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Let's do long-distance

“Don’t bother befriending any visiting students,” says Creative Director and Deputy Arts & Lit Editor of The Oxford Student, Natalie Harney. “Yes, they’re unbelievably exotic, but too late will you realize that they aren’t in it for the long haul, and before you know it, they’ll have abandoned you for their ‘real’ friends back home.”

Ever since this statement was published in an OxStu articleon Oct. 17, Harney has received substantial backlash for advising matriculating students to avoid associating with visiting students. Harney thereby insinuated not only that friendships with exchange students are temporary but also that they are, frankly, shallow. It’s hard to figure out who the victims would be, considering both visiting students and matriculating students would suffer from an attitude that basically shuns a valuable minority of a college’s student body.

If we consider the premise of weighing the pros and cons of a relationship, Harney’s statement implies that we’re judging and, even more so, setting a value on a group of students before we’ve had the opportunity to get to know them. To me, this seems like outright discrimination. This outlook reinforces the flawed approach of making friends in college with the sole motive of making connections. While college is one of the first entry points at which young adults can independently network, this doesn’t mean that every interaction you have should be quantified by its potential return.

Even if we do consider that many of the relationships students make in college are connections, then wouldn’t it be in their best interests to broaden these horizons, regardless of how they do this? From Harney’s perspective, we’re almost assuming that our careers are limited to the opportunities and people who are available to us in our immediate geographical vicinity in our four years as undergraduates. As students with majors sweeping from global health to international relations to politics and economics, shouldn’t we make an effort to learn more about different societies from the very people who are experiencing them firsthand, rather than only having an understanding based on class readings from humanities textbooks? And this doesn’t just apply to students in the social sciences. Even majors that don’t explicitly advertise international collaboration, like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they inevitably demand that their professionals have an ability to network internationally and have an understanding of the sociological and historical factors that impact their work.

Furthermore, I personally resent the word “exotic” in characterizing a student’s value in any relationship. I can almost guarantee that no admission or study abroad committee accepts students to their university based on the criteria of “exoticism” —a word that in and of itself reduces the personal worth and academic merit of an entire demographic of students to an inappropriate and undeserved stereotype. In fact, it’s really not even appropriate to say that the main value of befriending international and visiting students is that they can bring their individual cultures and stories to the table. After all, this inconsiderate expectation would basically demand that they limit themselves to talking about their countries without being acknowledged as an intellectual being beyond this contribution.

Most of all, Harney’s quote highlights the temporality of the relationship as her reasoning for why it’s not worth it to befriend international students. This is problematic on many levels —the first being that compared to the grand scheme of our careers and our lives, most of our college interactions can be seen as temporary. However, this hasn’t meant that students have just stopped trying to bond and network with even the matriculating students. Her concern with the potential impermanence of friendships with visiting students puts an unreasonable pressure on a relationship that can actually endure if it is not approached with this kind of skepticism and reluctance. After all, just because we’ve gone away to college, doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped talking to our friends from high school — it only means that we have to use different means to continue the communication and that we have someone to visit if we ever travel. The opportunity to meet people and form a different kind of relationship is often a major reason why international and visiting students choose to study abroad in the first place, which means that it’s even more necessary that we welcome them rather than shun them based on the fact that they’ll reliably leave at the end of their program — lest they leave our institution regretting the experience.

While Harney’s statement might have been a reflection of a bad experience or even a statement regarding the difficulties of enduring and maintaining a long-distance friendship, I certainly hope that this isn’t an outlook that the majority of students have toward international and visiting students. After all, should we ever choose to participate in study abroad —whether it last for a semester or a couple of years — wouldn’t we want to be welcomed into an environment that treats us as assets both personally and academically, rather than potential heartbreaks? After my four years at the University, I certainly hope that the last advice I can give isn’t for students to keep their distance from visiting students but to appreciate these students’ presences while they’re here and to sustain the relationships once the visiting students leave.

Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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