DURING the academic year 1951-1952 more than 30,000 foreign students came to the United States for training of one sort or another. This is a fact which wins the warm approval of most citizens. Both the Government and private foundations have expressed their enthusiasm for international exchange of students by contributing substantial sums of money to carry it on.

The presence in this country of large numbers of impressionable youngsters from abroad accords beautifully with American notions of how international amity is to be furthered. We are entirely sure that all concerned will benefit if foreign peoples get to know us. We have the warmest faith that, knowing us, they will like and respect us. We believe (without ever having examined the belief very critically) that, if people can be placed face-to-face, they will find a common human basis for understanding. It is a Christian, humane belief and it does us credit.

So great is our belief, however, that we have tended to assume that the process will inevitably be successful, no matter how haphazardly planned and carried out. This is almost certainly untrue. There are better and worse ways of doing it; and, as in all human endeavor, there are hazards inherent in the enterprise. Those who have had extensive dealings with foreign students know that many of the individuals who have come here have not been wisely selected; that many have received training which has left them ill-fitted to deal with problems in their own countries; that many have left our shores despising us rather than loving us.

The problems vary according to the country from which the student comes, of course. The Canadian student, for example, has an infinitely easier task of adjustment to American life than the Indonesian student. The problems which require more thought than they usually receive are chiefly those of students from cultures unlike our own.

The United States has certain clear objectives with respect to the nations of the free world. We wish them to gain in economic strength and political maturity. We wish them to be free and remain free. We wish them to be friends of the United States. The achievement of these objectives will depend upon the quality, the vigor and the maturity of indigenous leadership in these countries, and upon the capacity of this leadership to understand and sympathize with our aims. The success of all our efforts to provide military and economic assistance will ultimately depend on this.

Seen in this context, the presence in the United States each year of tens of thousands of the ablest young people from these countries must be regarded as a uniquely promising opportunity. Most of the countries of the free world are in a period of social ferment, and in such times younger leaders play an unusually significant rôle. Many of these countries do not have enough able men who are trained to deal with complex political and economic problems. Effectively carried out, the process of student exchange could provide them with a steady flow of individuals whose experiences in the United States have not only led them to like and respect us but have fitted them to play a constructive rôle in the development of their own nations. And even in those countries which now have an adequate supply of able and well-trained leaders, it would be to our interest if the leadership ranks were steadily replenished by young men with a firsthand understanding of the United States.

II

The 30,462 foreign students who were enrolled in our institutions of higher education during the academic year 1951-1952 came from 126 countries.[i] Geographical proximity accounted for heavy representation (11,304) from our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere--Canada (4,232), Mexico (1,185), Colombia (953), and so on down to Dutch Guiana, which sent ten students. The reëducation programs of the Department of State and the Department of the Army were the chief factors in producing substantial contingents from the occupied areas--Germany (1,236), Japan (1,150), and Austria (237). Total representation from Asia and the Near East was 10,952, and from Europe 7,220.

This flood of students spread to every corner of the United States, enrolling in 1,354 different institutions of higher education. They found their way to liberal arts colleges and vocational schools, to theological seminaries and art institutes, to medical schools and military academies. They went in large numbers to the great universities (1,379 at Columbia University alone) but they also sought out innumerable small institutions throughout the land such as Millsaps College, Mississippi, Briar Cliff College, Iowa, Deep Springs College, California.

About one-half of the students were enrolled in undergraduate studies. Most of the remainder were enrolled in graduate study of one sort or another. They sampled almost every variety of higher educational offering. More than 3,700 students were enrolled in general liberal arts courses in the first two years of college. Of the more advanced and specialized courses, engineering was far the most popular, with almost 6,000 students. The other major fields (in order of preference) were the social sciences, medical sciences, physical sciences, business administration, religion, education, agriculture and the fine arts.

