October 19, 2015

GUEST ROOM | The Conversation We Should Be Having

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In 1993, my dad left our home in Harbin, China for Blacksburg, Virginia, in order to complete his doctorate at Virginia Tech. My favorite story of his from those first few months in the United States is one about ordering tea at a restaurant. Colleagues took him out for a meal, and he ordered tea, expecting a small mug of warm and mild liquid. Instead, the waitress brought him a giant plastic cup of southern sweet tea with lots of ice. Even years later, he would laugh with my mom over how Americans loved putting ice in all their drinks.

When Dad came over in 1993, the total number of international students at U.S. universities was around 439,000. In 2013, the Institute of International Education reported a total of 819,644.

Instead of conference workshops on how to pronounce Chinese names (yes, this really happened), the lack of support for the increasing population of international students is the conversation we should be having.

International students encounter some of the same obstacles as domestic students, like lack of financial assistance struggles with psychosocial adjustment, and discrimination. However, internationals may experience those obstacles to a greater degree. Financially, international students at many universities, including Cornell, are not eligible for financial assistance. In fact, the tuition that internationals do pay essentially subsidizes financial aid for the higher-need domestic students. At the graduate level, government-sponsored funding sources often limit eligibility to U.S. citizen and permanent residents meaning that international graduate students have a smaller pool of money to draw from. Faculty at Cornell who are interested in welcoming internationals to their labs know this well. Socially, one study has found that female internationals in engineering experience gender discrimination at a much higher rate than domestic females. Gender and racial discrimination are issues that American universities know all too well. Diversity offices on college campuses rightly give voice to underrepresented minorities, but international students are, on the whole, not part of the “diversity programs” rhetoric. With international enrollment increasing 83 percent in 20 years, and no signs of slowing, international students are quickly becoming an underrepresented majority on U.S. campuses.

In the face of these struggles, “improve your English” seems to be the mystical cure-all prescribed by staff, faculty and other students. First, I feel silly having to say this, but gaining native proficiency in English is not a solution to structural problems, like financial aid availability and campus discrimination. Second, research finds that while language proficiency in international students plays a role, the presence of social support is a much stronger predictor of successful psychosocial adjustment to life in the United States. Thus, language support offices are important, but not enough.

International student-specific support offices do exist, but are generally swamped with helping students and scholars navigate the intricacies of work permits, social security applications, tax filing and increasingly complicated visa procedures. These offices are usually unable to address more fundamental issues of discrimination, cultural adjustment and lack of social support. Even so, distracted faculty and busy departments are often guilty of outsourcing all their international student care to these already burdened offices. This is a huge problem because supporting students, academically and bureaucratically, is almost always a joint effort between multiple administrative offices (the registrar, bursar, college, specific department and so on). Since international support offices are often the only places on campuses that have any knowledge of logistical issues faced by international students, their work is hindered by the oversight or simple ignorance of other offices. So unless awareness of and attention to international student support extends university-wide, international student support offices are not enough.

Upon graduation, international students face other issues. Increased international student enrollment has not been paired with a proportional increase in the quota for H-1B visas in the United States. The H-1B visa, requiring sponsorship from an employer, allows foreign nationals to work in the United States and is the next step for international students interested in staying in the United States. Between 2007 and 2012, F-1 student visa issuances saw a 63 percent increase while H-1B visa issuances actually decreased by 12 percent. While international students who want to work in the United States are acutely aware of this weighted lottery, faculty and staff are often ignorant of the process or believe that these things have nothing to do with their roles as educators.

What faculty don’t realize is that present and future visa status greatly influence the educational decisions made by international students. Limited visa durations and arduous renewal processes (that can require the student to return to their home country) can often mean that international graduate students consciously choose not to pursue higher-risk research projects. The problem is that these projects are often seen as more “creative” and this designation can influence where faculty invest their mentorship time, consciously or not. Those who are daring enough to pursue these “creative” projects supposedly possess that coveted quality of intellectual independence when, in fact, they may just not have to worry about deportation. One way for faculty to remedy this is simple: Educate yourselves on the relevant U.S. immigration policy and incorporate discussions of visa timelines into your mentorship. A second way is a little harder: Spend time exploring how policies and institutional structures are creating barriers to innovation in your labs. Then, work to remove them.

International students make major contributions to the academic communities they join, not just in terms of providing “global perspectives,” but also economically and academically. International grad students have higher publication rates and lower graduation times. Researchers have found that just the presence of international doctoral students in science and engineering departments increases graduation rates amongst domestic students in those departments. These students are valuable, contributing members of our communities, so we need to stop treating them like unwanted visitors. As more and more international students walk the quadrangles of our campus, I’m hoping for conversations that go beyond “how do you pronounce your name again?”

Michelle Tong is a graduate student at Cornell.. She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.