Now You See Me, Now You Don't: A brief history of Duke international students

"A Home Away From Home?": Attentions in the 1960s

Foreign students in U.S.

Foreign students studying in U.S. higher education institutions.

Source: Committee of Friendly Relations Among Foreign Students&Open Doors

Foreign students at Duke

The number of Foreign Students at Duke from 1939 to 1958. Source: University Registar

Although IIE terminated its collaboration with Duke in 1957, thus marking an end of the international studies center program, the program was successful in receiving publicity as part of University and beneficial in building some international reputation for Duke.

In the fall of 1958, the number of international students at Duke amounted to 105, while nationwide the number grew to nearly 50,000. Canada and China were the top two countries in sending foreign students to the United States. 

At Duke, the International Club (now International Association) was established at some time during the 1950s; Various local religious organizations and church groups offered their warm welcome to foreign students, but up to that time there was little centralized attention from the administration. 

1960s was the time in which problems and challenges faced by foreign students really caught the attention of the administration and student organizations. It was also during this time that the increasing usage of the term “international student”, interchangeably with the previous reference “foreign student”. This seemingly minor change probably signified a significant shift the attitude: The very name “foreign student” seems to exclude these individuals as outsiders and as belonging to a place or a country different from the United States. While the term “international” is more integrated in describing the status of those students without being U.S.-centric.

Michigan Test

The Michigan Language Test, first developed in the late 1940s, was used by Duke to evaluate English proficiency for non-native speakers. Copy from the John Wetherby Records. 

Japanese Student Essay

"My Difficulties in Englishh", essay written by a Japanese foreign student. The student declaredthat for him "To speak two languages completely and correctly seems to be impossible", to which the professor responded "Difficult, but not impossible."

Language and Issues of Adjustment

In November 1958, Vice President Herbert Herring appointed Robert L. Thompson as the administrative adviser on foreign students. In a letter to his college Francis E. Bowman, however, Mr. Thomson noted that the great amount of his time spent with foreign students is occupied by a few individuals who simply want to talk to someone with an empathetic year.

It was also in 1958 that the Graduate School administered a national test in English proficiency for all incoming foreign students who were non-native speakers. As a result of the test, five students were advised to take further training with private tutors, a recommendation that all students declined for the cost of time and money.

In 1959, the test in English proficiency was made a requirement for all non-native English speakers, and in that fall, assistant professor in English John Wetherby volunteered to teach English 100: English as a foreign language to those failed to pass the English proficiency test, at an additional charge. Although Professor Wetherby had no previous EFL (English as Foreign Language) or linguistic training, he had been very interested in professional English materials. He taught the course almost throughout the decade of the 1960s.

One problem arose when some of the spouses of the graduate students and visiting scholars, hoping to improve their English, also registered for English 100. “Graduate students who need refinement in report writing may find himself surrounded by classmates whose immediate need is to acquire oral comprehension in order to go shopping in downtown Durham”, suggested an evaluation report of the course. This problem was soon solved by increasing the special course fee for non-students and setting up English conversation clubs for the international wives, but it was very reflective of some of the very practical adjustment problems that foreign students are facing. 

The Establishment of the International House

36-year old Mahmuda Khanum left six children in her home in Pakistan and came to Duke as a Fulbright scholar. When she arrived at Durham late at night, she instructed her taxi driver to take her to the campus so she could sleep in a classroom. On her first three and half days, she did not eat anything because she was too afraid to go out. When she went to a store to purchase antiseptic to care for her hand and was told “we don’t have it here”, she assumed that Durham or America didn’t have it. Her first semester was spent in sleepless nights and days which alternated between class periods and hours between class when she returned to her room to cry.

When Mrs.Khanum finally approached assistant advisor to foreign student Valeen Avery because she had nowhere to go during Christmas break, the latter was stunned. It was 1963, three years after President Hart appointed the Foreign Student Advisory Committee in an attempt to provide administrative aid to foreign students in 1960. The number of foreign students at Duke has increased to about 200. 

problems faced by foreign students

From a report written by Valeen Avery, 1963. 

Mrs. Avery soon wrote a report to several professors and administrators and addressed challenges foreign students were facing, as well as the opportunities and resources the University was missing out. She pointed out that Mr. Thompson had only devoted a token amount of time as a foreign advisor and that an advisor working especially with foreign students should be appointed.

The International Office was soon created in the fall of 1963. It was headed by Mrs. Reba Hall, who would later serve as director of the International House for twenty years.

International House

International House (then called International Office) at 2101 Campus Drive. 

Courtesy of University Archive

In 1964, the International Office moved to its own building on 2101 Campus Drive. In 1967, it would move again into a house at 2022 Campus Drive, this time changing its name to “International House”.

Arrangements were quickly made and programs for international students were soon set up: along with Mrs. Hall, there were two other staff and a visa specialist working in IHouse to assist international students, writing letter of welcome, arranging pick-up service and holding orientation program for new incoming international students. During the school year, International Club’s Friday Night gatherings would take place at the House, opportunities of weekend social activities, gym parties and picnics were also available, at least according to the International Newsletter of that time.  A Durham Host Family program was also started in 1964, pairing up international students with local family.


Reba Hall with students

Mrs. Reba Hall, director of International House, and a few international students were learning about the Chinese game of mah-jongg. Courtesy of University Archive. 

The 60s was the time during which the emphasis on foreign student program shifted, as international students were really becoming a minority group that needed attention and help. The way that the University perceived them also became quite interesting: on one hand, they started to think in the shoes of those foreign students, providing help and support for those who left behind their homeland. On the other hand, various correspondence and memorandums among the administrators suggested that among school administration, there was no clear stance on whether Duke should actively recruit international students, probably because they didn't see international students bringing in any solid benefits and notice more their vulnerability and handicap in an unfamiliar environment. Local media's coverage of international students also changed from emphasizing their different background to featuring them as recipients' of the Universty and local community's hospitality. It is my speculation that stereotypes about international students having the language barrier and experiencing many difficulties during their adjustment probably began to formulate at this time.

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