The Institute of International Education estimates that the presence of these large numbers of foreign students in this country represents an investment of approximately $75,000,000. Data are not available on the sources of financial support for all foreign students, but some facts are known. It is known, for example, that at least one-third of the students receive no funds other than those obtained from their own private sources. About one out of eight receives United States Government aid toward travel or maintenance or both, and about the same proportion receives some sort of scholarship award from the institution in which he is studying. Four and one-half percent receive scholarship awards from such nongovernmental organizations in this country as Rotary Clubs, women's clubs, foundations and professional groups. About 4 percent are known to receive aid from governmental sources in their own countries, and another 2 percent receive aid from private organizations at home.

The nearest thing to a central organization in the field of student exchange is the privately-sponsored Institute of International Education, which administers most of the governmental programs on a contract basis, handles scholarship funds for private groups, provides counseling and guidance facilities for foreign students, and in general acts as a central servicing organization for student exchange. Many other nongovernmental organizations play an active--though much more limited--rôle in exchange of students. To name only a few, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund have conducted over the years very carefully designed fellowship programs for individuals of outstanding talent. So-called "bi-national" organizations such as the American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Belgian American Educational Foundation have played a significant rôle in exchange between the United States and their own countries. The International Houses in Berkeley, Chicago and New York City have provided comfortable and congenial living quarters for thousands of foreign students since the first one was founded a quarter of a century ago.

On the governmental side, the Department of State is responsible for the United States Educational Exchange (Smith-Mundt) and Fulbright programs. The Department of State and the Department of the Army have both conducted large programs of exchange involving the occupied countries. The Office of Education is responsible for exchanges with Latin American countries. The Economic Coöperation Administration has conducted certain special exchange programs.

It is perhaps characteristic of us as a nation that we have thrown ourselves wholeheartedly into such an enormous venture without ever having subjected it to critical scrutiny. There is no reason for assuming that student exchange is unworthy of the energies lavished upon it, but these are times which call for reexamination of all phases of our intercourse with other nations and peoples.

An appraisal of the process of student exchange might properly begin with the problem of selection. The choice of most students is not in American hands, but we do select a good many and could influence the mode of selection of many more. It is an open question whether we have used what influence we do have to favor a wise choice. Our basic objective, of course, should be to assure ourselves that the students who come are individuals of talent, character and capacity for leadership, individuals who may be expected upon their return home to serve their own countries constructively, vigorously and wisely.

The machinery which the United States Government has set up for selection of foreign students is fairly uniform. The most common device is a Committee on Study and Training in the United States. The Department of State has encouraged the establishment of such committees in most countries which send large numbers of students. The committee is composed of a few educational leaders in the foreign country involved, a few Americans resident in that country who are acquainted with our own educational system, and the cultural affairs officer of the U. S. Embassy or Legation as an observer or ex officio member. The United States Educational Foundations set up in various countries to deal with exchanges under the program of Fulbright grants are roughly similar bodies. In some countries the process of selection has been delegated to the bi-national foundations.

These various groups set up by the Department of State are used almost solely for selection of those students who are to receive aid from the United States Government, and thus they deal with only a fraction of the students who come here each year. But these groups could set a pattern of intelligent selection which might have far-reaching influence.

In spite of the conscientious effort which has gone into the establishment of such machinery, wise and impartial selection cannot be taken for granted. It is a matter of common observation that favoritism and nepotism are prominent in the choice of students in some countries. Another problem goes deeper still. In many countries domestic circumstances are such that only a favored few get through the tight bottleneck of the lower educational system to the college level, at which most international exchange takes place. In the light of our American tradition of keeping the road to achievement open at all times to talent drawn from every social level, it would be ironic if we fell into the error of seeking talent in other countries only from among the favored few, leaving it to the Communists to recruit--as they eagerly do --the vigorous and striving potential leaders outside this charmed circle.

