Phillipian Commentary: Andover with an Accent

The first thing that you see when you open the homepage of the Andover website are the diversity statistics. To me, one particularly stands out: that Andover is home to “Students from 52 countries.” And you think to yourself, “Wow, that’s a high number.” You don’t think about how little these statistics reveal about the happiness and adjustment of international students at school.

When I joined Andover as a new lower from Mumbai a year ago, I was convinced that it would be easy for me to adjust. I was used to being viewed as the friendly, outgoing girl and after all, this school prided itself on its diversity and inclusion. I walked in expecting to make a million friends, do well in all of my classes, and to make it all look easy. I had created this picture of Andover as a place where everyone was accepted no matter their background, and foreign accents weren’t given any importance (and if they were, they were viewed as cool). I didn’t even know that microaggressions were a thing.

The first few chips in my perfect picture of Andover began to appear when I began getting questions like “When did you start speaking English for the first time?” and “Can you understand what I’m saying?” and “How do you know these songs? Do they have this kind of music in India?” I never knew how to answer these questions because I wasn’t used to being questioned about my country of origin. I wasn’t used to being the girl with the accent. I never said anything to combat these microaggressions because I kept making excuses to uphold my perfect picture of the school. I wanted to believe that the statistics on the Andover were not just a marketing tactic, because I didn’t want to believe that I spent a year of my life applying to the “best high school in the world” to be ridiculed for my accent.

Something that I hadn’t predicted when I came to Andover was the vast number of international students who used to study in American or international schools, or who had spent their childhood years in the United States. Naturally, many of these students have American accents. They can have full conversations without people wondering out loud what their first language is. They can walk around campus without feeling like they have a sign saying ‘She has an accent, and her parents probably work in tech support’ stapled to their backs. And so, while like many American students, I too watched ‘the Suite Life of Zack and Cody as a child’, it’s not the first conclusion you come to when you talk to me. The fact that I don’t sound like you or talk like you is no reason to assume that I know any less than you do about pop culture. It’s pop culture, not American culture.

While no one is to blame for this, I do think that the school can do better when it comes to creating a sense of security for people like me on campus. There is all kinds of programming aimed at making Andover inclusive for people of color and minority groups, but not much that caters to international students. Yes, iClub exists. But it is a student run organization that can’t provide the same resources as the administration. Think about the Coronavirus epidemic, for example; some of my international student friends are unable to go home to see their families who live abroad for spring break, and what was the school’s response? “Attend the support meeting that iClub organized.” Sure, I found my people. I found people who felt the same way I did, people who sounded like me, people who were going through the same thing as I was, and people who were taught to look past the superficial layer of a flat accent. But it took me too long to do so. Students that travel thousands of miles to get here deserve more than three days of New International Student Orientation to teach them ropes of the Academy. This is why I think that study groups and support groups should be a part of the international student experience. Many of us have a hard time acclimating to new classes, new study methods, new people, and new time zones.

Because students on this campus are already educated about various social justice issues, they must be taught to treat people around them who may speak differently with respect. I shouldn’t have to be afraid to speak up in English sometimes because I’m afraid that I’ll be asked repeatedly to reiterate what I just said. Attaining a position as a Copy Editor for The Phillipian, whose job is to proofread and fix grammar, should not have to be the only way to prove my English language fluency. I shouldn’t feel the need to alter my voice and accent every time I return to school from break. I shouldn’t have to spend every minute of my spare time in CAMD because it’s the one place on campus where I feel somewhat free. And most of all, I shouldn’t feel afraid to call people out for treating me with disrespect, even when I’m outnumbered by the dominant culture.