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

Author's Note

International Tea Party, 1970s

International students at Tea Party, in the 1970s. Courtesy of the University Archive

“But your English is so good.”

Having heard this remark numerous times from different people to whom I revealed my identity as an international student growing up in China, I still feel unease at such a comment that is, from the speakers’ perspective, meant as a compliment.

The ambivalence and incompleteness of the sentence stand out to me: how good exactly is my English? and compare to whom? But what’s more profound and more problematic is probably the presumption that the remark carries, the unjustified stereotype that most foreign students speak clumsy English and the ruthless attribution of a group stereotype to a single individual, by the process of which reducing the individual to type and depriving her subjectivity.

Preoccupied with such personal experience, I’ve always been curious about how the University’s perceptions of international students have changed over time, how certain stereotypes about international students came into being and how the western culture hegemony has influenced the practices and actions of University administration and the larger student community in their interaction with international students.   

Graduate International Students

The majority of Duke's international students are graduate students. This map from the Graduate School's website shows the geographical distribution of its students in academic year 2015-2016.

These questions are never easy to answer, nonetheless significant and necessary to contemplate on. In 2015, Duke has more than 2800 international students, making up 18 percent of the whole student body. The same year, the number of international students studying in the U.S. institutions amounts to 1 million for the first time. As the number of international students continues to climb, what do the University, the domestic students, and the larger American society see in international students? Do they see cultural differences, struggles, or money flooding in? Do they see human embodiments of labels and stereotypes, or do they see individuals, each having a complex identity and a unique story?

In this project with the University Archive, I’ve looked through administrative records, correspondence, reports, memorandums, along with student newspaper articles, alumni register, and yearbooks, in the hope that from these scattered fragments of the past, some patterns could be sorted out, some power structure identified, some genuine motivations and respectful efforts commemorated. I do not intend to answer all the aforementioned questions, I am simply unable to; instead, I hope to present my findings as a narrative of and about Duke international students, dating all the way back to 1881 and extended long into the near but inconceivable future.

“All history is contemporary history,” said the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. The narrative that I am putting up here is, inevitably, observed through the eyes of the present, and no means free of cultural prejudice and personal emotion, bestowed by my own identity as a Chinese international student.  The following account is neither impartial nor comprehensive, it is just one version of the story, one way of telling the story, and hopefully it will be followed by many other versions, told from many other perspectives.   

- Yue (Heather) Zhou

Duke University, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2019

June 2017