III

Effective selection, however, is only the first step--though an important one--toward a sound development of the possibilities of student exchange. Everyone who has worked with foreign students knows that even with the ablest and most promising human material the visit sometimes goes sour. Often this is traceable to problems of personal adjustment and social relations. For most of the foreign students who come here the visit is a major experience of a lifetime. It is exciting, disturbing and invariably difficult in some of its aspects. The student's whole feeling about the United States, his effectiveness as a scholar, and the usefulness of his work in years to come may hinge on his capacity to solve the personal and social problems inherent in the exchange process. This is not the place to review them all, but it may be worth while to suggest their nature.

The foreign student almost always experiences a diminished sense of personal worth. An individual's self-esteem is rarely a wholly portable asset; it is rooted in his social context and in his sense of belonging there. The foreign student leaves behind his whole personal and social environment--his family, community and nation, the way of life and the sense of membership--the terms in which he is accustomed to identify himself and appraise his worth. He is introduced into a strange context in which his own status is ambiguous and difficult to establish. The position which he had at home means nothing here. In a sociological sense, he comes naked to our shores. Small wonder if he shivers a bit!

The American high-school graduate who goes to a distant university experiences in his first days on campus the same sense of strangeness, of anonymity, of loss of personal context. But he soon finds common ground with the other anonymous newcomers, and he finds that he can quickly communicate to others the context in which he is accustomed to see himself. He can say to his new roommate: "I'm from Emporia; I played football; my father's a druggist." The problem of the foreign student may be recognized if one were to imagine the roommate replying: "Where's Emporia? What is football? Is a druggist someone who peddles narcotics?"

In short, the foreign student is almost certain to find that his confidence is shaken by the sheer fact of being transplanted into a strange environment. And in this vulnerable state, he soon encounters experiences which multiply the effect. His confidence in himself is to some degree based upon a sense of his capacity to make sound judgments in the routine matters of social living. But now he finds that he can no longer trust his judgment. A remark which he intends as a witticism may evoke anger; reserve may be taken for coldness; intended friendliness may be taken as presumption; intended courtesies may be regarded as quaint. He must master a new set of rules.

No one can spare him the learning process which he faces. All travelers in all centuries have experienced it. But he can be prepared for it; he can be forewarned of its difficulties; and he can be given some helpful advice concerning it. Consider, for example, the problem he faces in expressing any criticism of the United States. He can be reminded of the fundamental fact that members of a group, no matter how freely they may criticize themselves, resent similar criticism from outsiders. A Marine can criticize the Corps, but he does not welcome similar comments from the Army. Residents of Denver may complain about their city, but they will not applaud the same criticisms from a Bostonian. The foreign student will readily recall occasions in his own country when he and his countrymen bitterly resented outside complaints. He can be warned that the people of the United States are like all other humans in this respect. Friendly Americans who assure him that we love criticism are doing him no favor.

It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the importance of these matters in the experience of the student. They can totally destroy the constructive character of the visitor's reaction to the United States. The student who feels insecure and shaken in confidence, who feels alone and unworthy and buffeted, is in a perfect frame of mind to formulate a negative view of the United States. He can explain his troubles and salve his wounded self-esteem by convincing himself that the United States is an intolerable environment. In this frame of mind every flaw in American life is a sop to his ego, every weakness he discovers in us feeds his own need for a sense of superiority. What American traveling abroad has not found himself nourishing just such a state of mind? These are reactions which cannot be wholly avoided in any case; but they can be diminished.

It is obviously impossible to "nurse" the foreign student through his stay in this country--impossible for practical reasons, quite aside from the unfortunate effect which such ministrations might have upon the student. It is possible to hope, however, that the visiting student can be placed in a social context to which he will have a reasonable opportunity of achieving a satisfactory adjustment, and within which he can enjoy normal participation in American life. If this could be done, then we might safely assume that the student would work out on his own the difficult but unavoidable process of adjusting to his new environment.

The foreign student does not need to be singled out for elaborate attention; indeed, there are real hazards in the sporadic efforts to lionize him which are so often the consequence of well-intended community action. The familiar community pattern of lionizing the student for a time and then forgetting all about him is probably harmful in both phases.

