International Students and Institutional Wares at MSU

International Students and Institutional Wares at MSU

The presence of international students on campus began early in MSU’s history. Not even two decades after MSU’s founding, four international students were enrolled for the fall semester in 1873. Two of these students were from Japan, one from Holland, and one from Canada [1]. Since then, MSU has made a strong commitment to fostering international relationships with students from around the world. As of the Fall 2019 semester a total of 5,961 students from 129 different countries were enrolled at MSU. Additionally, international scholars and their dependent family members put the international student presence on campus at over 9,000 from 140 countries [2]. Compared to the rest of the nation’s international student population, MSU ranked 11th for colleges with the most international students [3].

Below are gradient maps of the geographic origins of international students at MSU in the fall of 2019. The first map includes all the countries and US territories represented at MSU while the second map excludes China so as to show the differences from other nations better. Zoom in and hover over or click on a country to see the the number of students from that state enrolled at MSU. The lighter the color (the more yellow), the fewer the students are from that country while the darker the color (the more orange and red), the more students are from that country. Nations represented as just the satellite image indicates that no student from that country was enrolled at MSU in 2019 (excluding the US).

Although going to another country to get an education can be fun and enriching, it is no doubt stressful. Adjusting to your host country’s cultural norms (not to mention the cultural norms of US college students which is a microcosm of distinct customs!) while also trying to not lose those of your home country can be a tough negotiation of personal identities. With the added stress of a language barrier in some cases, it should be no surprise that there are numerous student groups on campus that cater to international students as a whole as well as groups focused on specific countries or cultures. At MSU, the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) is an entity that helps students from foreign countries in adjusting and getting involved at MSU, making their time here as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.

While international students make up to 10% of the overall student population today, how can we as archaeologists unearth evidence of their lives and experiences on campus since the first international students began taking classes? The overwhelming majority of artifacts discovered by CAP on MSU’s campus were made for Western consumers. This means that when international students arrived and began living on campus, and depending on their country of origin, they may have begun using products and amenities that were unfamiliar to them.

MSU Institution Ware by MSU Campus Archaeology Program on Sketchfab

An example of this is through institutional wares – a type of ceramic that was mass produced for repeated use at institutions; i.e. plates, bowls, and cups at campus dining halls. MSU-specific institutional wares have been found during CAP excavations, particularly in 2015 at the Gunson site and at the recent Service Road dump. A thick improved white stoneware plate with colorless glaze and three thin green stripes show that this sturdy plate was designed or purchased specifically for MSU and intended for repeated use. This plate was made by the Onondaga Pottery Company (a company known for producing institutional wares) out of Syracuse, NY around 1914. While this connection of a mass-produced plate to international student experiences may on the surface appear extraneous, it can act as a symbol for the pressures on international students to assimilate to American culture. In nineteenth and early-twentieth century America, ideas of proper citizenship were linked to, among other things, buying the proper products and eating ‘American’ foods. [4] (For more information on institutional wares at MSU, see Jeff Painter’s blog on the subject linked here.)

Upon this mostly undecorated plate would have been foods that the university provided for all students, regardless of their country of origin. Food is one of the strongest cultural ties that people have. By repeatedly consuming foods on these plates that international students were not used to, they were likely in conflict by eating American (or even Midwestern) foods as a way to fit in while also desiring the foods of their home culture. This is even discussed in a 1962 brochure from MSU titled “Housing Information For Foreign Students”:

“Foreign students will find quite a challenge in adapting themselves to American food and their way of eating. The residence halls, as much as possible, attempt to provide a reasonable variety of foods that should generally fill the needs of all individuals regardless of diet restrictions due to religious or national customs”. [5]

Front of brochure from 1960s with housing information for international students. Image courtesy of MSU Archives. 
Shows Owen Hall in the background with title that reads "Housing Information for Foreign Students. Michigan State University, East Lansing.
Front of brochure from 1960s with housing information for international students. Image courtesy of MSU Archives.

The point of on-campus dining was to provide students with what they needed, rather than what they may have necessarily wanted. This was likely a jarring culinary experience that would have made international students desirous of their own culture’s cuisine as the brochure later states:

 “One major difference in the food is that Americans use lesser amounts of spices in their cooking. American food seems very bland to many foreign students”. [5]

Full description of what expectations international students should have when living on campus from a 1960s brochure. Image courtesy of MSU Archives.

The additional factor of “bland” American food would not have made the pressures towards assimilating into American culture any easier or even desirable! Today, MSU dining halls serve myriad types of food from many countries and cultures. Additionally, the large, year-round international student population in East Lansing meant that restaurants serving international cuisines also became common. The focus of the university now appears to be on inclusion and celebration of diversity, rather than assimilation. International students now have dining options that more closely resemble their home countries and can be in clubs and groups that cater to their cultural desires while also enjoying “American” amenities, giving them a richer and more rounded experience at MSU.

While on the surface, artifacts such as the green-striped MSU institutional ware plate may seem like just a dining hall plate, they represent the notion that people from vastly different backgrounds, countries, cultures, religions, etc. are all here at MSU to gain new experiences. Everyone eats. Cultural exchanges between students undoubtedly happen over the dining hall tables. It is important to remember that international students on campus may be “out of their element” compared to those born in the US. Understanding their point of view and having a dialogue about each other’s cultures (perhaps during a meal when the pandemic abates) will create greater respect and an overall more enjoyable experience for everyone.

[2] MSU Office of the Registrar – Geographical Source of Students – Foreign Countries (
[4] Camp, Stacey L., 2013, The Archaeology of Citizenship. University of Florida Press, Tallahassee, FL
[5] Housing Information For Foreign Students. Brochure, 1962. Courtesy of MSU Archives.

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