Serving International Graduate Students in the Context of COVID-19 and Social Justice Awakening in the United States
By Paola A. Barriga
More than one million international students studied in the U.S. during 2017-2018 (Open Doors, 2019). Top geographical areas of origin include Asia and the South America (Open Doors, 2019). International students contribute to research, provide unique cross-cultural perspectives, pay taxes, and advance the U.S. economy (Elturki et al., 2019).
Among the international students who attended in 2018-2019, 13% were enrolled in graduate programs (Open Doors, 2019). Research-based graduate programs are intense, daunting, and challenging for domestic students. International students face additional complexities besides this academic rigor (Elliot et al., 2016). They are confronted with cultural differences, discrimination, and hostility (Chapdelaine & Alexitch, 2004; Kim & Kim 2010; Lee 2010; Lee & Rice, 2007; McLachlan & Justice, 2009). Students may also feel isolated because they struggle to make friends due to language barriers (Trice, 2003; Zhai, 2002).
During the past year, international students also navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. This was coupled with the stress of possible immigration and work authorization changes prompted by the U.S. executive branch, first by banning new H-1B, J-1 and L-1 visas and later by forbidding their entry into the U.S. if their universities only offered online courses. Inequality, racism, discrimination, and work uncertainty are not new issues in the United States (Blustein, 2019). However, the pandemic brought these issues to the forefront.
Guidance from Career Professionals
Given the distress students are enduring, career professionals need to work effectively with international program offices and graduate students. The following are guiding principles that career professionals can practice.
Financial support and dissertation scope. U.S. funding for international students is limited. Encourage students to connect with different campus units that offer teaching or research opportunities. Also, encourage them to speak with their faculty advisor to revisit whether the scope of their dissertations might be modified to include tasks that can be performed locally, including literature reviews, meta-analyses, or surveys. Working closely with their faculty advisor, students can make these modifications while preserving their research questions and the skills they want to learn.
Broaden their career perspectives. International students may believe that careers are linear based on their observations at home, financial limitations, or messages from friends/family. However, job prospects may be different after the pandemic. COVID-19 disruptions could also help them to reflect on their career goals and identify the need to remain adaptable. Assist international graduate students by revisiting their strengths, values, and objectives. With this information, international graduate students may be able to evaluate the suitability of their goals and explore other occupational choices if needed. Affirming the value and possibility of alternatives can also cultivate confidence and resiliency (Lent et al., 2002; Savickas, 2013).
Validate students’ personal identity. Students want to be seen, appreciated, and valued for who they are. Yet practitioners may be challenged to see students as individuals because people categorize others based on how they look or talk (Arredondo et al., 1996). Two international graduate students from the same country are not identical. The Dimensions of Personal Identity model can assist career practitioners to see students holistically (Arredondo et al., 1996). They can integrate students’ fixed dimensions (i.e., age, gender, culture, ethnicity, race, language), and place those into historical, political, sociocultural, and economic contexts in which they developed (Arredondo et al., 1996). These dimensions converge to create the educational experiences, the work experience, recreational interests, health care practices, and beliefs that students may possess. Simultaneously, as career practitioners learn about their students, they can become more aware of their own cultural values, biases, and beliefs (Arredondo et al., 1996). Practitioners will listen more effectively if they examine these assumptions.
Assess students’ mental health. Researchers who administered a survey across multiple countries and fields found that graduate students are six times more likely to experience mental health issues compared to the general population (Evans et al., 2018). Following the COVID-19 outbreak, reports of discrimination and violence against Asians significantly increased (Litam, 2020). International students from a wide array of origins face new levels of anxiety and depression (Misirlis et al., 2020). However, several factors influence the perspectives international graduate students have about mental health (Dadfar & Friedlander, 1982). Some cultures associate help-seeking self-disclosure with stigmas or signs of weakness and immaturity (Mori, 2000; Takeuchi & Sakagami, 2018). Financial limitations experienced at home may have taught students that they should navigate difficult situations alone. Students may also feel that difficult situations are personal and that they cannot trust anybody in a new culture. Others may also be too focused while working on their degrees to support loved ones that need help. Career practitioners need to learn about the self-care practices of their clients to support them and develop trust. Although international students may change their previous negative attitudes towards mental health assistance (Zhang & Dixon, 2003), specialists should be aware of cultural conflicts and communicate the resources available to them.
