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.

Photo By Evangeline Shaw On Unsplash

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.




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Paola BarrigaPaola 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 paobarriga@gmail.com and her Linkedln profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paola-barriga/

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Lanie Damon on Monday 02/01/2021 at 06:21PM wrote:

Thank you for pointing out specific issues of the international student population in the time of COVID!

Paola Barriga on Friday 02/05/2021 at 04:43PM wrote:

You are welcome Lanie! Happy to help.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the opinions of this organization.