International Student: Label or Identity?

On Sept. 16 a group of 32 students and two faculty members visited Camp Tracy in Oakland, Maine for an overnight stay as part of the Mix It Up Retreat organised by Colby’s International Club. The theme for this year’s retreat was ‘Pop the Bubble’.

The fact that it was organized by Colby’s International Club naturally attracted more international students than domestic students and, thus, a big part of the formal and informal discussions throughout the retreat revolved around the international bubble that coexists among other such bubbles on the Hill.

Any kind of tag that could be associated with any student while on campus is suitable for  the ‘identity or label’ debate. I  identify as an international student. For this reason, I have chosen to write about the many labels and identities that arise on a college campus through the lens of an international student. In my opinion, anyone can have a similar dialogue about any of the so-called ‘labels’ attached to them.

The conversation began with a remark about the unfair way in which Colby perceives its international students – ‘gems’ from around the world that allow the College  to add a new country to its ever-growing list in the name of diversity. This is certainly an extreme and controversial point of view, but an opinion thateveryone is entitled to, nonetheless.

What does the term ‘international student’ even mean? A fellow participant of the retreat said that they were not comfortable with being labelled as an international student because they simply want to be a Colby student. An honourable thought, which complemented earlier discussions of popping the international bubble to unite all students as a part of just the ‘Colby bubble’. Later in the retreat, another student commented on how they were tired of having to represent their country and culture all the time, and that they, too, simply wished to be just a regular Colby student. I agree with them. Unfairly so, anything I say and do does directly represent Nepal in the eyes of the people who have never had any prior exposure to Nepali culture.

However, being Nepali, and, thus, an international student, is an intrinsic identity I possess. I am voluntarily and willingly proud of my identity. I consider it an identity and not a label because I own and have the ability to control its effect on others, rather than just have it be assigned to me by an external force. As I have asserted before, being an international student is not the only characteristic that can be used as an identity; anything you feel a sense of belonging to – something you identify with – can make you feel the same way. Contrary to popular belief, being a member of the majority does not prevent you from acquiring this sense of identity.

The Class of 2021 is supposed to be the most diverse one in Colby’s history. Why don’t we live up to this name? And this is exactly where controversy creeps in. Making your intrinsic identity an active part of your conversations, interactions and values on this campus contributes to its actual diversity, in contrast to adding a country or race to Colby’s list. If we allow our identities to construct brick walls between ourselves and others around us, preventing meaningful conversation beyond “How’s it going?”, aren’t we ourselves to blame for being just another country or race on that list?

During the retreat, there was a discussion about “expanding” the bubble as opposed to “popping” it. A participant noted how it would defeat the whole purpose if the bubble did expand but added more like-minded people into the mix. The purpose is to change the way the bubble thinks and not necessarily add more people to it.

This is where the connection with your identity comes in. How do you expand the perspectives of an existing bubble? My answer would be: using your identity actively to contribute to actual diversity within the bubble.

  • PlatinumGlasses

    How does your time in Colby differ from your time in Japan? Is the fact that your batch in ISAK was 30% Japan while in Colby it seems to be the inverse (just speculating)?
    – Dylan O.

    • Himanshu Bhurtel

      Hey Dylan,

      In fact, that is exactly what I first thought my article would tackle. The environment is vastly different. But that is because we at first, we tend to look at diversity as only stemming from nationality and not other forms of identity. I think an implicit message I am trying to convey with this article is the fact that any sense of belonging can be used to form your own identity and thus add to the diversity of a place.

      – Himanshu.