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This is something that I wish somebody told me in the very beginning of my academic career in the US—take initiatives. An international student’s academic journey begins with a seemingly disadvantaged situation as compared to that of the local students because you begin with adjustments and settling in process. Inherent in this process is a danger that you may just buy into not being “able” to do certain things. I am writing this post to guard you against that insidious element.
Just keep in mind that life’s adjustments never end. So, it is advisable to start taking steps toward academic and professional development early on. If you want to truly succeed in the university and build for success when you graduate, you must start thinking about more than just maintaining good grades. Of course, as I see in some students’ stories on this site, you may find yourself hardly catching up with coursework (and for graduate students, assistantship responsibilities as well) during the first semester, but how long should you wait? Until the second semester— the third— ? But then the time to graduate will knock on your door before you are ready! So, you should start looking at the bigger picture of professional development right when you join your program. Yes, you may want to gradually increase the time for getting involved, but there is no need to wait in order to start at least thinking about, learning some ideas, and taking small steps.
Also, everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning! You may even feel like an odd person wherever you go, whatever you say or do. But if you think about it, that is also where you are special! So, please do not seek safety in silence. Sure, there will be some risk of making mistakes. But it is by daring to make mistakes that you create opportunities for yourself, for learning and connections at first, and then for contribution! The day will never come when everything will be settled and you’ll start your “big” initiative with confidence. If something goes wrong, you’ll learn a lesson. You’re here to learn after all, aren’t you? By speaking out, you’ll be grateful that you added your unique perspective to the conversations. Be shocked, but do not get shaken: tenacity matters!
Research shows that most important elements of student success as self-efficacy and involvement, which reinforce each other. Even though it may seem like a non sequitur, involvement outside the classroom is extremely important for your success. Such engagement outside not only pays back ultimately but is almost essential to academic success and necessary for professional development in the long run. Student Integration Model developed by Tinto (1975) emphasized a student’s involvement in the community. In his subsequent search and publications, Tinto followed up on the idea of involvement as an important element in students’ academic persistence and success (Tinto, 1993, 2010). Two more researchers highly involved in student learning and development have also highlighted the importance social involvement apart from the classroom activities. They state:
What matters is the nature of experiences students have … the courses they take, the instructional methods their teachers use, the interactions they have with their peers and faculty members outside the classroom, the variety of people and ideas they encounter, and the extent to their active involvement in the academic and social systems of their institutions. (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 642)
While none of these models were specifically developed to account for the international students, evidence suggests that the importance of involvement is vital for various minority groups. There is relatively limited research on engagement in the community on and off campus among international students; however, general research does indicate that international students can greatly benefit by being involved both academically and socially. For instance, Trice (2004) found that interacting to Americans and other international students helped international students succeed in many ways. After an outstanding review of theories and existing literature, Trice established that international students who socialize with host national students are the “most satisfied with and the best adjusted to their experience abroad. Nevertheless, it appears that relatively few international students spend substantial time with Americans” (p. 673).
As Trice tells us, international students tend not to get socially involved. But we know that it is hard to be successful academically and professionally without developing a whole range of “soft-skills” that help you become a well-rounded scholar, professional. It is by such involvement that you begin to gain social and networking skills for leadership. However, if the idea of social engagement sounds a little daunting to you, then just start by working closely with your professors on top of taking the class and completing the assigned work.
Even if you are still trying to focus on maintaining a certain GPA, you can get “involved” by at least trying to get support from the professor rather than waiting until the deadline and trying to address the challenge without support. Trust me: it is okay to show your ignorance to your professor—he or she is there to guide you after all. You can impress him/her by showing how you learn rather than by pretending that you already know a lot. And trust me, your longer journey toward academic, professional, and community/social engagement could be starting in a great way as you build stronger relationship with your own professors. There is a high correlation between academic success and social involvement because, as I previously mentioned, these two reinforce each other.
Conventionally, there are two things that most people pay attention to when it comes to international students: language and culture. These are the “barriers” they know about and they may unknowingly convince you that you just need to overcome these two in order to be successful. But there is a lot more about becoming a successful scholar in a new environment and getting ready for the professional world within a few years. Get involved in the community within and beyond the campus.
Every university has a diverse range of student organizations, each trying to achieve a special goal by bringing together a certain group of students. Based on what support you need, search from the list of student organizations at your university/college. If you do not find one that caters to your needs or interest, find out how to establish a student organization yourself. Design some programs and seek funding, invite members, you’ll love the process, they’ll thank you and you’ll be noticed. Nothing will go in vain! What you do on campus today will go a long way into your future life and career.
