International students: 'The worst year but the best year'

Ohio State students from China to Syria navigate education, isolation and fear during a pandemic that impacts them in different ways.
International student with Brutus

Transcript of Podcast

Robin Chenoweth: November 15-19 is International Education Week. While 2020 was arguably one of the toughest years ever for students, here in the United States and the world over, it was particularly rough for one group: those coming to the United States to study. Jiarui Xie, from Xi’an, China, was one of those students.

Jiarui Xie: I graduated with a master's degree in 2019. So I applied for doctoral program in 2019. And luckily, I got the admission offer from the Ohio State University in 2020.

Robin Chenoweth: Xie was ecstatic to be accepted into the Learning Technologies doctoral program at Ohio State. But then, even before she got her offer, everything began to crumble.

Jiarui Xie: The U.S. consulate in China closed, so I couldn't get a visa.

Robin Chenoweth: With U.S. consulates shut down during the COVID pandemic, there would be no interviews to obtain F-1 student visas. No visa, no going to the United States. What followed for Xie and for thousands of students looking to study overseas can aptly be described as a daily ritual of angst.

Jiarui Xie: I checked the website every day. Checked website and watch the news to see whether the consulate to open.

Robin Chenoweth: The consulates didn’t open, for more than a year. Jiarui Xie: First, I’m very upset and I don't know, what should I do?

Robin Chenoweth: With the COVID infections spiking, and the world shutting down, Xie  was forced to either take online classes or defer her admission to Ohio State. She chose to defer. Not once, but twice. This is the Ohio State University Inspire Podcast, a production of the College of Education and Human Ecology. I’m Robin Chenoweth. Carol Delgrosso is our audio engineer. Kyle Bucklew is our student intern. The pandemic and politics put the brakes on international study for hundreds of thousands of students last year. It also left many international students stranded in the United States, forced to make the choice to stay — sometimes completely alone — or to return home and be shut out when classes resumed in autumn 2020. Ana-Paula Correia, a professor of learning technologies and Xie’s advisor, spent hours in virtual meetings, counseling her about her decision to defer. Then and now, she counsels her international doctoral students in the United States, still via Zoom to protect them. Correia empathizes with them because long before she became a naturalized citizen in 2011, she herself was an international doctoral student from Portugal. I’m wondering if you could talk through some of the stress that whole thing brought around the isolation, being compounded by the worry of COVID-19.

Ana-Paula Correia: I feel my students, international students are really feeling very, in a way trapped, and I'm sharing this with you, because they share with me. That sense of being claustrophobic, and not being able to go and attend to their families if they are needed, or just go to recharge, and refresh and come back to continue their studies.
That sense of the isolation really exacerbated with the pandemic. You know, we have families across the ocean, across the world. They get sick, they need our attention and our help and we just cannot do it. And the Zoom meeting will not do it.

Robin Chenoweth: The isolation was compounded by political rhetoric and xenophobia that made newcomers to the United States feel even more alienated. That exclusion predated the pandemic, Correia says. Was that a thing back when you were student? Xenophobia? Did it affect you?

Ana-Paula: Yes, of course! I know there was more recent statements and stories and voices about discrimination towards Asians, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. But that phenomenon, let me call it this a phenomenon of prejudice against people from other countries, has always been present. And again, I'm just talking about my experience, from my perspective. So feeling vulnerable and misplaced and somewhat perceived as a non-deserving person has been constant since I moved to the U.S. Especially when you open your mouth. If I keep my mouth shut, it's very convenient. But the moment I open my mouth and people notice an accent, things really change. I can feel the change in the physical space.

Robin Chenoweth: These moments happen in the grocery store. In the post office. Never in the inclusive environment that academia affords on campuses like Ohio State, Correia said. But it’s important to remember that outside of the campus bubble, things can be tough for international students, and even for faculty members who now call the United States home. PhD candidate Musbah Shaheen came to the United States eight years ago, a malleable freshman trying to find his place in a new culture at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He was so captivated by how college impacted people that he is now pursuing his doctorate in higher education and student affairs.

Musbah Shaheen: There was not a big Arab community at Vanderbilt. I was the only Syrian — literally the only Syrian. If you look at the stats, like Syria: One. Yes, that is me.

Robin Chenoweth: That was you.

Musbah Shaheen: That was me. I knew it. And so, there was no internal community to turn to. But the journey was often like trying to figure that out, and obviously formative for me because, here I am. I study this for a living now.

Robin Chenoweth: Did you feel isolated? Or was that part of it just because you didn't have a Syrian community to turn to?

Musbah Shaheen: Isolation is definitely real. One of my first memories in college was move-in day for other students because the internationals, we moved in earlier. And then there was the big move-in day, and everyone was coming to campus and all the parents and all the families and the cars and the excitement. I think that was one of the first moments when I, ‘Okay, well, I'm going to leave the res hall. Now I'm gonna go decompress elsewhere, and let the kids move in and unpack with their parents’. And of course, there's always the questions and people are excited to meet someone from a new country. I was both excited and also hyper aware that like, I'm new here. I'm different.

