The value of an international student…besides the tuition they bring

What does it mean to be an international student in the US? It is like being an African American — you don’t know what its like unless you are one or have been one. The struggles, the freedoms, the metamorphosis you experience are all your own and very impactful. There are various factors that influence the years following your educational journey. Some of these have repercussions on the trajectory of your life. I know this from personal experience of having been an international student that graduated post 9/11. Some of these initial decisions are as follows:

What area of study you entered the country — If you came in for an MS in Computer Science in the 80s or 90s you are pretty well set with a strong career. If you came for a Masters in Art, you better find some viable career move where you can apply for a work visa.

What region of the country you chose to go to school in — If you chose to study in an urban university, chances of internships and jobs there on seem to be better. If you studied in a small town of a largely agricultural state, the job options locally are pretty limited.

The degree you are pursuing — Depends on the market boom. Where the jobs are being created and you have the skills to match them, be it technology, finance or law.

How you plan to pay for your education — Did you come here self-funded? If so, you a small minority that can make decisions without being weighted with the eternal question, “how will I pay back my student loans?” The weight of a student loan often makes you decide to take some job rather than the job of your dreams which may not be as stable or pay as much.

The other learning
Adjusting with language (even if you are a native English speaker), way of teaching, classroom culture and peer dynamics (would you fit into the study group?) is a whole other kind of learning besides the actual degree you pursue. All through your time in this country, you are learning. A new way of life which includes how the hiring process works, how you need to shine in any and everything you do. Post-graduation, an international student has a limited amount to find a job that would hire them and vouch for them as the ideal candidate for who they apply for a work visa. So you better be a super-duper star and win those awards. The stakes are too high for you to not stand out. Work harder, be more present, be less absent, create faster, show your uniqueness, don’t always display your roots…. the list of these untold pressures is as extensive as the experience of each international student.

What international students bring to the classroom
In the long years of teaching I have seen on thing to be true. And that is the fact that international students enrich the classroom. They bring a unique perspective to a situation. They veer the conversation to accommodate their own realities. They question and often expand the viewpoint for their peers. Critiques become interesting as local students have to explain something so commonplace for them and international students have to understand why the market accepts or rejects certain products/ ideas. Especially in a creative classroom which is never held back by geographic boundaries. students begin to understand what languages are universal and what part of the communication needs to become local. My lectures and projects have to accommodate these varied learning styles too.

I often require students to play games like “charades” in the classroom. Teams mixed up with local and international students are a pleasure to experience. The exercise displays varying mental models at play so students face frustrations but also understand that we live in a global economy. And not everyone thinks the same way about how to act out “running water”. We have to learn to speak to each other. Not just with written or spoken language. Teamwork usually after this initial speed bump is helped greatly.

I cannot imagine teaching a class which is lacking of varying perspectives, life experiences and points of view. It is the diversity that makes teaching fulfilling. How else would I have ever learned that monkey brains are a delicacy, the recipe for tea eggs or the trick to layering a true authentic Baklava?

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