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Brits in America: the international family at Harvard

Raphaëlle’s latest blog from Harvard University highlights the importance of a diverse student body as well as the problems that may arise around integration 

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Raphaëlle Soffe's avatar

Raphaëlle Soffe

December 7 2017
Brits in America - the international family


The international community at Harvard University adds another dimension to the educational experience. The diverse network allows for the views of students to be challenged and debated along a wide range of perspectives. To help international students settle in, Harvard runs a Freshman International Program (FIP) in August before the start of classes.

Students from all over the world are brought together and then split into smaller FIP families, with upperclassmen acting as “parents”. The list of countries that my FIP family members are from is extensive: Canada, China, Congo, Ghana, India, Italy, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Ukraine.

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Within my first week, I had interacted with people from all over the globe, finding more similarities than differences and bonding over the shared struggle of settling into a new country. My FIP family today remains close, even though our hectic schedule can limit our number of reunions.

One thing I’ve noticed within the international community is the tendency to gravitate towards people from your home country. This is not always the case, but it happens quite often. Organisations such as the Francophone Society, the British Club and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association offer regular meet-ups with people from your native country. These groups are open to all nationalities and to those who share the language; however, they generally offer a base point where students from the same country can socialise together.

Follow the rest of Raphaëlle’s journey here

Brits in America: Heading to Harvard
Brits in America: Ordering ‘chips’ is a very different thing here
Brits in America: a day in the life of a Harvard student
Brits in America: ‘Look, it’s Bernie Sanders!’

On the one hand, these clubs are a fundamental part of Harvard’s community, and they allow international students to remain connected to their culture and traditions away from home. On the other hand, I fear that they might, in some cases, lead students to interact mainly with people from their home country and hinder integration.

FIP attempts to overcome this, but even this programme has the possibility of encouraging a divide between international and American students. Personally, I have a similar number of international and American friends, but this is not always the case for everyone.

I have had many conversations with students from the US who have told me that they hadn’t really talked to many international students, and some had a feeling that the number of international students in the Class of ’21 appears to be lower than the current figure of 12.4 per cent. I believe that over the next four years this will change. As classes move around and people settle into the upperclassmen Houses, the divide will begin to loosen.

I recognise the importance of relating with other international students, especially if you are from the same nation, but integration with American students should be high on the international community agenda as a whole.

I must admit that I am guilty of gravitating towards anything that reminds me of home, although that did take me by surprise. One of my closest friends on campus is also from the UK, and we spend a lot of time together hunting for good food in Harvard Square and puzzling over economics problem sets. He reminds me of home; our mannerisms are very similar, and our humour is definitely the same.

However, the odd thing about this friendship is that we both come from entirely different backgrounds in Britain. He lives in England, and I live in Wales. He is from a city; I am from a small village. He went to Eton; I went to a state school in North Wales that no one has ever heard of. If we had both gone to a UK university instead, these differences would have been far more significant.

However, it was the diverse international nature of Harvard that drew us together. We were no longer defined by these differences. In fact, they appeared minuscule in comparison to our shared experience of growing up in the UK. In this way, it is possible that students from the same country who might otherwise have not socialised with each other overcome the differences in upbringing to come together. The international clubs could be a way to remedy domestic conflicts or differences within countries.

Ultimately, the international community carries tremendous potential to reconcile differences and stimulate diverse debate. Cross-cutting international group meetings and events should be encouraged, especially with other American-dominated organisations.

Read more: Best universities in the US 

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