Cultural Diversity in Iceland: Who Gets to Be Icelandic?

Cultural diversity in Iceland is a preschooler. So young and yet maturing oh so fast. In the past 15-20 years, a decent number of people from around the world have been settling down in Iceland to live, work, study, raise a family, make it through the dark winter days, and join other sunstarved Icelanders in savoring bright summer days three months out of the year.

Over 52.000 people in Iceland have some “foreign” background. That is 16% of the total population. Roughly half of those people have moved to Iceland without any Icelandic roots. Some have lived here for 55 years and some came six months ago. Some are Icelandic citizens, know the national anthem better than the average native 30-year-old, and speak fluent Icelandic, while others are still getting acquainted with Icelandic society and struggle with the impossible grammar (and the varying pronounciation of words with the exact same spelling…). And some are somewhere in between.

Then there are folks with roots in more than one place. Those who have parents from different countries and cultures, those born abroad with both parents of Icelandic origin, and those born in Iceland with both parents of international origin. And let’s not forget all those who proudly trace their Icelandic ancestry way back, but may not be aware their mama was conceived after grandma’s brief encounter with a French sailor back in the day…

Who gets to be Icelandic and who does not? How do we split each other into “us” and “them”, Icelandic and non-Icelandic? Do we define Icelandic-ness by country of birth? By citizenship? Icelandic language fluency? Skin color? When it comes down to it, many of us would struggle to define what being Icelandic really means. Do we want it to be a VIP party where only a selected few get invited? I sure hope not. Wherever in the world we may live, we are responsible for contributing to a healthy, peaceful, and thriving society where everyone is included and valued. If we shut the doors to our fellow community members, we all lose out.

A current TV program in Iceland, Rætur (Roots), is perhaps the first to point out the commonalities and differences of Iceland’s diverse inhabitants in a warm, engaging, and respectful way. Persons who at some point migrated to Iceland have shared their experiences and perspectives in personal interviews and these conversations may have done more to shake up the stale stereotypes of “immigrants” than any other single intervention I know of in Iceland. Talking to each other is so very different from talking about each other.

We – Icelanders of all backgrounds – have a precious chance to collaborate on building an inclusive and welcoming society. After all, it takes a village to raise a preschooler. Icelandic nationality defined in a narrow, exclusive way can never unify a diverse population. We are so much better together!

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International Students: Bring on the Money!

During the 2013-2014 academic year there were 886,052 international students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate program in the U.S.

Let that sink in for a minute. We’re talking about close to one million people here.

What does this mean for universities in the U.S.? What do these students bring and what do they gain from their time spent on American soil?

IMG_3208 (2)One thing they do bring is money. It is becoming increasingly evident that international students are a financial asset to educational institutions. In fact, international students bring in millions of dollars for many large universities, due in big part to them paying a higher tuition (even three times higher) than U.S. students who are from within the state. One example is the state of Indiana, where $688 million in economic benefits are gained yearly only from international students. Moreover, as pointed out by the New York Times, some universities have started to charge foreign students additional fees, making their presence even more profitable. Although they may at times need services that domestic students can do without, the net result is profit.

Another common perspective is that international students are fortunate to get the chance to study in the U.S. and gain academic knowledge to bring back to their home countries. I know many foreign students feel the same way. Thousands of them each year spend money, time, and a ton of effort trying to get into universities in the U.S. and a partial explanation for that is that sometimes students do not have equivalent educational opportunities in their home countries. That was my own story anyway, coming from a small country where graduate programs in counseling psychology were nonexistent. And then there is the imperialistic notion of Western (American) supremacy that leads a whole lot of people in our global village to believe that knowledge gained in the United States is more valid than knowledge gained elsewhere.

In sum, internationalization is the new buzzword for many colleges in the States. Universities gain money and foreign students gain education. Simple enough.

Except, high quality education is not a one-way street. And it’s not all about the money.

Educational excellence is not reached by gathering fresh minds and telling them how to think. It is reached by sharing information, shifting perspectives, encouraging critical discussions, allowing for personal reflection, applying theory to real-life situations, and graduating students with knowledge, skills, dedication, and abilities to exchange ideas with other humans in the world.

So when people talk about all the money foreign students bring and how lucky those students are to get to soak up American wisdom, a critical piece of the story is left out – the part on the immense educational benefit of a culturally rich college environment.

An educational system that reflects true appreciation for diversity provides invaluable opportunities for students and faculty to hear different perspectives on all kinds of topics, challenge preconceived notions about the world, experience intercultural friendships, practice second-language skills, and examine biases and stereotypes that emerge in classrooms and conversations. And when I say true appreciation for diversity, I mean not just admitting culturally diverse students and taking their money, but engaging them with inclusive teaching methods, valuing their input and ideas, encouraging critical questions and comments, re-evaluating discriminatory procedures, getting rid of biased course material, and showing openness to feedback at all times.

This is relevant to all students. When we do this well, international students and cultural minorities get the message that their presence is not just tolerated, but truly valued, and cultural majority students learn to grapple with new ideas, reflect on their position in the world, and engage in difficult and important dialogues.

The problem is that when the benefits of real, inclusive, mind-stretching, and cooperative diversity are not consistently highlighted, U.S. students and professors may sadly come to the conclusion that they have little to gain from interacting with international students and miss out on chances to broaden their worldview. They may also indirectly contribute to the segregation of international and domestic students on campus and the devaluation of foreign ideas and values that all too often occur in academic settings.

International students have this amazing ability to give us a little glimpse of the big world beyond our backyard – as long as we pay attention and hear them out.