Harvard Tragedy Underlines Foreign Student Challenges

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HARVARD UNIVERSITY students straight out of a J-Crew catalog zip along the campus sidewalks past rain-smeared signs advertising commencement tickets for sale.

But today's hurried Ivy Leaguers aren't all from Connecticut or Kansas. Some 450,000 students attending college and graduate schools in the United States today hail from as far away as Bangkok and Bonn.

For them, on top of the pressures of making the grade and meeting yearly tuition hikes, foreign students face the challenge of isolation and adapting to a culture vastly different from their own.

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Last weekend's murder-suicide at Harvard, in which an Ethiopian student stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death and then hanged herself, has refocused attention on the difficulties foreign students may have while attending American universities.

Experts say the challenges facing all college students have grown at a time when the breakdown in the traditional family unit is more prevalent now than in past generations. On their own, they may have to deal with exposure to illicit drugs, make key career decisions, and shoulder larger financial loads.

An April report by the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control (CDC), says suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds jumped 28 percent from 1980 to 1992, the last year that statistics are available.

But studies of suicide on US college campuses consistently point out that there is a higher rate of suicide among foreign and exchange students, says Allen Lipschitz at the New York-based American Suicide Foundation.

''Foreign students have special food needs, housing needs ... and financial problems,'' says Harold Vaughn, international programs director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington. Feeling isolated is a big factor. ''The human tendency is to associate with those most like you, and foreign students are not like their American counterparts,'' he says.

And those needs often go unmet. As universities recruit well-heeled students from abroad, many colleges are trying to address issues such as language deficiency, religious and cultural differences, and loneliness, but these issues are not always a high priority, Mr. Vaughn explains.

Even administrators at top universities, such as Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass., admit that they have a long way to go to overcome cultural barriers. ''We have a fluent Japanese-speaker on staff, but that's just a drop in the bucket of what we'd like to have,'' says Randolph Catlin, chief of mental health services at Harvard. ''There are many cultures where just the idea of talking to someone about your mental health is abhorrent. We need to overcome that.''

While police continue to search for a motive behind the deaths at Harvard, the foreign backgrounds of both the students are being given as one reason that the apparent mounting tension between them was not noticed earlier. Sinedu Tadesse, from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was here on a scholarship and had not been home in three years. Both she and her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, were pre-med students at one of the most demanding colleges in the country.

For the 2,750 foreign students at Harvard, an international office provides a special orientation and is a resource center. Harvard also relies on live-in adults at the dormitories and deans who keep a close watch on freshmen.

When a student makes the effort to go to student health services, they will be seen by a counselor the same day, Mr. Catlin says. But unless a student seeks help, he or she may fall through the cracks. ''You're not going to get approached unless you're failing a class or you're doing harm to someone else,'' says Quenby Iandiorio, a Harvard senior.

''And foreign students are the least likely to seek psychological counseling for help with their problem,'' says Thomas Wessel, assistant director of counseling services at Howard University in Washington.

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