On Sunday, a Twitter thread by @siruihua went viral after he posted one Duke professor's recent emails to her biostatistics program urging international students not to speak Chinese loudly in the study lounges.
The original tweet garnered 12 thousand retweets and over one thousand replies over the course of the weekend; comments ranged from defending the professor in light of her seemingly "respectful" email to disheartened students who expressed their outrage with a petition to investigate the professor, who had also sent a similar email in the past.
Although I am not an international student, they make up a significant portion of American universities and have worked as hard (if not harder) to get there.
And with about one-third of the international student community being from China, a professor stating that Chinese students are not being taken seriously simply for speaking their native language in a private area is not in any way "polite."
It's just xenophobic.
If international students are planning on attending an American university, they are more than aware that they will mainly be interacting with English-speaking classmates and professors. They have finished their own primary schooling and studied for exams to get into these prestigious universities. These are students who are willingly placing themselves in a new country, a new culture, for the pursuit of knowledge.
Universities know this too. They wouldn't be recruiting international students in the first place if they didn't think these unique perspectives were beneficial to their schools.
As a person who grew up in a Chinese-speaking household, I was disappointed by that professor's response on a personal level.
First, I'm confused by why it would matter if an English speaker understood the Chinese-speaking students if they were not supposed to be listening to them in the first place. The incident at Duke took place in a study lounge, not an environment like a lecture or a lab, so it was not really a noise problem, but a race one.
Second, just because someone is using their native language doesn't mean they don't have competency in another. In fact, most international students grow up learning English alongside their native language.
Additionally, if the problem is that using a certain language or even an accent may provide a certain "perception" of that person, maybe the actual issue is one of racial superiority and the idea that English speakers are somehow more "educated" than others. It baffles me that someone could be the most accomplished, intelligent person, and there are others who would look down on them just because they can't fully grasp the intricacies of English grammar (a social construct).
Additionally, in a field like medicine, wouldn't it be an advantage to know more than one language, especially if your patients have a limited English ability?
A study done in California found that 42% of physicians were fluent in a second language.
The findings imply that they could better serve those who aren't as comfortable using English.
Lastly, it is very hard to fit in at a campus whose culture is completely different than yours. Thus, it's not uncommon for international students to find a community that shares the same lifestyle as them. If I was traveling abroad where I didn't speak the language, rest be assured I would be thrilled to find someone who could speak English with me.
That Duke professor has since apologized and stepped down from her position, but this opens a conversation for all English speaking universities. When schools strive for inclusion but allow their own faculty to harbor such disconcerting attitudes, can they really claim that they value the backgrounds and identities of their students, or are they just using the students to paint a picture of equity that doesn't actually exist?
We cannot forget that this is not a rare occurrence, just one that garnered international attention. So the real question is, do we let situations like this keep happening, or do we actually do something about it to prevent it from happening again in the future?