Robin Chenoweth: It was 2013, but there were still pressures on international students to conform. Shaheen, who was raised Muslim, remembers buying an artificial Christmas tree for his dorm room when all of his fellow students went home for the holidays and he stayed behind.

Musbah Shaheen: I had that tree with me in college for four years. That was just my tree. When I was a master student, I woke up one day. It was like, “This is stupid, why am I putting up …? It means nothing to me!” I like telling the story to people because, you think that you're going to be having isolation. You're going to be having trouble as an international student and having struggles in the first year or the second year in college. The truth is, I was still going through it even after I finished college and still learning about myself.

Robin Chenoweth: The pandemic hit when Shaheem was in his first year of his doctoral studies at Ohio State. That June, U.S. Immigration and Customs issued guidelines that it would not grant visas to international students unless they attended classes in person. The administration hinted it would deport students already in the States if their classes transitioned completely online. To Shaheem, the directive was overtly xenophobic. He penned an editorial for Inside Higher Education titled, “We Don’t Belong Here.” He wrote, “The new ICE guidelines will create a toxic dynamic for international students, our institutions and the United States in general.”

Musbah Shaheem: It was very exclusionary, and I think would have been hard for students to handle. I'm a PhD student, and I felt this sense of shame in a way that you become the topic of the restriction. When you were restricting on traffic into the country, the first thing we did was like, stop the international students from coming. I wondered what that might mean for a college student who is 19, or 20, and who's isolated. They can’t go back to their homes; they can barely go grocery shopping. Also, a lot of people on Twitter and on social media, were talking about just tangent policy and how it affects us. And then the policy was revoked or rescinded. And suddenly the chatter stopped, but the problems didn't stop.

Robin Chenoweth: So he wrote another op-ed, this one to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. He was thankful for the collective action to support students like him, he wrote, but we are not done yet. International students must be more deliberately supported. Did they have food or the means to buy it? Did they have support when they were sick?

Musbah Shaheem: Am I going to be able to go to the drugstore down the street and get my Advil? I don't have family here. There's no one who can bring me chicken soup.

Robin Chenoweth: He wanted professors to consider how international students were being impacted differently by online classes. Were language differences keeping them from speaking up? Since they couldn’t touch base by approaching instructors after class, were their questions going unanswered?

Musbah Shaheem: I was trying to get folks’ attention to the fact that some of the basic life things become much more difficult when you are from a completely different place in the world with a completely different understanding.

Robin Chenoweth: The truth is, when the pandemic shut down Ohio State’s campus in March 2020, it never fully shut down. International students were given the option to move to select dorms. Safety measures were put into place. Meals continued to be served to them. Emergency funds, if they needed them, were keeping them financially afloat. Yifan Zhang was then a second-year human development and family science student who was just hitting her stride and loving campus life. Inspire’s Kyle Bucklew talked with her about college life during COVID.

Kyle Bucklew: Is there a reason that you weren't able to get back home for the, I guess instructional break that we had?

Yifan Zhang: A lot of my friends, they went home. They want to go home like no matter what. Despite of like all the travel restrictions and how crazy expensive the tickets were going to be. They want to go home. Because their parents really want them to go home. So not many of us decide to stay here. I was one of them.

Robin Chenoweth: Zhang’s family is not wealthy. Airlines were shutting down routes. Flights were being rerouted and one-way tickets cost thousands of dollars.

Yifan Zhang: I decided to move off campus to one of my friend's apartment. That was really hard for me because I don't have a car to get to anywhere and then had to live off campus. I had to leave all the stuff I have on campus, like all the involvement and friends because of the pandemic. And I just feel like I just got into the track of getting to the college life and then it's all gone, all of a sudden.

Robin Chenoweth: And here’s where her education in human development and family science came into play. Zhang wants to become a therapist. She was self-aware enough to realize that she needed help in those bleakest days of the pandemic. She

called Ohio State’s Counseling and Consultation Services, which offers free counseling for struggling students.

Yifan Zhang: I know things could get harder and I might not be able to take them and then I kind of just don't want a mental breakdown to happen. I want a therapist. I wanted to have this backup.

Robin Chenoweth: Some of her friends back in China had either dropped out of college or were struggling to take certain synchronous classes at 2 and 3 a.m. because of the time difference. But here in Ohio, Zhang was finding her COVID silver lining.

Yifan Zhang: I got a job offer as a resident advisor on campus in a dorm. And if I go home at that time, I wouldn't be able to do this job on my third year. And I really wanted this experience. All my residents are domestic students; they are all in the animal science major because it's a learning community. I didn't know why they put me in there. But it was fun. At the beginning, my coworkers even told me that, “Oh, you gotta be prepared because, your residents are all like cowboys and cowgirls. You're an international student. You don't know anything about that. You got to be ready for them. They might be mean to you.” And I was kind of scared at the beginning. And then I found out my floor, they're really active. My girls, they're like super active, even though like it's COVID. My residents, they always hang out in the common area. Two of my residents, they got really close with me. And then I wrote them recommendation letters for their application to become an RA. And then they are RAs now. So, I'm really proud of them. And I'm really proud of myself for being able to have that experience on campus. That was the worst year but the best year as well.

