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

A New Perspective In the Making: 70s and 80s

Kye, letter seeking funding

Letter Sample written by Chancellor Kye in 1970 to seek funds for international students

Economic Principles of International Students

As IHouse was established, along with programs for international students in the 1960s, new challenges arose in the 1970s. Although the number of international students grew steadily, reaching 255 in 1970, the economic recession in the U.S. made it difficult for University to continue providing financial support to them.

In 1970, Chancellor Kenneth Pye wrote to a dozen of major companies and education foundations to seek fund for international students. In his letter, he mentioned, unsurprisingly, Trinity’s first international student Charles Soong, father of Madame Chiang Kai Shek. He further explained that Duke provides $225,000 to 103 of its international students, but was now experiencing “a critical shortage of operating funds”.  

response letter

Responsee letter from Texaco company, declaring that they had been contributed to IIE to support international students. 

None of the corporations he reached out to gave a positive response. Some explained that their own business was being affected by the economic inflation. Others, like XEROX, stated explicitly that they had no motivation to fund international students since it was unlikely that such sponsorship would contribute to their employment. One company, Texaco, revealed that they had been a regular supporter of the IIE for years, believing that centralized support would benefit more international students.

Such justifications were, of course, reasonable, but the consequences they lead to were probably less pleasant. Priority of financial support had always been given to domestic students. In particular, undergraduate international students were not eligible to receive any financial aid. This would eventually lead to a sharp decline of undergraduate international students by the end of the 1980s, reaching a record low of 47 in 1889-90.

It’s interesting to note that, probably starting then, many institutions in the U.S. started to view the influx of international students primarily from the financial perspective: whether they could bring in financial benefits, and how much. As one 1979 issue of the Time magazine described the international students: “They view their American education as an exportable commodity. They come, they buy it, and they take it away…” International students were seen more as “consumers” rather than “students” in the eyes of some Americans. 

Chronicle Article

Article from the Chronicle, 1973. 

International students viewing US Chronicle

Chronicle Weekly Magazine, 1978. cover story featuring international students' view of Duke and American life

 Voices, Representations, and Misrepresentations

On March 2, 1973, The Chronicle published a story named “Foreign Students at Duke”, possibly the first feature article that looks exclusively at this group. The student reporter interviewed eight international students, among whom five graduate students expressed that they felt being isolated and had ambivalent feelings towards the activities organized by the International House. While the undergraduate students, who had studied in the U.S. before reported better experience at Duke because they tried to "fit in" traditional American college life. The story also claimed that there were little female international students on campus.

After the article was published, the editorial board of the Chronicle received multiple complaints from foreign students (including one of the graduate student being interviewed), criticizing the report as irresponsible, misleading, and using a very small number of group of foreign students to represent a diverse group.

One student wrote, “if the conviction that International Students have been forgotten was strong enough a little effort in meeting a more varied group from those with a gift of the gab to the quiet ones, whose numbers are fairly large, would have been in order.”

In 1878, Chronicle’s weekly magazine Aeolus had an issue in which a feature article was written by Shiangtai Tuan, a graduate international student from Taiwan. He wrote about his views on American lifestyle. He described things in American culture that surprised him: the dating culture, the informal classroom atmospheres, the Greek life on campus… He commented on the superficial “American friendliness”. He made the observation that people compete instead of helping each other, and reasoned that “this is, of course, the nature of capitalist society”. 

Foreign Students viewing Duke

A Cartoon on the Aeolus, showing an interntional student from China looking at a group of fraternities' brothers. 

At the same issue, another international student talked about their interactions with the American peers. “I don’t think we could be treated just like the Americans, but foreign students have been treated too much as foreign students in the past.” He said. 

International Living Group Poster

International Living Group Poster

Chronicle international living group

Chronicle report on the International Living Group, 1984.

One thing is certain. Up until the 1970s, Foreign students remained a group that mainstream Duke students do not know much about, although there was the awakening conscious on both sides, realizing the need for more interactions. 

Certain efforts were made to facilitate communications and interactions. Among them is the International Living Group, started in 1984, in which international students and American students live together on the second floor of the Alspaugh dorm.

The group is composed of four components: French, Spanish, German and General Internationals. Students have to submit an application, and in order to join the foreign language section, they had to be conversant in their specific language.

The turnout for the first year was rather small, and the program lasted probably until 1987. 

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