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Around the World: Common stereotypes about international students

By Sebastian Vasquez Gutierrez, May 18 2021—

No matter what nationality, race or ethnicity you have, some idea of you is already there — stereotypes are something we cannot avoid and exist worldwide. Most stereotypes relate to one’s cultural background or a specific attitude that people from a country tend to have. In some cases, they can be reasonably accurate, and others tend to be more exaggerated and harmful. International students studying in the US and Canada experience their fair share of stereotyping, and often face certain assumptions — not only about their cultural backgrounds, but also dealing with the implications behind their status as international students. 

It’s difficult to take all international students’ experiences and have a general conclusion on what life is like for them abroad. Since there are so many of them, it’s impossible to fit them all under the same umbrella. International students come from all over the world, bringing different cultural backgrounds than domestic students and can bring diversity to the campus community and bring new ideas from their own culture to the campus. 

We all know the stereotype of the rich and arrogant international student, like the typical student who wears designer clothes and arrives to class with an expensive car and treats others students as less — most of these conceptions come from different media outlets and the fact that international students pay a much larger percentage of tuition fees than domestic students. At the University of Calgary, international students pay $17,000 more than domestic students. Media outlets like movies and television portray international students as very wealthy students, and in some cases, arrogant. This image manifests itself across universities in North America, impacting campus culture as a whole. In many cases, international students are able to pay the full tuition price which leads to believe that international students have the economic possibility to pay that amount of money. In other cases, students enter international universities because they earn scholarships in order for them to study abroad. But for the majority of cases, students have to pay international tuition which is very expensive compared to domestic.

We cannot go and say that these stereotypes are totally accurate since international students are very different from one another and they all have their own different perspectives and approaches to life. Of course there have been many cases of international students in a better economic situation than others and can afford to pay international tuition and in some cases it can lead to discrimination among peers.

During my first semester, I had a group of friends who also made these assumptions about me, based on the fact that I am an international student. The first assumption was regarding the topic of residence buildings. In my first year, I lived in Yamnuska Hall, while my friends all lived in Kananaskis Hall. Yamnuska is considerably more expensive than Kananaskis, so when I mentioned that I was an international student, a lot of them would say that the reason for me living in that hall was because of my international student status. However, the reason I was able to afford to live at Yamnuska Hall in the first place was because I received a scholarship that helped me with all the expenses. 

There is also the problem with ethnic or national stereotyping and how it impacts the perception of international students from their respective countries. My home country is Colombia and I cannot deny that it’s not the safest country out there.  As a result, many Hollywood movies and TV shows such as Narcos put Colombia’s bloody past at the forefront. But showing only that side to viewers, it leads the world to generalize and create stereotypes about the people who live there. Coming into the university, I knew the image people had about Colombia — we have seen it through the popular depictions of Pablo Escobar and the immediate association to his influence during many international conversations regarding Colombia. In terms of the Colombian culture and South America in general, I already had an idea about how the world sees the country and culture based on different media. Coming into university, I was afraid that people would see me as someone aggressive that was involved with dangerous acts like we have seen the media portray. These types of shows deliver one side of the country’s past — they don’t show the culture, the people and the beautiful things the country should be known for. If we show the world one side of a country, that’s the only side they’re going to see and assume that is what international students are bringing to campus, as a result.  

Stereotypes can have a significant impact on society and how we view specific cultures and the people who are part of them. We could have an entire idea of a person before we even get to know them, only based on how the media portrays them. Many cultures have been affected by media-induced stereotypes. Even though they seem harmless, stereotypes can have a really damaging outcome in the way international students are treated because of their status alongside their ethnicity and language barrier. Although we haven’t seen many incidents at the University (that we’re aware of), it is because most of the classes have been online. 

Not all stereotypes are harmful, but to be very honest, it is going to be really hard to ignore them since we are surrounded by media that can portray any culture or country the way they want, which leads us to believe only one side of that culture or country. In reality there is much more — we have to take a lot into consideration before we make a judgment about a person based on someone’s birthplace or cultural background. 

Around the World is a column about the international student experience and a platform for the voices of those students to be heard. It aims to raise topics often avoided and issues often unspoken about as they pertain to international students at the University of CalgaryThis column is a part of our Voices section.

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