Flag Displays: Signs of Diversity, Nationalism, or Just Good PR?

Flag displays are not trouble-free, but they can be a way for the campus to express the diversity of nations from which students arrive from to attend classes. Most are updated annually based on enrollment information, and many offer some way for students to make corrections or additions if specific countries might be missing.

Display methods vary from permanent to temporary, some hang from ceilings while others are displayed as posters or even on video terminals. At Texas A&M, the international flag display is suspended from ceiling chandelier structures in Rudder Theatre’s exhibit hall and represents the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations. At Minnesota State University–Mankato, the flags run along a first-floor soffit of Centennial Student Union; at Illinois State University, Bone Student Center shares its flag display via video terminals.

“We’ve had the display up for more than a year, with a flag for all international students who are attending here,” said Mark Constantine, director of Centennial Student Union. “Our international students and student organizations are all very supportive of each other, and we’ve heard from students about how much this has added to the building.”

The student union there collaborated with the International Student Association on the project, and received sponsorships from the university Office of Global Education and it’s Kearney International Center.

The flag display at the University of Arkansas Union has been on display for over a decade now, located in the International Connections Lounge, and helps create part of an overall aesthetic in the space.

“Overall, it’s been a very positive thing because it helps create a space that is highly desirable for cultural programming,” said Rob Stagni, director of the Arkansas Union. “And,” he joked, “our study abroad department uses pictures of it in quite a few of their brochures.”

As for problems or controversy, “Concerns about it are hardly a thought in my daily routine,” although staff at the union have tried to be sure that university campus tour guides correctly describe the display and don’t make the mistake of saying the flags represent every country an Arkansas student has come from.

There have been complaints about the flag from North Korea, and it was stolen and discarded outside once, and there have been “rogue flags, such as a flag from South Vietnam, that appeared randomly.”

Gil Johnson, senior associate director of University of Delaware Student Centers, said there have been considerations related to removing flag displays that have been in place at both the Trabant University Center and Perkins Student Center. The displays are updated each August based on demographic information from the registrar’s office.

“We have thought about removing ours due to some of the complaints we received; however, the positive responses certainly outweigh the negative ones,” he said. “It’s important we do those updates each year though.”

There are ground rules, Johnson said. If a flag is missing for a student’s home country, it’s most likely due to the student registration information needing to be changed. Transfer and mid-year enrollees are told they will not see their flags in place until the beginning of the school year.

“We also get the question of why is one specific flag next to a certain other one, which is usually related to a hot political issue that we may not be aware of,” Johnson recalled. “When we’re made aware we have the flags moved.”

“The other issue was that flags would continually be stolen, so we now place them very high so that they are difficult to reach,” he added.

Flag displays are not necessarily an indicator of campus diversity, but they can play a part in helping international students cope with life in a new place. In Cross Culture Narratives, a collection of stories and experiences of international students, editor and University of Delaware assistant professor of education Ravichandran Ammigan includes the experience of one student who arrives from abroad to find her luggage missing, her roommate not arrived, her name missing on several class rosters, and finally, her country’s flag not on display with others in the student union.

“Eventually everything worked out,” the student wrote in the narrative. “On the updated class lists my name appeared, my roommate arrived two days later, and I was promised a Swedish flag in Trabant (University Center) for the spring semester.”

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