February 27, 2017
By Judi Nitsch
Two Thursdays ago, faculty, students, and staff gathered in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center to welcome international students to our campus. Though a yearly event, this reception had particular importance in light of the anti-immigrant stance taken by the Trump administration. Faculty planners Kelly Coronado, Rich Johnson, and I invited colleagues to bring a dish to pass to demonstrate our commitment to welcoming all students. We believe these sorts of small gestures are crucial to maintaining a positive, supportive environment for our more vulnerable students. Telling the stories of the day, as I will do in a moment, underscores the shared humanity across Harper’s different populations. And yet, the stories also reveal the distinct cultural experiences that enrich these interactions native- and non-native born members of our community. This sameness-difference dialectic, echoed through the stories below, is a precious gift of living in an immigrant nation and working at an open-admissions institution, and we should not take it for granted.
As promised, some stories from the reception:
Faculty, staff, and members of the international students club formed conversation clusters quickly, asking each other questions and chatting about lighter subjects. An Iranian student, Ellie, asked me about the hair product I used. At first, I didn’t understand the question as I wasn’t prepared to think or talk about myself, let alone my body (professors rarely do that). When I realized what she was asking about, I laughed heartily and explained my morning hair routine. I whipped out my cell phone to show her the name of the hair mousse that I use, and she snapped a picture with her smart phone. Then, we commiserated about the difficulties of having thin, curly hair. Kathy Hanahan noted with relief that she was at an age where she didn’t have to care about such things, and I quipped back that having a head of lovely white hair, rather than my numerous white streaks, was an instant, refined look in itself.
As I entered another conversation circle, I heard Kelly chatting about her adorable twin toddlers with Kathleen Reynolds and a group of students. I complimented Kathy on her chocolate chip cookies—which she deflected in true Midwestern style—and began talking with a Moldavian student about French. She was eager to learn English, but since her mother had been a French teacher, she has studied that language from childhood. After I told her I was a novice French speaker on a very good day, she gave me some pronunciation tips involving tongue position. We then chatted about English, and I revealed myself to be an English professor. I was surprised to learn that she had only been speaking and studying English for several years, but then I am always impressed and shamed by how multi-lingual the rest of the world is. Her eagerness to learn a third language was palpable!
Over the course of the two hours, faculty and staff came and went, entering in and out of conversation clusters. I was struck by how welcoming the students were to my colleagues and me, despite this event’s inviting us to welcome the students. The international students were comfortable asking faculty questions and sharing their knowledge on subjects; indeed, they even seemed comfortable noting the cultural differences between the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and their home countries. I found this ease comforting myself as it suggested that Harper is, to some degree, a safe space for these students – or, at least, the international student club is a safe space. I suspect my colleagues and I took some comfort in that sense ourselves. Now, the work begins to protect that space.
That said, the reception wasn’t the space for political discussions regarding the latest promulgation from the Trump administration; rather, it was a space for making basic human connections over the most quotidian of topics. Those relationships and those moments, it seems, are more critical than ever if Harper seeks to be a safe space for international students. With the board’s refusal to deem Harper a sanctuary campus, the faculty, staff, and students must use their interactions with international students—in our clubs, classrooms, and offices—to offer that sanctuary. I believe the reception marked a space of welcome and safety, during which we all shared those most human of things: food, drink, and conversation. I know more events of this sort will follow, and I urge everyone who can to attend them.