International Diversity is Good for Colleges, Good for Maine

By William D. Adams
Originally published by Central Maine Newspapers
Sunday, January 26, 2003
© 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

Diversity makes Maine stronger. This was demonstrated emphatically this month, when thousands of Mainers converged on Lewiston to show their support for a new immigrant community, but it has been true throughout Maine's history. It was true both when my grandfather, a Portland native, and my father, from Augusta, were growing up--when Francophone families settled in cities and towns across the state, when Irish and Italian immigrants populated Portland, and when Lebanese families came to Waterville to help build the city's commercial district and keep trains running past Colby's old campus. And it is true now, as African, Asian, and Latino families and others arrive and shape their lives in Maine.

This isn't to pretend it was easy for immigrants or that acceptance was immediate. But a review of the contributions to Maine from Arab Americans, Franco Americans, African Americans, Latino and Latina Americans, and others provides ample evidence of the ways that we are stronger and richer as a result.

As the world shrinks and traditional boundaries that tended to keep diverse peoples apart fall, it is more important than ever to welcome international diversity to our state. The changing face of the American work force dictates that Maine people, and particularly Maine children, will benefit from learning to work with people of different cultures and customs. Colleges like Colby can be at the forefront of these efforts--but only if we are allowed to go about this very important business.

In recent months agencies that regulate and monitor foreign students have made it more difficult for those students to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities or to return after semester breaks. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education cover asked "Whose visas are being delayed or denied?" and answered "It's not just suspected terrorists, but stellar students who have been recruited by American colleges."

We need these students, and not principally because international students inject $11 billion into America's economy each year or because of some quaint idea that we have an obligation to lift all boats on the tide of our system's excellence. We need them, rather, for the contributions they make to the educational process itself. We need them to help educate us.

Ten years ago, fewer than 3 percent of Colby's students were foreign nationals. Today international students represent more than 60 countries and comprise 10 percent of the student body. They study alongside some 200 top students from Maine high schools (11 percent of our population) as well as outstanding students from all over the U.S., and they contribute substantially to the diversity that enriches our efforts to educate future leaders for Maine, our country, and the world.

Colby's professors rave about the sense of intellectual purpose and variety of perspectives that international students bring to classrooms here in Waterville. A discussion of U.S. involvement in the Balkans, for example, was very different because one of the students had siblings fighting against NATO forces at the time. "Imagine," the professor said, "what that brings to a discussion about the intervention in Serbia and Bosnia."

Such opportunities are not limited to our campus either. Immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, members of Colby's Muslim student organization visited high schools around Central Maine to explain how their interpretation of Islam differed from versions espoused by terrorists and portrayed in the media.

At a residential college a great deal of learning goes on outside the classroom, and international students can help American undergraduates challenge their own notions about cultural differences. And while their primary duty is to their own education--not to instruct American students or to serve as ambassadors--international students living at Colby confront their own preconceptions too.

An African student who says his culture is steeped in homophobia, for example, notes that working for a gay supervisor and studying alongside activist gay and lesbian students and faculty led him to challenge long-held but unexamined biases. As a result, he said, "I just began to let my prejudice go." On campus or off, if we approach our differences with that kind of an open mind, there is much we can learn from one another.

I believe the students now being educated at Colby will wind up in places of influence and that their experiences with people in many ways unlike themselves will make them more capable of contributing to the resolution of conflict. Some may see this conviction as naive, especially when enmities seem so intractable and international, national, and even local news pages reflect deep-seated hatred and misunderstanding. Perhaps it is naive. But ideas are the business of educators, and we have an obligation to expose our students to the most powerful ideas at hand. Given the political realities that currently confront us, the idea (and ideal) of an international and multicultural community of scholars and students is a powerful one whose time has come for Maine's colleges and universities.

Amalgams of different cultures have made Colby, Maine, and our nation stronger through their histories, and worldwide increases in personal mobility promise to make Colby and Maine even more diverse in the coming century. It is heartening to see evidence of a widespread appreciation that this diversity will enrich our state and that current and future generations of Mainers will be the beneficiaries.