Two weeks ago, I attended the Fulbright Pakistan Fall Seminar 2015, at the University of Kentucky. The seminar began with the organiser saying, “2:15 means 2:15, this is the U.S., not Pakistan.” We were told during numerous sessions that our primary goal was to make American friends and to not be “disruptive” in classrooms.
Deeply disturbed, I wondered: are these the cultural assumptions that lie at the heart of study abroad programs that are being lauded by campuses across the U.S. celebrating the 6th annual International Education Week (IEW)?
The IEW is a joint initiative of the U.S. State Department and Department of Education that celebrates international education. Held from November 16th to 20th, the theme for this year’s IEW is “Access for All.” An important component of this theme for U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is increasing access to study abroad programs in order “to make global competence the norm, and not the exception.” (For a fascinating and critical analysis of Study Abroad Programs in the U.S., refer to Rachel’s post).
IEW at U.S. Colleges
College campuses throughout the country are celebrating IEW in different ways. At the University of Arkansas, for example, Curt Rom, Associate Dean for International Education, claimed IEW to be “a time that we can enjoy and celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity.” What this translates to, however, is events such as an International Bazaar, International Food Festivals and Global Music Hour.
Is that what International Education means to American universities: some Bollywood music to represent India and some Baklava to symbolise Lebanon? To me, it seems that reducing cultures to stereotypical understandings such as these is what lies at the heart of the culturally biased statements that I heard at the Fulbright conference.
IEW and Fulbright
The Fulbright Scholarship, a U.S. study abroad program, has funded approximately 360, 000 students from over 150 countries. For IEW, Fulbright Board members appointed by President Obama shared their stories. Lisa Caputo, for example, wrote “international education is in our national interest” and claimed that the purpose of the Fulbright program is “to build bonds of mutual understanding between people of the United States and the people of different countries and cultures.”
Such an understanding of cultures subsumes the identities of all Fulbright scholars from one country under a singular narrative. In a single stroke, I become the quintessential Pakistani voice, instead of being one among many voices. And what exactly is Pakistani culture – “come see at our International Bazaars” is the response from colleges.
A Note of Hope
The celebration of IEW at Ohio University, however, represents a sign of hope. An exhibit called “Untold Stories of those Who Cross Our Borders” inspired empathy towards refugees by allowing people to relate to them. For me, it is these sort of reflective and profound activities that should represent the true spirit behind IEW.
Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (2015, November 16). International Education Week – Access for All [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4-9EtGwkNI
Caputo, L. (2015, November 15). Lisa Caputo: Fulbright Program serves the national interest; see how you can participate. Times Leader. Retrieved from http://timesleader.com/opinion/columns/494232/lisa-caputo-fulbright-program-serves-the-national-interest-see-how-you-can-participate
Goyal, M.K. (2015, November 18). Embracing Education and Culture through the Fulbright Program [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://blogs.state.gov/stories/2015/11/18/embracing-education-and-culture-through-fulbright-program
Jaara, N. (2015, November 16). International Education Week creates refugee simulation at Ohio University. The Post. Retrieved from http://www.thepostathens.com/news/international-education-week-creates-refugee-simulation-at-ohio-university/article_13c601e4-8ccc-11e5-b7dc-77f2346fd9cd.html
U of A to Celebrate International Education Week. (2015, November 9). News. Retrieved from http://news.uark.edu/articles/32904/u-of-a-to-celebrate-international-education-week
U.S. Department of Education (2015, September 8). Secretary Duncan – International Education Week 2015 message [Video file]. Retrieved from http://sites.ed.gov/international/international-education-week-2015/
*This is not an official U.S. Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.