A New International Society
Nov 28, 2021
Image Credit: Dartmouth College Photographic Files
Kaya Çolakoğlu intervenes on behalf of a new, better international society at Dartmouth.
Earlier this term, Dartmouth Trustee Ms. Odette Harris visited Dartmouth and invited several undergraduate international students to an in-person meeting where she would hear about our experiences studying at the College. As an officer of the International Student Association, I was also invited, and had a chance to relay some concerns to Ms. Harris.
After a brief introduction, where we learned about her time at Dartmouth and subsequent illustrious career, we were allowed to ask her questions. Most questions concerned issues like visa advisory and bureaucratic challenges to work and internships, and Ms. Harris was very receptive to all, taking notes, asking clarifying questions and assuring administrative concern. Some others, posed largely by me, but articulated by many international community members previously, did not meet the same fate. My first question was about the housing crisis, and how international undergraduates & graduates faced and continue to face housing precarity in the Upper Valley, often disabling many, especially graduate workers, from enrolling altogether and causing many others undue stress. I brought up Dartmouth’s many non-solutions, like the infamous housing lottery, and inquired about the concrete steps the Board was taking to move towards real solutions. Ms. Harris responded in that psychologistic tone we are all too familiar with: she thanked me “for bringing this up”, noted that she was “hearing me”, and wanted me to know that the Board was “already considering this, and that [the Board] knew that it was a problem.”
I was dissatisfied with her refusal to engage with the issue thoroughly, and followed up with how little-thought, reckless investment in new private dormitories and construction projects would not result in a satisfactory outcome. I pointed out that the College needed to listen to the community: how staff & graduate worker pay, as well as the staffing shortage related immediately to the issue, and how many in our community had suffered under austerity policies that constitutively were unable to respond to the crisis. I added details of College’s exploitative labor practices that were leaked to the YDSA during summer. She responded by claiming that she did not know of these practices, and that for all of these issues, she needed to do her own research and that “it was a bit above [her] pay grade.” The inauthenticity was searing; and I further followed up with the continued astronomic salaries of top administrators and investments in vanity projects like the Dartmouth Hall renovation. None of these had come under austerity measures, while the majority of Dartmouth employees continued to work extraordinary hours at poverty rates. Rightfully sensing an accusatory tone in my questioning, changing her tone yet remaining within that synthetic framework, she remarked condescendingly that the student perspective in these matters were limited, and that the Board had to consider many other perspectives, like that of the donors’—a now-stale paternalist jab aiming to subjectivize our arguments.
Of course, we are well beyond that point: I countered that we knew all too well that the College was more accountable to ultra rich donors than to the workers they exploit but that students and workers around the country were organizing in unprecedented fashion and were able to threaten that balance; after which her businesstalk seemed to falter as she repeatedly accused me of “decontextualizing" her. I had made no remark about what she had said—it was, in fact, her who had “decontextualized” me by subsuming my arguments under the limited, emotionally charged, thus unreasonable and irate “student perspective”. I was talking about nothing but the analyses arrived at by the student and worker movement of the Upper Valley—she was here to hear none of that, nothing that might take more effort than the performative wiggling of a ball-point pen on an impossibly small notepad.
At the end of the meeting, she went through every single technocratic question in impressive detail, and responded with concrete action items. As for the issues threatening the livelihood of students and workers, what sufficed was a snide remark about how although she didn’t know “how this all relates to being an international student”, she would do her own research.
When one has in mind the international student community Dartmouth seeks to cultivate, and certainly the international student community as it exists, it might indeed be hard to see how issues like the housing crisis, labor shortage and staff wages relate to the topic at hand. Oftentimes, the “community” is held together by nothing but concerns that were dear to Ms. Harris: professional concerns, career interests, residency inquiries, to name a few. We might go even further and argue that no such discernible, distinctive community exists. This cannot be made an object of criticism, for certainly it is impossible for such a collection of people to not permeate among the thousand other sub-groupings that exist in Hanover. What we can make the object of criticism is the form of this permeation: what is it that connects this wildly diverse group of people across the many campus divides? What is the form of this connection?
As it exists, this connection is at best to be found in the busses carrying student workers to Concord to get SSNs, or perhaps in the ISA Winter Ball. At worst, it is to be found in that odd, unfittingly metropolic, pretensive careerism: a large mass of underdeveloped professional liberals. The international “community” of today is one of anxieties and handwringings, and the worst kind at that: anxieties that are indeed shared, but shared in quite sinister manner, shared as if it was of limited quantity, shared as if that very act was to reveal a flimsy construction.
The form of connection is, allow me to indulge myself, bourgeois. That much is clear. But this is also clear: we are well past the point of holding moralist blackmails over our peers. This is not only a strategy that has never worked, it is also a strategy that is not quite desirable. We need enemies too, and if Dartmouth doesn’t produce international speculators and logistics barons, someone else certainly will. There is no shortage of ghouls in this world. We oppose the current international community to the extent that it hinders, overshadows and restricts the birth and development of another, a more beautiful, a more timely one. Our strategy today is to wrestle that alternative out, away from the suffocating mass of the former. That new international society on campus is growing concurrently with the growth of the student and worker movement in the Upper Valley. Its promise entices and seduces us.
