate their strengths and emboldens them to venture out from their comfort zone and meet new people,” she said.

The multicultural experience is not wasted on everyone.

“I think my favorite story ever is an American football player, male, who came in and told me that what he had done this week was make origami with this Japanese guy on his (residence hall) floor,” Jobe said.

“So here’s this big guy – he was doing origami so he knew what that was about. And sometimes it’s those little momentous things that are so priceless to think ‘OK, wow, that is amazing.’”

Erin Gerken was on a team of Simpson College students doing this story for IowaWatch as part of a journalism class taught in spring 2014 by Professor Brian Steffen. Portions of this story were published by The Des Moines Register, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of making its news available free to media partners.