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Reflections from an International Student in Central America

CGEE programs encourage thoughtful reflection during and after any study abroad experience. One student recently returned from our Central America semester program, has written a piece on her identity as a Malaysian citizen who came to the US to study as an International Student, then went on to be the only International Student in her study abroad cohort to Central America with a group of US citizens.

“Reflections of an International Student on a CGEE program”

by Nicole Tan – Colorado College, Fall Semester 2015

As an international student in the U.S., I have often felt the divide between “Us Internationals” and “Them Americans”. My social circles formed in freshman year, and by luck of an all international triple [room placement], I somehow found myself unintentionally gravitating towards the familiarity of other international students. In some sense, the glue for this bonding came out of anti-American sentiment. This is not something I share out of pride, just a lens to understand part of my college experience.

Coming in to this program [in Central America], I was forced to break away from this cocoon as the only international student in a group of seven. I think in some ways, it gave me my identity as a student in the U.S, chipping that divide between “Us” and “Them”. Being a U.S. student defined my experience in a way that Nicole straight from Malaysia wouldn’t have seen. Perhaps this is not my own country’s history, but I am a student in the U.S, intertwined in some way with Central America’s history. For instance, I was afforded certain privileges as a U.S. student. Coming in to an airport, my student visa often allowed me easier access than my Malaysian passport. And on top of that, in most situations, it was simply assumed that I was from the U.S. as I moved with the other students.

I think as an international, it can be easy to bash on certain U.S. citizens who lack knowledge of their country’s foreign policy. You share experiences of your own country’s history and its links to the U.S. and sometimes you see blank faces and a vacuum of knowledge. For me, Central America simultaneously fueled my critique of U.S. foreign policy, yet chipped away at my willingness to lash out at U.S. citizens. I was surrounded by a group of well-informed, engaged students who understood the presence of U.S. influence in Central America. Yet together, we found ourselves constantly confronted with knowledge that we simply had not known beforehand. In the classroom, U.S. influence evolved into facts on the propping of dictators, monitoring of elections and the funding of wars. I was confronted with lies, manipulation and dispersion of false information.

My experience reaffirmed to me the importance of remaining a well-informed global citizen. What happens right in front of us that we are not aware of? Yet, it also helped me understand the overwhelming task of being an informed U.S. citizen. This is not to excuse an aversion to politics and news. But this did help me understand the daunting task in front of U.S. citizens when U.S. influence casts a wide net all over the world. This experience helped me affirm the need for education yet simultaneously created empathy by putting me in the shoes of U.S. citizens, helping me break that divide between “Us” and “Them”.