The student will as a rule be far better off if left to himself to a reasonable degree--but left to himself in a situation which provides him with a fair opportunity to achieve a satisfactory experience in American life. One would want to ask, for example, whether he has ample opportunities for comradeship with Americans, and whether he has the opportunity to experience a sense of belonging to some American group. The advantages of comradeship with Americans are obvious: his clearest insights into American ways and American beliefs will be achieved through firsthand sharing of work and play with Americans. And the gains of comradeship will be substantially heightened if he belongs to some American group, not necessarily in the sense of holding formal membership, as in a club, but in the sense of being a fully accepted participant in a group or community of manageable size. He may experience this as a member of the student body on a small campus, as a resident at one of the International Houses, as a graduate student in a laboratory which has more than usual esprit de corps, or as a member of a campus living group. The student who is receiving graduate training in a professional school is fortunate in that most professions provide a strong sense of membership, and this is a vivid experience even at the graduate student level. The important thing is that he not be left to float as a lonely, anonymous individual lost in the busy swirl of university life.

In thinking about the living circumstances of the foreign student it is necessary, of course, to face candidly and realistically the problem of racial discrimination. Throughout Asia, the Near East and Africa, resentment of Western attitudes of racial superiority is a potent and dangerous ingredient in the political thinking of native populations. Local leaders have long since discovered that this reservoir of resentment can be tapped for a wide variety of political purposes. Systematic exploitation of this resentment is a central feature of Communist propaganda throughout these areas. The Communists could wish for nothing better than a steady stream of youngsters returning from the United States embittered by humiliating experiences of discrimination.

Organizations concerned with the exchange of foreign students recognize these facts, and have attempted to deal with them in two ways: first, by sending non-white students to those parts of the country where they are least likely to encounter difficulties; and second, in so far as possible, by arranging to have them placed in a social setting in which they can count on being accepted as normal participants in community life. The foreign student who comes with open eyes and an open mind will find reasons for praise as well as censure. If he is willing to examine the progress made in recent decades he will surely recognize that great advances have been made. The problem is a serious one, but certainly not wholly discouraging. Discriminatory practices based upon racial, religious or social differences are familiar facts of human experience--certainly familiar to all of the students who come here. While the foreign student will find that we do indeed have this problem, as do most human societies in one form or another, he will also find a degree of public discussion of it, and a vigor in trying to correct it, which are almost unique in the long and tragic history of inter-group conflict.

IV

The kinds of training which foreign students seek in this country are so varied that the question of the appropriateness of the programs we offer cannot here be discussed comprehensively. But the question is too important to be ignored. The hope is, of course, that the training received in the United States will enable the students to make a constructive contribution in their own countries. This is not as certain a consequence as one might suppose. Many agricultural students from tropical countries, for example, have found to their dismay that the training they were given in certain of our agricultural colleges had little or nothing to do with agriculture of the sort which they had to practise on their return. Many engineering students have found that the training which fits the American student to work for a huge industrial concern has little relevance to the rudimentary problems they face in their own countries.

Nothing could be more disheartening and frustrating to the returning student than to find that his training in the United States had little to do with the day-to-day problems with which he must deal. The student must be equipped to play a constructive rôle within the framework of his own society. In so far as this involves appropriately designed technical training, the problem is more and more widely recognized, and one may expect great improvements. But more than technology is involved. The foreign student who comes for technical training will be an agent of technological change; and technological change brings sociological and political changes of the most complex sort. If the student does not understand this complex background against which he will have to work, he will be in for some surprises and some sharp disappointments. Anyone who has ever been concerned with technological change can testify that the technical problems involved in accomplishing an innovation may be minor compared with the sociological problems involved in getting the innovation accepted. Technological innovations disrupt old ways of doing things; they often run counter to deeply-rooted beliefs and customs; they frequently have political and social repercussions which result in every variety of resistance and sabotage. Thus the technically trained student, on returning to his native land, may find himself all dressed up with no place to go. He may find that his technological ideas are unwanted, or that he meets inexplicable resistance and becomes entangled in unexpected political conflicts.

