As a former international student and a current student affairs professional, I have been working to support international students in various capacities, as a teacher, an advisor, a success coach, and a mentor. It has been my passion to also advocate for a deeper, more holistic understanding of international students instead of stereotyping and problematizing this extremely diverse and resilient group of students. Thus, the messages from this book, International Student Engagement: Strategies for Creating Inclusive, Connected, and Purposeful Campus Environment by Chris R. Glass, Rachawan Wongtriat, and Stephanie Buus, regarding how to create campus contexts that foster a sense of belonging for international students strongly resonated with me. I’ve been sharing the following three messages with students and colleagues, and they are now validated with research presented in this book.
1. International educators need to adopt a new thought paradigm shift. They need to shift the focus away from the vulnerabilities of international students toward a more constructive focus on their resilience and strength. Scholarship on international students has traditionally focused almost exclusively on the risk factors or acculturation/adjustment issues which, while important, may contribute to and perpetuate a deficit discourse around international students. The newly emerging scholarly works on international students – using positive psychology and meaning-making process frameworks – suggest that it is more constructive and developmentally conducive to shift the focus to helping international students develop positive coping mechanisms and discover their own strength and resiliency. The adaptation of this paradigm shift will also re-frame the conversations about international students and re-conceptualize international students as adaptable instead of fragile, resilient instead of vulnerable, and active contributors instead of passive observers on their own journey. When my students confide in me about their experiences of feeling or being made to feel inferior, I often ask them: “Why would you feel inferior? How many of those people (domestic students/advisors/professors…) have ever had to go abroad to obtain a college degree in a foreign language, not just for one month or even one semester study abroad? It’s a tremendously difficult task, and you chose to come here and are making good progress, you should be very proud of yourself!”
2. Social capital and networking frameworks should be utilized to help international students solidify and forge positive connections with influential individuals/groups on campus that will provide resources for success. International student groups tend to operate through informal relationships and have community leaders who are well connected and respected by other students. According to networking theories, instead of the traditional modes of information dissemination such as emails or website announcements, international educators should reach out to build trusting relationships with these influential student leaders to engage them in the efforts to improve the sense of belonging for international students. In addition, the social capital framework suggests that international educators and campus leaders should be actively helping international student leaders create positive connections with clusters of students/faculty/staff that “exist at the core of the university’s social networks” (p. 88) to enhance their social capital capacity. Instead of taking a negative view of international student ethnic/heritage/national groups (“They always stick to their own” or “They are ghetto-izing themselves”), international educators/professionals/campus leaders should respect and value these groups as supportive communities for the students and make active efforts to reach out to these groups through their leaders to help integrate them into the influential circle of student/faculty/staff/administrator leaders.
3. Empowerment and enhancement of civic agency should be important educational goals for all students, including international students. International students should be considered as active citizens in the community and be encouraged to voice their opinion through collective actions. Just as with all students, international students should be included in programs that purposely develop the skills and capacity for students to advocate for their interests and values, and be part of decisions that are critical to their education. Capacity building is the key as the authors so succinctly and eloquently put it, “[s]tudent services quits serving students when it believes that a particular program is the solution, rather than a means of organizing international students to create a solution rooted in the capacity for international students to organize and act on their own behalf” (p.90). I believe it’s time we shift the focus to engaging these international student leaders in capacity building so that they can be an informed, constructive, and productive force to drive efforts/changes affecting them and their fellow international students personally and educationally.
International/global education has been touted to be an important strategic goal/mission for many higher education institutions, but are we ready and willing to develop our own skills and capacity to effectively serve the diverse population of international students? As educators/faculty/staff/administrators, maybe it’s time to adopt the new paradigm shift toward a more holistic, constructive, and socially just approach to international students’ engagement and sense of belonging. In working with international students on a daily basis in a wide variety of capacities, I have my fair share of the stereotypical “international student problems.” However, I also have the privilege of working with and mentoring outstanding international student leaders who are eager to engage with the larger campus community to improve the support networks for other international students. As a student affairs professional, I think the key is to take on opportunities to build genuine, trusting relationships with them and helping them make positive connections to relevant social capital resources. Also, it is crucial to be mindful of the multidimensional, complex, and diverse backgrounds, personalities, identities, and talents in these international students. Leveraging and cultivating the positive qualities (leadership skills, social skills, resiliency, social capital capacity, and civic engagement capacity) are the focus of the new paradigm, a strengths-based approach to international students.