By: Xiaojie Li, University of Arizona
Almost every time when I bumped into a Chinese international student at ASHE, I liked to ask him/her, are you the only Chinese student in your department? The answer was usually yes. Sometimes, they were even the only international student in their department. Thanks to ASHE, we learned that we may be lonely in our own department, but we are definitely not alone. Therefore, as an international student myself, although fortunately not the only one in my department, I would like to share my thoughts on navigating our journeys in higher education graduate programs.
As international students, we may feel lonely because we are different from American peers in some aspects, and our department and institution may not have the perfect resources to support us.
- The comparative/international view might be marginalized
Unless you attend a program focusing on comparative/international higher education, we mostly study higher education within the context of the US. Our previous experiences and knowledge about higher education in other countries might not be fully understood or appreciated. Although comparative/international higher education is becoming more popular in recent years in the US, the comparative view across national borders is still not a norm. Comparative/international research is quite marginalized, and departmental support might not be available for some students.
- The financial constrains are unique
As international students, we know how important funding is. Most of us are supported by teaching or research assistantships and have to pray that this funding source remains sustainable until we graduate. It is because we are unlikely to be able to afford the daunting international student tuition and fees if we do not have funding, but the worse thing is that a sudden loss of funding might result in the loss of legal status. In addition, as international students are not eligible for many scholarships and grants, we might need to find alternative ways to conduct our studies.
- The career planning can be complicated
Beyond the question of pursuing a faculty career or not as other graduate students, international students have to think about another question regarding their career, staying in the US or returning to their home country after graduation. The career plan of faculty-or-not and that of stay-or-return are essentially related and create different options. If one intends to pursue a faculty career outside of the US, he/she could potentially receive substantial help from his/her department. However, it might not be the case if one’s career goal is finding a non-faculty position outside of the US. In fact, there are many obstacles when international students look for employment in the US, language, culture, visa, just to name a few.
As a relatively new student in a PhD program, I would not see myself as someone who is qualified to offer advice. I would only like to share some of my reflections based on my own experiences:
- Find community
Just like I met my Chinese peers at ASHE, building relationships with other people who are also international students definitely increases your sense of belonging in the field. It is important to make friends with them and support each other. Beyond that, the successful stories of people who share the backgrounds with you would better facilitate to create an “imagined self,” which would lend you the power to break through the difficulties along the road. At ASHE, I enjoyed making connections with faculty who used to be international students. They are the best role models for me because by knowing them, I realized that becoming one of them is not something impossible. Therefore, I started to seriously think about how I can prepare myself for my long-term goal without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed.
- Take advantage of our international status
The international background we have is our biggest advantage, not a drawback. If you are interested in doing comparative/international research, stay with it even though you do not receive sufficient support from your department. There are many ways to find support outside by connecting with scholars who have similar interests. The key is that you are committed to what you are truly interested in and believe in yourself that you have the capacity to find resources for yourself. Also, we need to know that our natural advantages in doing comparative/international research because both our native language and physically traveling back to our home country can be utilized for research. It is not about just making things easy for ourselves. More importantly, we make unique contributions to the literature.
- Make our voice heard
As an international student in the US, I feel that speaking out is not that easy. In American culture, speaking out and expressing one’s opinions publicly is highly encouraged. But I have experienced the struggle of pushing myself out of a comfort zone that was shaped by the culture in my home country. After some practice, I started to enjoy sincere communications and felt less bothered by the unwarranted beliefs of being stupid and losing face in front of others. Although I felt very bad at the beginning when asking my department for financial aid, I realized later on that it is also supposed to be a sincere communication. You need to express your needs in order to let people know how to help you. If we are confronting any kind of difficulties or unfair treatment on campus as international students, we should take an initiative to start a conversation about it. Being a little more active would help our institutions to better support us.
I hope this blog reaches out to more international students in higher education. The benefits I experienced in connecting with other international students make me believe in the necessity of unifying us. A community would make each member stronger. We are not alone.
Xiaojie Li is a doctoral student at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on international student experiences and identities.