If the student is to use his training effectively and wisely, then he must understand the sociological context in which technological change takes place. Only the most modest beginnings have been made in this sort of education for foreign technical students, and indeed no more than beginnings can be made until our technical schools become wiser about the process of technological change in backward countries. At the present writing those technical schools which are giving any attention at all to the problem are wholly bemused with techniques and almost totally ignorant of the sociological problems involved in introducing techniques.

It is hoped, of course, that the foreign student will learn things in this country which are not a part of any prescribed course of study; and most of all, let us confess, it is hoped that he will learn something of the fundamentals of democracy as we know it; we want him to understand the mainsprings of life in the United States. We have been consistently hesitant about "indoctrination" or "propaganda" aimed at the foreign student. We do not want to "sell him" anything; and this stems partly from our proud confidence that, if he has eyes in his head, he will soon learn more favorable things about the United States than we could possibly tell him. Unfortunately, this assumption does little justice to the complexity of our national life and the confusing aspects of the foreign student's experience in this country.

A visit to the United States gives the student a firsthand sense of how we behave, and of the sights and sounds of a democratic society in action. It provides him with an emotional understanding of certain aspects of our national life which he could never achieve in any other fashion. It enables him to get beyond and behind the clichés by which the United States is described abroad. It may enable him to get a few of the lessons of democracy into his nervous system, so to speak. But we make a great mistake if we assume that such an experience will necessarily provide him with a real understanding of democracy or of the American people.

An initial difficulty is that when foreign students arrive in this country they have their heads full of the most astonishing preconceptions of American life; and some of these preconceptions are so strong that the student is in danger of seeing only those things in the United States which accord with his settled notions. Anyone who has had extensive contact with foreign students will recall cases of students who have been here for considerable periods without relinquishing the most curious misconceptions concerning American life. But the problem of giving the student an elementary understanding of the meaning of democracy as it is practised in the United States is more than a matter of clearing away quaint misapprehensions. Even American citizens are apt to have only a vague idea as to what the essentials of democracy really are. For a foreign student to separate the essentials from the nonessentials is difficult indeed. His final idea of democracy may be a bewildering hodgepodge of impressions regarding the high standard of living, the freedom we accord women, racial discrimination, social informality, free speech, municipal corruption, the arrogance of workers in the service trades, preoccupation with sanitation, sky-high prices, and endless, seemingly aimless, activity.

It is only sensible to insist that all foreign students arriving in the United States be given an opportunity to learn some of the broader realities of American life before they plunge into a specific program of work and study. It is a mistake to suppose that the foreign student will be offended or bored by a well-conceived attempt to orient him with respect to life in the United States. He comes ready and willing to learn, and on his arrival no topic is more exciting and interesting than the nature of the country to which he has come.

Many of the students who are brought here under grants from the United States Government, and some who come under other sponsorship, are now exposed to orientation sessions of varying degrees of adequacy. But the sheer problems of traffic control make such arrangements difficult. It is both awkward and expensive to route and schedule very large numbers of students in such a way that they gather at predetermined spots for a period of orientation. It might be possible to set up a number of regional sessions to which all colleges and universities within a given area could send their foreign students for preliminary orientation. Far more flexible would be the provision of orientation sessions on each campus which has foreign students.

V

At the heart of the whole question of the potentialities and limitations of student exchange is the fate of the student after he has returned home. Does he enter upon a more constructive and creative rôle in his own society as a result of the experience? Or is he merely more discontented? What effect does the experience have upon his career during the next 20 years, upon his capacity for leadership, upon his political orientation? Is he a stauncher friend of the United States than he might otherwise have been?

These are not easy questions but they cannot be shrugged off, for the part that these young intellectuals will play may be a fateful one, particularly in those countries which are economically underdeveloped and politically turbulent. In the past half-century the course of events in underdeveloped countries has underscored the strategic rôle of the intellectual--in revolutionary movements, in the normal political life, in all efforts for economic and social development. Though the process of selecting the young men and women who come to America may be far from perfect, there is no doubt that we receive from these countries youngsters who are well above average in capacity. But are we equipping them for good or ill?