Robin Chenoweth: The College of Education and Human Ecology teaches English as a second language to not just its international students, but to all Ohio State students who need English language training. Enrollment in those courses dropped 40% during the 2020-21 academic year, but is rebounding. Ivan Stefano directs a program that teaches 970 Ohio State students how to improve their English skills and also navigate university life.

Ivan Stefano: There's about a 55% increase this autumn, compared to autumn 2020. But it's still down about 15% compared to autumn 2019.

Robin Chenoweth: Several factors have helped facilitate renewed enrollment. U.S. consulates reopened in late spring began scheduling visa interviews for students. The
U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education issued a joint statement in support of international education.

Ivan Stefano: I've never seen anything like this before. And it shows that we as a country want to welcome international students.

Ivan Stefano: We have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, all the travel restrictions, the changing immigration rules. A statement like that from the government can hopefully restore the position of the U.S. as the top destination for international students to study. We have a lot of competitors in the world right now. Other countries want to have international students, too. I think things are looking up in this sector of education.

Robin Chenoweth: Just considering the economics alone, it makes sense to open paths for international students.

Ivan Stefano: According to the Open Doors report from IIE (Institute of International Education), and they got the data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2018, international students who studied in the U.S. contributed $45 billion to the economy. And of course, this trickles down to the local communities as well.

Robin Chenoweth: Statements are one thing, Stefano says. But the government, universities, faculty and even domestic students must find concrete ways to support international students. The English as a second language program has for years been a first-step resource for its students.

Ivan Stefano: Our teachers are trained to work with international students, with language, with culture, with college life. Sometimes our students would come to us to ask questions about how to get a driver's license or, where to rent a U-haul for example if they want to move. If a student is experiencing frustration or depression, we know there's a counseling service on campus that we can refer our students to. We're not an expert in that, but we can refer them to the service. And then we can encourage them to do that. So that's what we do. And then if they have questions about their visas, or immigration status, we always refer them to the Office of International Affairs. So, it's more than just language.

Robin Chenoweth: But as Musbah Shaheem pointed out in his editorial, one barrier removed doesn’t undo the need to remove others. We stand to gain so much if we tap into the rich perspectives and ideas that our international students bring to the table, if only we invite them there. Ana-Paula Correia.

Ana-Paula Correia: Just look around and see who are the researchers behind the COVID-19 vaccine? There are heterogeneous teams, with people with different backgrounds and coming from different countries. Complex processes can only be fixed, solved in a sustainable way, if learning is maximized by bringing people from different ways, walks of life, different home countries, different languages, different lifestyles, all kinds of heterogeneity. That's my belief. That's what I've seen myself in my entire life.

Robin Chenoweth: When her learning technology students use that principal to create heterogeneity in their work groups, the results are brilliant, she says. When they don’t, they lack originality. But domestic and international students have to emerge from their bubbles and learn from each other. And professors have to do more.

Ana-Paula Correia: It becomes a synergy of giving and taking.

Robin: What do faculty members need to do for their international students? Because this is a trying time. I mean, we're not through the pandemic yet. And we're still dealing with xenophobia, as you said.

Ana-Paula Correia: We just start communicating and just not pretend everything's okay. Because things are not okay. So let's not pretend things are okay. Let's just acknowledge. We always start our meetings by talking about the pandemic, always discussing strategies that they're using and feelings they are experienced. So my strategy, just talk with them about everything they feel comfortable talking.

Robin Chenoweth: International students crave meaningful dialogue with other students, Stefano says. Language barriers and fear — just the awkwardness of starting conversations — can prevent even domestic students from developing friendships. Isi Huebener is a first-year sport industry student from Germany and member of the Ohio State Women’s Rowing Team.

Isi Huebener: My English is starting to get much better, that is more easy to talk to each other. I think most of the Americans just ask questions to be friendly, and not to really be interested in what you're doing. So if they're really interested, they’re coming to you and ask different questions, I think. Or sometimes they don't want to be rude and just be friendly at the beginning. It's not that easy.

Robin Chenoweth: But after the year we all had, and the isolation they’ve faced, international students really need us to try. And we need it, too. What do international students wish other students would say to them? Musbah Shaheen.

Musbah Shaheen: Hey, let's get coffee, I'm really interested in in things about Syria, if you're comfortable talking. Wanna get some coffee? And like, I just want to hear more. To me that is such an inviting thing, and also prepares me mentally and emotionally.

Robin Chenoweth: We at Inspire like that idea. Have coffee with an international student. And by the way, things got better for Jiarui Xie, the PhD student who was forced to twice defer her admission.

Jiarui Xie: I found a job during that time. I taught an English course in a college in my hometown.

Robin Chenoweth: Then…

Jiarui Xie: Fortunately, the consulate opened in May this year. So I immediately made a visa interview appointment. And the process of the interview went smoothly and I got my visa.

Robin Chenoweth: She’s toured the campus, shopped at IKEA with Ohio State’s Global Experience group, visited a farm in Delaware County. She’s only waiting for an invitation to have coffee with you.

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