Beyond the classrooms and your professors’ offices and within the campus, there are many opportunities for academic and professional development. Start visiting the Career Development Center early on; they will help you plan and execute a career development plan so that when you graduate you are ready to go on the job market with confidence. Use the library, Writing Center, and other academic services in order to boost your learning. Go to workshops, guest lectures, and other events on campus in order to boost your professional growth. All the above services and events may not seem “necessary” for getting a degree but they will help you learn very important skills and more fully understand the broader context of higher education. They will help you prepare far better for when you graduate than if you limit to being a straight A student.
Among other methods of engagement, volunteering is highly effective in social integration because this also develops a sense of belonging with the community, and thus increases a self-recognition and self-efficacy among students (Manguvo, Whiteney, and Chareka, 2013). These experiences can be extremely useful for international students to thrive in the academic as well as social life.
Talking of student involvement in US universities, there is an old culture of fraternity and sorority-life, which often creates an insider-outsider dichotomy. Few international students go to these conventional places in order to learn American culture. As far as I know, these organizations may not be the best places for enhancing your academic and professional growth. However, you may want to learn whether these organizations can provide you with opportunities that you can benefit from. The point is to seek out places, events, and people in order to create opportunities for you to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.
Remember that you should not just assume that you are the outsider who needs to learn about the local cultures, institutions, and people. In today’s world, you should go multidirectional rather than unidirectional. For example, many local students are willing to learn about foreign cultures, so you can share your culture with them. Invite them to your cultural organization.
Let me add at this point that conventional views, even research/scholarship, about international students tend to be based on the idea that they are “outsiders” trying to gradually become insiders, or “legitimate” members of the academic, social, professional, and discourse communities here in the US (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This framework has some value, because we do try to learn how to perform like insiders. However, in today’s world, this view can be quite often inaccurate and unproductive. If you think about it, in a globalized world, you could be the “insider” in a variety of ways, as when you are helping local students understand social issues from your part of the world, add a more global perspective on an issue, play the devil’s advocate when local colleagues seem to consider something local as universal, etc. Even academically, you may be an expert in a subject area due to your past education or experience. In all these cases, the insider/outsider model becomes rather problematic. Indeed, one of the purposes that American universities admit international students is for the cultural enrichment of local students. I’m sure you have a considerable amount of knowledge about the world that can help you flip the outsider/insider positions, which will benefit both parties. Try it and you will like it!
But don’t limit your engagement within your department and the campus. Even if you can spare a small amount of time, find ways to engage with people outside campus whenever you can. Meeting people in places such as local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations will help you understand the local society and culture at large. Being connected to local people and understanding their lives and ideas can be extremely helpful in the long run, not only because the education system you are in is “situated” in that larger society but also because you are very likely to start doing your academic and professional work with the people outside the campus.
Whether it is within your department, in the campus community, or with scholars in your field at large, networking is extremely important. Never eat a lunch by yourself. This is what one of my mentors told me years ago and this mantra has proved to be a blessing. On campus, or in a conference, I approach to people, take interest in them, and find connections. You can save time, enjoy conversation, and build networks—while making your lunch taste better!
The main idea I am trying to suggest here is this: develop professionally, and for that, start early, be strategic, take one step at a time, and actively seek opportunities. Start working on your writing skills, both academic and other types. Start working on your presentation skills. Start finding and attending conferences in your field. Start proposing papers to present. Start networking with experts in your field. Start sharing the experience and expertise that you bring from your previous educational/professional career. Never tell yourself that your professional skills—writing, using technologies, communicating, presenting, networking, and so on—are limited “because” you are an international student. Tell yourself that if they are limited it is because, like any other student, you haven’t seriously committed to improving them yet. Start doing what you can. Plan and reach your goals, however small. With the support, resource, and opportunity that you now have—which you can reinforce with your passion and perhaps anxiety—you can turn any deficit into strength very soon. If you only look at the deficits, you’ll dampen your own aspiration. Look at your positive sides—you are resourceful. Dare! You can!
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Manguvo, A; Whiteney, S; & Chareka, O. (2013). The Role of Volunteerism on Social Integration and Adaptation of African Students at a Mid-Western University in the United States. Journal of International Students 3 (2), pp. 117-128.
Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tinto, V. (2010). From Theory to Action: Exploring the Institutional Conditions for Student Retention. Smart, J. C. (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, PP 51-89. Springer Netherlands.
Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 671-687.