We are inclined to hope, of course, that students from those countries which are economically underdeveloped or politically immature will learn here things which will be useful not only in their own careers but in the development of their countries. This need not be a vain hope. But we must be quite realistic about the degree to which the student can transfer what he learns here. We cannot assume that democratic practices as we know them can be transplanted everywhere. The Western democracies are the product of a long tradition. We can export food and machinery and even--to some degree--techniques, but we cannot export our past. Economic factors, the level of literacy, local customs and traditions--all determine the particular forms which democracy will assume in any country at a given time. It is ridiculous to assume that democracy as it exists in the United States can be transplanted without modification to countries of very different political, economic and social circumstances. One of the important things which the exchange student must learn is that he will have to work within the context of his own culture upon his return. His own society has its own path of development and must follow it. He must be at home in his own culture and creative in its terms.

There are two major hazards facing the student on his return. The first is the one just mentioned--that all that the student has learned and experienced may serve only to make him feel out of place in his own society. All too often the student who receives his training in a country more advanced than his own returns to find that he no longer "belongs" in his own culture; and yet he does not really belong in his adopted culture. He is lost between two ways of life, at home nowhere. The repercussions of such a state of mind are far-reaching. It is not surprising that some individuals who find themselves in this painfully ambiguous situation--unable to adjust to their own culture and unable to transform it into the image of the advanced country they have come to admire--seek a way out of the conflict by escaping into a rabid nationalism and a fierce insistence on the supremacy of the culture which they feel has been taken away from them--in being "more native than the natives," so to speak.

The other hazard is that the student's own country may simply be incapable of providing useful employment for an increased supply of highly-trained young men. With all his arduous preparation for a useful life, he may come home only to join the ranks of the unemployed intellectuals. Of the two hazards, the latter is far more serious. But from the standpoint of our national interest, both are serious for the same reason. Able, vigorous, intelligent young men who can find no outlet for their talents, no possibility of a useful rôle in society, and no hope of realizing their aspirations, constitute an explosive element in any country. And the Communists have had long experience in working with such explosive materials. Communism offers them a dogmatic ideology which will relieve them of all uncertainty and give them a sense of acting with inexorable forces of history. It provides an organization which will relieve them of the sense of being alone and helpless in the face of the social forces which frustrate them. It promises that the social order which produced their frustration can be changed. And it provides them with definite methods for bringing about this result. This constitutes powerful medicine for the able and aspiring youngster who knows that his training is not used because his society is too archaic to use it. In the case of the less highly developed countries, then, much of the ultimate success of our program of student exchange depends upon finding a solution of the larger problem which faces us in dealing with these nations today. The question is whether we can help the vigorous elements in these societies to discover how they can bring about needed social changes without resorting to Communism.

We need not be so pessimistic as to say that the whole success of student exchange hangs on this contingency. It is very likely that for large numbers of foreign students the experience of living in a free society is never wholly erased, whatever their subsequent experience. The attitudes and impulses engendered by such an experience may find no adequate expression for years and yet may profoundly influence later action. It is a mistake, for example, to assume that the large sums of money spent in bringing exchange students from China were wasted. Only the future will tell what rôle these Chinese students may yet play in bringing their nation back to sanity.

The process of training foreign students in this country, though filled with pitfalls, may prove to be one of the most significant activities of these years of feverish experimentation with every sort of program designed to advance international understanding. The likelihood of success, however, will be considerably enhanced if we are aware not only of the possibilities of the program but of its limitations.

[i] See "Education for One World, 1951-1952." New York: Institute of International Education, 1952.

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  • JOHN W. GARDNER, Vice-President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; former teacher of psychology, wartime official of the Federal Communications Commission and O.S.S. officer overseas
  • More By John W. Gardner