Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
AN ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION OF Elaine Conrad, for the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Communication Studies, presented on September 21, 2018, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. TITLE: “I WANT TO TELL YOU MY STORY”: THE POTENTIAL OF NARRATIVE TO BRIDGE CULTURAL DIVIDE MAJOR PROFESSOR: Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan In this dissertation, I examine a strange kind of divide or disconnect that occurs between international students and U.S.-American students. While international students studying in the United States are often strongly interested in forming connections within their newly adopted country and are anxious to get to know and make new friends with U.S.-American students as well as with other community members, it is not always reciprocated by their U.S.-American counterparts. According to data collected in a survey at Midwestern University, frequently U.S.-Americans lack the same motivation for forming connections, find conversing with international students “awkward” at best, threatening or frightening at worst, and view international students as “very foreign,” “strange,” and “too different from me.” Some are fearful of even beginning a conversation, afraid that they will say or do the wrong or politically incorrect thing. Or they may purposely distance themselves from anyone they perceive as different from themselves, preferring that those they view as different stay “someplace else” as far away as possible. My principal concern and overall question in this dissertation is how to begin to bridge these gaps between U.S.-American students and international students so the divide does not become even greater when they leave the protected environment of a college campus and venture out in the world. Perhaps a good starting point to begin to build bridges toward such understanding is through narrative and the stories that international students tell. Stories connect people. They ii draw us in and engage us. It seems only natural to turn in the direction of narratives about the challenges international students experience while negotiating their newly adopted culture in the United States as that potential connecting point, and to begin with audiences of primarily U.S.-American students and community members. In this qualitative study, I was a participant observer in the U.S.-American audiences for the presentations delivered by international students who volunteered to tell their personal stories about the challenges that they have faced. The topic and the exact nature of the challenges they experienced was left open regarding what information and what stories they chose to share with their audiences. I followed up each presentation by conducting qualitative interviews with the 6 female international students involved. In addition, I conducted interviews with 10 audience members who participated and volunteered to be interviewed. My interest was in learning what the U.S.-American students and community members heard when listening to the narratives, stories about how these international students have constructed and negotiated their identities in relation to their “Other” (in this case those of us who are U.S. American). Did U.S.-Americans pick up the same messages that the story-tellers believed that they were delivering? What questions were the audience members motivated to ask? What did they learn from listening to the storytellers’ stories? Did they gain any new insights? Were there commonalities between the different audience members who volunteered to be interviewed? And did they hear common messages? Regarding the students telling their stories, I was interested in discovering what they chose to discuss as well as how much they chose to disclose, and if they gained any insights from the process of telling their stories or from questions that the audience members asked or did not ask. What were their observations about the audience and the audience reactions? How did they iii feel when they were telling their stories? Did the process of telling their stories impact their own identities? There were similar themes that both the storytellers and their audience members discussed during their interviews; however, the subthemes differed. The primary themes that the storytellers believed that they focused on were: cultural issues and differences, religious perceptions, and to a lesser degree, language and communication. While these primary themes were consistent across the storyteller narratives, how strongly they were emphasized and what subthemes were discussed differed from storyteller to storyteller. Among the audience members, the themes heard and discussed were similar to those of the storytellers; however, when the U.S.-Americans discussed cultural differences, they emphasized similarities as opposed to differences, and focused more on communication and language challenges. Religious perceptions were viewed through a western, mostly Christian lens. Subthemes mentioned by U.S.-Americans were bullying, gender, and stereotypes. When I began this dissertation, many of us in the United States were celebrating our first Black president and I, along with many others, hoped that U.S.-Americans would begin to feel more comfortable with diversity in that new and historic reality. However, the political environment has changed once again. Unfortunately, many U.S.-Americans appear to feel even more threatened by diversity, viewing those who are “different” from themselves with ever increasing amounts of anxiety, fear, xenophobia and anger, which are fueled by almost daily news reports. In the current environment, narrative has become even more important as a way to connect and begin to better understand each other, with the potential of bridging cultural divide.
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