I grew up in a relatively homogenous environment, surrounded by people with the same skin tone as me, speaking the same language as me. Needless to say, I was excited by the prospect of studying at Emory, which I thought would be a truly international environment, where students from all over the world come together to learn and grow. I was first exposed to life at Emory through international student orientation, which took place a few days before standard orientation or, as I and the other international students knew it, “orientation for the American students.” Four years at Emory would mean that I would make friends from all over the world, learn about different cultures and maybe eventually visit friends who lived in different countries during school breaks. However, that delusional bubble burst fairly quickly.
For the first two months of college I avoided contact with any of the other international students from India — I wanted my college experience to be all about being “international.” I went everywhere from the classroom to fraternity row hoping to create a diverse friend group that represented what I thought to be the true spirit of Emory, one that looked like the smiling students in promotional fliers. But I soon realized that American students at Emory didn’t necessarily feel the same way. For them, moving to a different state in the same nation was enough of a culture shock. And as is human nature, the best coping mechanism for dealing with any kind of shock is sticking with your own kind. Unfortunately for students at Emory, that means clinging to your ethnic, racial or social identity. American students didn’t seem to want to go out of their way to mingle with international students such as myself.
By my second semester, it seemed as though most freshmen had receded into friend groups that shared similar cultural identities. It became crystal clear that Emory wasn’t a melting pot of different cultures and perspectives as I’d hoped. Instead, I learned that social life is defined by people of similar cultures gravitating toward one another, unintentionally neglecting interaction with others in the process. While it may be easier to find common ground with students from your own country, it is also easy to find common ground with those who’ve shared similar experiences. And those experiences are not always determined by the color of your passport or your skin. Experiences are determined by externalities well out of our control. But the similarities between the experiences of an American who grew up on a dairy farm and an African who grew up surrounded by political conflict may surprise you.
Just a year ago, Emory’s campus was consumed with debate about the value of safe spaces. When I realized those safe spaces were to develop on the basis of ethnic, racial and religious identities, I wondered how are students supposed to learn from one another if they are going to be isolated from one another. The controversial topic of safe spaces is too expansive to cover in this short op-ed, but I must say that while safe spaces create comfort zones that encourage discussion among culturally similar students, they do little to alleviate the burden of cross-cultural learning. The whole point of going to a prestigious liberal arts college like Emory is to foster academic and intellectual curiosity, which shouldn’t buckle under the pressure of one’s demographic status.
The segregation among Emory students extends well beyond ethnic and racial identities or language barriers. It also includes political ideologies and economic factors. Emory has often been criticized for not respecting the voices of its conservative minority. Students form clusters that indulge their own ideological and political beliefs. Further, a gap seems to exist between students from high-income and lower-income families. Emory is an expensive private university and is composed of many financially well-off students who grew up in homogenous settings. Those students are naturally inclined to befriend those who can afford the same lifestyle they have, including which student organization they join. One would hope that club participation would allow students to intermingle. However, this is not always the case. Students often choose clubs in a manner that reinforces culturally based self-segregation, which includes economic differences. Furthermore, the long-standing debate of segregation between Greek and non-Greek students on campus partly stems from economic factors — participation in Greek life requires paying high dues and occasional additional fines. Though some financial aid is offered, unofficial fees for clothes, alcohol and food are necessary aspects of being socially active and accepted in Greek life.
The prospect of interacting with, or better yet, befriending students from different cultures shouldn’t be a daunting process. Students should be excited at the chance to make a diverse group of friends, an opportunity that is best granted on college campuses. With 21 percent Asian/Asian-American, 9 percent Latino, 9.5 percent black and 17.1 percent international students, Emory has a diverse student body that should be intermingling and learning together, not self-segregating.
Pranati Kohli is a College senior from New Delhi, India.