November 18, 2020

DELGADO | The Story of an International Ph.D. Candidate

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Thousands of students from all corners of the world search for post-graduate study programs in the United States every year. Over 4500-plus universities across the US house approximately 988,000 international students seeking doctorate-level degrees. Navigating the huge transitions to American Ph.d. programs can be extremely daunting for international students, especially for those who may have never stepped foot in the planet’s melting pot. But not many of these stories are known to the Cornell community. Do these students feel as integrated within our academic ecosystem as others?

Abdullah Shahid, grad — a sixth year Sociology Ph.d. candidate — spent countless hours in preparation to leave his home country of Bangladesh and find a new home to continue his academic aspirations. For him and his family, having a scholastic future in the U.S. is a big deal.

When asking Shahid why he chose to come to the U.S. for postgraduate education, he noted the research opportunities and open-arm community at Cornell provided an immense amount of comfort. Shahid exclaimed that Cornell, in comparison to other US and international universities, seemed most interested in hearing his story as a person, what experiences inspire him and what fields of research would best suit his passions. 

“Although research should be an objective, dispassionate venture, the institutional appreciation to pursue that venture with certain passions was inspiring,” said Shahid. 

Culturally coming into the U.S., Shahid stated that much of his — and many others’ — preconceived portrayal of the U.S. is an extremely inaccurate interpretation. 

“I had this stereotypical view of the USA being a liberal, secular place,” he said. “But, I got to see the mosaic of perspectives, ranging from ultra religious and fiscal conservatism to super liberalism. The portrayal of the U.S.  in the movies turned out to be so wrong in so many different ways. It’s a pity that people get to know about the U.S. and its education from consuming tunnel-vision, narrow focused movie plots.”

Shahid’s transition has brought about many obstacles that have been difficult to surmount. Shahid believes that international students are often categorized as an invisible minority, and are excluded from a plethora of opportunities that U.S. residents have access to. 

“For example, qualifications for numerous fellowships and grants, which can really help a Ph.D. student stand apart, are only provided for people with U.S. citizenship and green card holders. The minorities that get priorities and privilege in such a process are the minorities that are born and/or brought up here. International students do not fall into such a definition of minority. In fact, they are the largest group of invisible minorities that get evaluated for the research and teaching at par with the minorities and majorities with privileges. This is something I did not know before coming here.”

Similarly, some of Shahid’s challenges have arisen from disconcerting encounters. Frequently, individuals have come up to him and — assuming he was from India — initiated a conversation in Hindi. Shahid sometimes felt uncomfortable in social settings, like when dancing: “Many people assumed from my name that I was Arab and a pious Muslim. Many people believe that Muslims cannot dance and would feel uncomfortable instantly.” 

However, through these challenges, Shahid strove to see the light, channelling his frustration as fuel to empower himself. 

Through his time at Cornell, Shahid collected both a substantial amount of lessons as well as memories, learning something new every step of the way. In particular, he’s most proud of his ability to overcome uneasy situations. Attending salsa classes, caring for a dog and learning the rules of competitive squash pushed him to believe in his abilities. Shahid stated that a “nourishing environment is a must, even if everybody learns at a different pace. I am not from the U.S., so competing against individuals who have the cultural knowledge growing up here has an advantage over me.”

Shahid explained that cultivating friendships helped him establish a network of support. His mentors guided him through tough instances in his academic career where Shahid felt overloaded. Shahid managed to make many friends with undergraduates and graduates alike with his willingness to learn and indulge in new activities.

Shahid provides the following advice for any aspiring or current international Ph.D. student within the U.S.’s collegiate academic system: never lose your identity. 

Many times, the academic pressure of one’s program and the lack of resources can often deteriorate one’s self-confidence and psyche. However, it is “imperative that we stay hungry for knowledge acquisition and cultural cognition,” said Shahid. By doing so, one will truly gain a vantage of the breadth and diversity of Cornell’s 2,300 acre campus.

Shahid yearns to one day instruct and train 1,000 Ph.D. students before he dies and instill in the minds of many that the journey to being recognized as an expert in an academic field is not to be taken lightly. “PhD means to learn how it works, not just the degree. The best practice to [have in mind is to] help others and help the world.”

Every student who has stepped onto Ho Plaza has a story that can never be duplicated. Whether from far and wide or right from Westchester, Cornellians value the importance of camaraderie among the student body. International students should never have to feel secluded from the college experience. To anybody who has a story similar to Shahid’s: Keep on fighting and never doubt the amazing intellectual and global feats which you contribute.

Canaan Delgado is a senior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at cdelgado@cornellsun.com. ¿Que pasa? runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.