Talking to International Students about America

September 22, 2017

It was the first day of Orientation, and I was heading out to greet our incoming class of international students. As I walked across the campus, I thought back to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests over the removal of a Confederate statue led to the tragic loss of a woman's life. I also thought about the government travel ban that had been imposed earlier in the year on citizens of several foreign countries.

I wondered what our new students thought about these events. Were they apprehensive? Were they concerned about how they would be treated? I was still sorting through these thoughts as I entered the room, where I was warmly greeted by 30 new students, a two-fold increase from last year.

We had a good conversation over lunch, and I was impressed by their energy and enthusiasm. I decided not to address recent events directly in my remarks, and instead gave them my view of America and the ethos that drives our country.

I told the students that they were valued new members of our community. That they played an important role in bringing a multi-cultural perspective to the College. I explained to them that one of the ways America differs from many other countries is because of its innovative nature.

There are many reasons behind the American spirit of innovation, and I believe one of the key factors is our pluralistic, multi-cultural society. When you interact with people from different backgrounds and points of view, it forces you to see things differently. Being able to look at problems from different angles makes it easier to think outside of the box. Having international students on our campus allows us to continue to see things through a fresh perspective, and I hope that we are able to extend a similar benefit to them.

When you think of examples of American innovation, few people tend to mention American colleges and universities, but our model of higher education remains one of this country's greatest inventions.

Up until the early 19th century, most universities were single building structures designed "to contain everybody and everything." The idea of a residential college campus, which has become synonymous with higher education in the last 200 years, was born in America. The architect of this model imagined an "academical village arranged around an open square of grass and trees."

It was believed that such a campus setting would foster greater exchanges between faculty and students, both of whom would live in spaces situated around the campus. In addition to facilitating a heightened level of engagement between inhabitants of this village, the campus model was also intended to shield students and faculty from some of the day-to-day intrusions of the modern world.

So the notion of the campus as a safe place is not a new one, but the fact remains that no campus can (nor should) be completely removed from the world. Our mission is to equip students with the tools to succeed in the "real world," and that is difficult to do if one is perpetually locked in an ivory tower.

As I said to our international students, the inherent tension that exists between freedom of speech and the expression of opinions that some may find offensive is part of America. At ACPHS, we value an open and respectful campus. It is important for all people to be able to speak their opinions and engage in a debate of ideas, but it is never acceptable for those discussions to move into the realm of hate and hostility.

When thinking about innovation and the importance of education, I am reminded of a quote by Thomas Jefferson who said that "educating and informing the whole mass of the people ... is the most legitimate engine of government." Jefferson was also the architect of the original academical village - the University of Virginia - which happens to be located in Charlottesville.

Greg Dewey, Ph.D., is President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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