In Defense of the International Experience

Muhammad Hamza Kalim

My decision to write this piece was motivated mostly by some complaints I have begun to observe through Instagram about the international experience in the NESCACs. In the light of Black Lives Matter, the tides have shifted and we have initiated important discussions about systematic  problems. Some of this has the effect of one dimensional thinking where the momentum of the zeitgeist propels every conversation in one direction. I decided instead to put down some of my own observations about the international experience.

Your first sense of Bates will likely come long before you set foot on campus or even leave the plane. It is at the U.S. consulate, when you are trying to get your visa, that you first encounter a taste of America. You are made to walk slowly from counter to counter to fulfill tedious documentation requirements until you reach the final interview with a white man donning a steely gaze. In a curt interview, he tries to ascertain whether a visa should be granted to you. No smiles are passed, nor greetings made: just specific questions he poses like a sloppy diagnostician ascertaining if a patient is free of illness. Much of the same happens in border control. There, you first get a sense of how systems in bureaucracies are set up to slowly rob people of their humanity.

You have these thoughts on your mind when you first arrive on campus. However, oddly enough, every stranger seems to be smiling here, sometimes from across the road. You may initially be confused about whether this really is a greeting or a ‘Get Out’ nightmare waiting to happen. Nonetheless, you soon learn to smile back until it becomes second nature. Is the acknowledgement of strangers a Bates cultivated phenomenon or a happy consequence of life in a small town where everyone knows each other, you ask? I like to think it’s a combination of both.

You are still in your early days at school as an international student. No one else is at school except for the international freshman class for the international orientation, which is a week ahead of the usual orientation. A nervous group of smart people are brought together in a cozy, cultivating environment and taken through everything as a group. Upperclassmen international students have activities set up to help you assimilate. Do you have no idea what kind of blanket to get for the winter, or covers for your bed? No worries, we’ll arrange a Walmart visit and help you pick out your stuff.

There are games in the evening, explorations of the campus and meals spent together. Soon enough, what started out as a dumbstruck group of strangers from all over the world would become a close group of students in love with their diverse environment. My domestic friends often ask why international students always have meals together in the Arcade. The answer is simple: it’s hard to go back to discussing American football and TikTok with your American friends after meeting people at the international student  orientation.

The International Club is best credited for most of these activities. It has some of the best minds on campus steadily conspiring to make the international experience ever better. The international dinner is an obvious example of what the club is able to coordinate, but for most internationals, it is only the icing on the cake. The club speaks on behalf of the students and consistently reaches out for input. If you are hungry on a Saturday evening, odds are they have an event arranged with tons of pizza. You are further reminded of just how dedicated these people are when you come across an ex-president who is writing their sociology senior thesis on making international students more comfortable. Most people in this club have a passion that borders on derangement. But then, most dedicated people are a little unhinged.

The campus administration warrants a word too. When you are trying to get your I-20s signed by Shelley Palmer you find a very welcoming conversation, especially when Dean Reese pops in her office. It is only when you go back after the winter break and she remembers your name that you are reminded that Bates is not the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare harkening to your country’s consulate or border control; instead, the school recognizes your humanity. You are reminded that these systems are not set up to subjugate humans, but rather to serve them. Even when you are two weeks late on completing important housing documents, and Reslife shoots you an alarming final-reminder email, you find that in person, they are immediately apologetic about the email. Furthermore, they are ready to engage in a conversation about how the school year has been up until now.

The financial aid department is ready to make the most concessions they possibly can for your sake. Even though Bates’s endowment isn’t the biggest in the NESCACs, the school always has a generous heart. The loyalties of the Bates employees seem to not lie with the school, but rather with the comfort of the students. Do you need money for your books? We’ll make you a grant. You can’t afford your flight? We will connect you with a travel agency and have the ticket paid for. Oh and the winter is coming. You’re from a semi-arid country that doesn’t require the kind of layers needed in Maine? No worries, Dean Reese will drive you out and help you pick out the appropriate boots and coats. Even then, he’ll have the school pay for it.

In the end, the community at Bates is what ties the knot for many. Back to the Arcade in Commons, you look forward to meals with friends to unwind after a day’s worth of toiling. There is something truly divine about the Arcade. It’s obviously not without domestic students. However, there is a sense here that international students don’t get domesticated, but rather domestic students get internationalized. The American perspective is a single worthy point of view amongst a collection of ideas that are brought up. The Arcade is no echo chamber either, for we all challenge each other’s ideas under a collective sense of trust. Most of all, you get to rant about the oddity that is American Exceptionalism and restore your sanity in the process. Soccer finally becomes football and Cricket is recognized as a superior sport to baseball. Sometimes, if you time it well (read: arrive late), Dean Reese will be there getting dinner and having a riveting conversation with a group of people. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear his basketball story for the 12th time.

It is here that I tie this whole narrative together by describing Dean Reese himself. It is safe to say that there would be no international experience without Dean Reese in the foreground. For all of the hurdles to jump over in order to get to Bates, from orientation to tedious taxes, he is always available and micromanages situations in the best kind of way. Your first harbinger of Bates’ environment is when, as a freshman, you don’t have to order a taxi from the Concord stop; instead, Dean Reese picks you up in his minivan and helps you settle into your dorm. Every fortnight or so, he will treat you with a Den night for international students. But you need not conform – you can certainly sneak in your domestic friends for free stuff and he will never bring it up. On a busy Den night, there could be in excess of 50 people there.  Yet, Dean Reese knows all of them and personally acknowledges them. You have a friend’s birthday coming up? Well, he just happens to be going to Walmart later that day, so you can hitch a ride to buy a cake. If you are one of the few international students that stay back during the winter, he sends out an invite for dinner on Christmas Eve, and you get to meet his lovely wife and children. In student life, long emails are never welcome unless he sends them out. As a domestic student, you can get on his mailing list too if you strike up a conversation with him. Most of all, his demeanor reminds you that the indignities that you might face every now and then are not the norm. You deserve a more welcoming environment.

Having penned down all of this, I am acutely aware that Bates often falls short of the experiences that I have been lucky to have. There are many stories of international students that ought to be heard and only a dynamic approach will ever improve this environment. So to the domestic students who have gotten to this point: this is not an excuse to ignore experiences to the contrary. Having said that though, I state my gratitude for the  the international experience at Bates.