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‘They don't really want to know us’: experiences and perceptions of international students at the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Almut Schlepper

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Experiences of discrimination within the college appear to be mainly those of ‘everyday racism’ which, according to Essed (1991: 10), is infused into familiar practices and attitudes. The students experienced many of the incidences listed in Essed's study, such as marginalisation, Euro/whitecentrism, passive tolerance, avoiding or withdrawing from social contact, automatic in-group preference among whites, humiliation, petty harrassment and denigration of their culture. According to Sinha (2003: 86) this subtle, hard-to-identify racism, 'these barely audible messages about my people as lesser' is the way racism is experienced at least 90% of the time. Apart from some discriminatory remarks about their culture of origin the most frequent complaint is about being ignored and overlooked. Being treated as if one was not there can imply that one should not be there. As all of the international students involved in the research were highly visible as 'non-whites' they could be immediately perceived as different and as a member of a minority. Because they do not belong they become the invisible 'other'.

This invisibility of the international students is evident also in the physical environment of the college: no visual representations of diversity in the building and in the DIT literature (except in the brochure of the faculty of science), no signs in foreign languages, no acknowledgement or celebration of other than Christian feast days, no food for religious minorities in the canteen, no prayer room for Muslims. This ignoring of the international students on the level of everyday personal interactions level corresponds with the lack of policies, structures and action on the institutional level in the college. This ranges from the lack of policy statements regarding the value of cultural diversity to lack of structures for representation of the internationals students and lack of complaints procedures in case of for racial harassment. DIT has yet to offer formal training for staff on interculturalism or antiracism.

Higher education should cater for a student population 'that is not only multicultural, but also multilingual and multiracial' (Arora 1995: 31). In their Guidelines On Anti-Racism and Intercultural Training (2001), the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) argues that 'interculturalism suggests the acceptance not only of the principles of equality of rights, values and abilities but also the development of policies to promote interaction, collaboration and exchange with people of different cultures, ethnicity or religion living in the same territory’. And as Greene argues (2003: 6), being culturally mixed is not enough, we must change our attitudes and practices.
The Higher Education Equality Unit (2002: 91) have made a number of recommendations for the creation of an intercultural campus that should be guided by a policy statement which incorporates interculturalism and antiracism, and includes a development of awareness of diversity issues through intercultural and antiracism training of staff on all levels.

Future research

When a proper monitoring system is set up to find out exactly how many international students there are on which courses and from which countries, future samples could be more representative, and more conclusive results could be achieved about variables such as age, gender, religion, country of origin, background and length of stay. The sample should be expanded to include part-time and postgraduate students. A monitoring system should also include ethnic minorities students who are resident in Ireland, as the numbers of these students are bound to increase in future. Asylum seekers, if recognised as refugees, are eligible to free third-level education after three years and were found to have a strong educational background (Ward 2002: 33). The majority of immigrant parents have high educational aspirations not only for themselves but also for their children (Keogh and Whyte 2003: 36). It would be interesting to find out which similarities and differences, and what relationships these students have with international students.

Future research should include an investigation into Irish students' attitudes towards international students to expand on the results of the only study so far (USI 2003). As there are few comparative studies, it would be advisable to apply the components of this study to both Irish and international students. To support the 'whole organisation approach' towards an intercultural campus, all levels of in-house, administrative, managerial and teaching staff should be included in future studies.


I would like to finish with the opinion of an Irish student – a voice that so far has been missing from this paper – who became aware of the challenges of a multicultural university after having spent a year in Finland:

There are boundaries and borders set up, by host students and by international students, that hinder their successful intercultural communication. What these boundaries are and how we can overcome them, I don't know. This task, I feel, is not only down to the individual but to the institutions that are encouraging multiculturalism…. Facilities need to be readily available within the university settings and time-tabling to enable these borders to break down. It is not merely enough to allow the students union to develop an international students society or to create a post for an international students officer. Creating a multicultural university is not only about increasing college places available to non-native students, or pumping more money into exchange programmes, although these are crucial factors. Development education between university staff and students needs to be addressed in accordance with issues of multiculturality and intercultural living. The key element in multiculturality is 'together', we can go on living in parallel worlds and cultures but learning from each other and communicating in a multicultural set-up such as the university are crucial for the successful expansion of our globalised community.
(Ni Chaiside 2003: 77).


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