As Dartmouth brings together and assembles international students from all across the world, it also brings together and assembles many different variants of neoliberalism: syncretic French Macronism intermingles with urban Turkish Kemalism; Nigerian business developmentalism unites with diasporic Chinese venturism; and all are in essential dialogue with a core American liberalism, the pores of which form habitable zones for all wild variants. As Albert Hourani often insisted of modern Arab thought, no longer does regional particularities determine the impossibility of a universal ideology; now it is the universal liberal ideology that determines the possibility of regional particularities.
But this assemblage does not preclude grave contradictions. Along with those many toxic variants, international students also bring with them their intensifying global responses: popular movements, student uprisings, national liberationists, socialisms. As worldwide discontent of working people abound, as the promises of a better world spread a thousand fold in practices, writings and cultural fragments, international students who bring with them as little as they can in material possessions start bringing with them as much they can in fervor and problems.
These revolutionary fragments remain obsolete in the absence of movements: I like to think of them as answers that remain hidden until their respective questions call them out to the world. There is an abundance of careerist questions at Dartmouth—of course, its primary purpose is to pose as many of these as possible, and thus foster the dialogue between international neoliberalism and American liberalism. There has, on the other hand, been a dearth of questions that call for revolutionary answers—so far.
This picture is changing. In the little time I had at Dartmouth since last Fall, as part of its budding students’ and workers’ movement, I have had the immense luck of witnessing the proliferation of a new, underground dialogue. During the pandemic and the massive uprising for Black lives, a challenge to the American motherboard on campus emerged after a period of relative dormancy. Student activists gathered under the aegis of the Dartmouth Student Union and its advocacy for a more equitable pandemic management. In the DSU’s pioneering Freedom School events, I remember “being called to” by the spirit of discussion to share my experiences as part of the Turkish socialist movement—to try to learn from the Black struggle, and provide in turn a home for the orphan answers I brought from across the ocean.
As the conditions of campus struggle changed, so did the way my experiences interacted with it. When I was back in Istanbul for last year’s Winterim, an unprecedented student movement erupted as a response to the encroaching Erdoganist autocracy in academia. This student movement refused on all accounts to limit itself to its own struggle: its members fought together with queer, Kurdish and worker’s movements; showed up to demonstrations when its fellow travelers came under assault; and proudly proclaimed its political allegiance to a just, equitable, democratic Turkey.
I recall being in the middle of a Zoom conference with my comrades from the organization I’m a part of back home, where a political education was taking place on the history of socialism in Turkey. Half an hour into the lecture, a comrade interrupted the session and announced that a massive demonstration had erupted on the Bogazici University campus, (the university at the heart of this year’s struggles) and that we needed to focus all of our energy and efforts into supporting it. The conference was promptly ended, and everyone was called to meetings with their local chapters to discuss the event. I am proud to have been and continue to be a part of this struggle.
When I came back to Hanover at the end of the Winterim with a heavy heart, having left behind a critical, ongoing struggle, I expected to find here nothing less. My experiences in the Turkish students’ struggle forced me to acknowledge the necessity of an overtly political and expansive one here in Hanover. Our community faced austerity, poverty and homelessness; but Upper Valley continued to be plagued by egregious investments in police forces and ICE surveillance. Things needed to change, and the heavy heart I brought back from Turkey was pumping a very heavy blood that called for a new student movement.
That is why it was so attracted to the promise and founding of the Dartmouth YDSA. YDSA was founded by students who embraced exactly this vision: an aggressive, student- and worker-based campaigning for a livable Dartmouth, Hanover and Upper Valley. The Turkish struggle found itself a livable pore in the new motherboard, charged it, and energized it, and pushed it forward. It continues to do so every day, now multiplied in number.
Turkey is far from being the only country who has become a part of the student movement here in Dartmouth. During the May protests for Palestinian liberation, it was Palestinian community members who brought here the spirit of the struggle. They fundamentally changed the orientation of the student movement. On campus, it is no longer Chilean and Brazilian junta neoliberalisms that intermingle; it is instead their anti-fascisms and student unionisms that pervade dialogue. Peruvian and Jamaican students look up to the Bolivian experiment, Korean and Pan-African histories unite their voices for complete, worldwide decolonization. Students bring with them tactics, zeal, and memories of organized power. Against the wishes of American colonists who founded Dartmouth as an isolate shrine of knowledge production, Hanover becomes more and more, every day, a locale of the worldwide uprising.
If we are to build this new international society, one which Ms. Harris cannot even think of as she asks how “this all” relates to being an international student, we must acknowledge diasporas as also sub-communities that permeate the motherboard. They, too, are international. They have irrevocable bonds with their homelands, they too hear of and learn from the struggles of their people. They too bring here to Hanover hymns of liberation. They too possess those precious orphan answers, which is the duty of the student and workers’ movement to match with revolutionary questions.
And so is the promise of a new international society. It is no longer a distant one, however, it is already here. We will prevail.