Welcoming and Supporting Students
International graduate students have navigated challenges before COVID-19. However, the pandemic has intensified the challenges. As a result, leaving the home country may incur great financial and emotional sacrifices and international graduate students are courageous to take on these challenges to improve their opportunities. Career practitioners must understand biases and the assumptions they make while working with international graduate students. More than ever, this is a time when professionals need to make students feel welcomed and supported.
Arredondo, P., Toporek, R., Brown, S. P., Jones, J., Locke, D.C. Sanchez, J., & Stadler, H. (1996). Operationalization of the multicultural counseling competencies. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 24, 42-78. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.1996.tb00288.x
Blustein, D. L. (2019). The importance of work in an age of uncertainty. The eroding work experience in America. The Oxford University Press.
Chapdelaine, R. F., & Alexitch, L. R. (2004). Social skills difficulty: Model of culture shock for international graduate students. Journal of College Student Development, 45(2), 167–184. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd/2004.0021
Dadfar, S., & Friedlander., M. L. (1982). Differential attitudes of international students toward seeking professional psychological help. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29(3), 335. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0184.108.40.2065
Elliot, D. L., Baumfield, V., Reid K., & Makara, K. A. (2016). Hidden treasure: Successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum. Oxford Review of Education, 42(6), 733–748. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2016.1229664
Elturki, E., Liu, Y., Hjeltness, J., & Hellman, K. (2019). Needs, expectations, and experiences of international students in pathway program in the United States, Journal of International Students, 9(1), 192–210. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v9il.274ojed.org/jis
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T. & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282.
Kim, S. & Kim, R. H. (2010). Microaggressions experienced by international students attending US institutions of higher education. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact (pp. 171-191). John Wiley & Sons.
Lee, J. J. (2010). International students’ experiences and attitudes at a U.S. host institution: Self-reports and future recommendations. Journal of Research in International Education, 9(1), 66–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475240909356382
Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 53(3), 381–409. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-005-4508-3
Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (2002). Social cognitive career theory. In D. Brown & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development, (4 ed., pp. 255-311). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Litam, S. D. A. (2020). Take your kung-flu back to Wuhan: Counseling asians, asian americans, and pacific islanders with race-based trauma related to COVID-19. Professional Counselor, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.15241/sdal.10.2.144
McLachlan, D.A., & Justice, J. (2009). A grounded theory of international student well-being. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing, 13(1),27–32.
Misirlis, N., Zwaan, M. H., & Weber. D. (2020). International students’ loneliness, depression and stress levels in COVID-19 crisis. The role of social media and the host university. ArXiv. https://arxiv.org/abs/2005.12806
Mori, S. C. (2000). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 137–144. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb02571.x
Open Doors. (2019). The power of international education. https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/enrollment-trends/
Savickas, M. L. (2013). The theory and practice of career construction. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 42-70). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Takeuchi, J., & Sakagami, Y. (2018). Stigma among international students is associated with knowledge of mental illness. Nagoya Journal of Medical Science, 80(3), 367. https://doi.org/10.18999/nagjms.80.3.367.
Trice, A. G. (2003). Faculty perceptions of graduate international students: The benefits and challenges. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(4), 379–403.https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315303257120.
Zhai, L. (2002). Studying international students: Adjustment issues and social support. ERIC Document 474481.
Zhang, N., & Dixon., D. N. (2003). Acculturation and attitudes of Asian international students toward seeking psychological help. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31(3), 205–222. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2003.tb00544.x
Paola A. Barriga is a Post-Doctoral Research & Teaching Associate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia (UGA) and a Certified Career Services Provider. Paola, originally from Ecuador, holds a Ph.D. degree in Biology from the University of Arkansas and has first-hand experience navigating graduate school as international student. At UGA Paola gained pedagogical training in active learning approaches and has trained undergraduate Biology and non-Biology majors. And, she has audited a Career Development and Theory course offered by Dr. Marian Higgins at UGA. Paola has mentored UGA undergraduates and graduate students for the past six years and her mentees have made successful career choices and transitions. Paola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and her Linkedln profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paola-barriga/