Education Visa: Academic Tourists
This section looks at the power of schools to bring people together. It explores the advantages of student exchange programs and also addresses some of the negative drawbacks suffered by some foreigners experience at US universities.
Educational tourism deserves to be addressed, too. Schools are not usually thought of as bastions for tourism, but an amazing amount of international travel and cultural exchange is centered on education. Academics play a pivotal role in molding the global village. It comes in many varieties: a scientist conducts research on foreign soil, exchange programs shuffle students between countries, and wealthy students borrow their parent’s visa card for a summer in Europe for academic credit. The international researcher might play an important role by increasing crop yields or curing ailments. Exchange programs allow students to relocate to distant lands to learn a new language or to linger luxuriously in a foreign environment.
Academic tourism tends to be the most democratic form of travel. The population flow between countries goes in both directions. Scholars exchange research and publications across borders and students benefit from opportunities to absorb the knowledge offered on foreign soil. Additionally, academic related tourism often lasts for a year or more. In this way there is a great deal more mixing across nationalities than almost any other type of tourism. The university, with its visiting scholars and international students, has become an ideal symbol of the global village.
The study visa, however, is not a free pass to equality. Most of the international students that I have encountered in the United States have experienced incidents of exploitation. Tuition rates for international students are more than twice as high as local residents at my Alma Mater – Oregon State University – despite many students coming from economically devastated countries. Tuition is a two-tiered pricing system, much like the double rates tourists are charged at popular sites while locals often are admitted for free. Likewise, international students from both Utah State University (where I earned my BA degree) and the University of Minnesota (where I was an exchange student) had been charged double price for dental work or received expensive doctor bills for non-requested services (the western equivalent of tourist scam). Being non-citizens, they felt they had limited access to U.S. court systems to confront injustice.
In relation, the exchange of knowledge and scholarships among academics is not always equal. International scholars sometimes find difficulty publishing in some western journals and periodicals, and the international community is often ineligible for highly coveted scholarships. Departmental politics can also force foreign researchers on the margin. Many university classmates alienate international students and exclude them from social cliques. Some United States fraternities and sororities have historically hesitated to initiate foreigners, and even some of the most liberal of American students feel too uncomfortable or distrustful around those coming from overseas. Campus newspapers are filled with complaints from students who whine about the inability to understand a visiting scholar, or that employment deprives a local from a job. A large amount of western students never have the will to befriend foreigners or they are too impatient to struggle with a foreign accent. In result, international students usually form groups with other foreigners who offer support and friendship.
Universities have also excluded foreigners from consciously participating in research that would have a direct impact in their country. Researchers generally avoid discussing their standpoint in the local community, and at times neglect to share with them during the participatory process. For example, I recently conversed with a cultural anthropologist who confessed that she secretly conducted taped interviews without her Asian participants’ knowledge or consent. She would hide a tape recorder in her front pocket and fire away with questions. She argued that this was the only way to keep her subjects honest, as if the presence of a magnetic strip would provoke the natives into becoming compulsive liars.
I have also met many scholars who presented themselves as an authority about an ethnic group, without ever bothering to learn their language. How, I wonder, can anyone truly know a culture without understanding its language or humor? What bias does it place on cultural research when the community is forced into speaking in a different tongue for the benefit of the researcher?
These exceptions aside, academic tourism is crucial in the creation of any lasting global village. Although it is seldom thought of as tourism, the academic environment is an ideal opportunity for intercultural interaction. In retrospect, the international community was the best part of my university life. It was an honor to have such a wide variety of students visit me in my homeland. Colleges in Asia are not nearly as ethnically diverse. The universities that I have visited in Asia never displayed the same percentage of foreign students on their campuses. It was a gift to have gatherings of mixed nationalities. I loved hearing international students, of different ethnic backgrounds, party their way into a collective voice. English usually became a common denominator, the lubricant for bonding, among these students as they strive for equilibrium without being able to mutually depend on their mother tongues. Hopefully, for them too, the cross-cultural hatching is imprinted in their minds as the fondest of memories.
The short-term alternative, the summer vacation for academic credit, charged on a parent’s credit card, fails in comparison, as these wealthy American offspring chase dreams, potential mates, and the pursuit of pleasure across the globe. With Let’s Go and Lonely Planet guidebooks tucked in their backpacks, sprinkled with inked-in comments and paper-clipped pages, they miss enormous glimpses of local life. This carefree form of tourism is ideal for students who can afford it during the break between semesters. There are even college classes available on migrating cruise ship schools, a direct combination of education and package tours. They can even get college credit for this travel if they approach it right. Although a summer overseas evaporates quickly, it is exhilarating to have so many borders unfold before you. It is only fitting that on returning home these world travelers open their own doors to the international community in return.
The university island is an exotic land where you can merely stay at home and have the cool tides of the global village wash over you. If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the winds of international students whistling through the halls of educational institutes. When foreign students visit western universities it is full of opportunities for all involved. This cross-cultural exchange truly feeds the global environment.