Navigating graduate school can be daunting for international students. From adjusting to a new academic culture to coping with the challenges of being away from home, speaking another language, and feeling isolated, international students face unique obstacles that can make their graduate school experience challenging.
I was born and raised in Venezuela and came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in 2013. While experiences with the Fulbright program vary, in my case, it was stressful but an incredible opportunity—and my only way of studying in the United States. I had the chance to meet scholars from around the world and receive important training for my professional career. As a Fulbrighter, I attended a five-month English course before starting my graduate program. The Fulbright program also financially supports recipients in the first two years of graduate school. Applying for the scholarship is a lengthy process that requires an interview at the US embassy in your home country, standardized English tests, medical reports, and letters of recommendation, among other things.
Since arriving in the US in 2013, my home country has faced economic, political, and social challenges that have led many citizens to leave. Some of them are students like I was at one point, and have chosen to study abroad for better opportunities. While studying abroad has been an exciting and rewarding experience, it also presents a unique set of challenges for Venezuelan students. My main goal when I was awarded the scholarship was to pursue a PhD to attain better opportunities within academia. I was already teaching in Caracas, but a PhD was the next step in my professional career. Internationally, academia differs; some international students may have been professors in their home country before arriving in the US, while American graduate students likely have not worked as professors prior to earning a PhD. In this article, I discuss the main challenges I faced as an international student in the United States and some strategies that worked for me as I navigated graduate school.
I didn’t have to face challenges that many of my peers encountered while in grad school, including pregnancy, requesting and being denied maternity leave, or family separation. While I had a fairly straightforward trajectory (completing coursework, attending conferences, passing my doctoral exams, and writing and defending my dissertation), the experience was challenging, due to language barriers, cultural differences, and changes to my immigration status.
- Language Barriers
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn English in Venezuela and attend an intensive English course in California before starting my PhD. Many international students will not speak English fluently in the first two years of grad school, making it challenging to communicate with peers and professors, understand course material, and participate in class discussions. It’s one thing to have a casual conversation in English. It’s another thing to start reading and writing in English for academic purposes. While I could read in English at the start of my PhD, my pace was slow compared to my peers or compared to reading in my native language, Spanish.
I will never forget an episode regarding the language barrier in my second semester. I was excited to work on a paper for a class and asked my professor about an idea I had for expanding the paper into a larger project. The professor told me right away that my English was not good and that it was best for me to finish a Master’s degree and return to Venezuela instead of pursuing a PhD. According to the professor, my paper was poorly written and not interesting. I thanked the professor for the opportunity to take the class, but I also switched my subfields. Unfortunately, that conversation left me thinking that my English insufficient to finish my PhD. Nevertheless, I was able to finish and, given time, the language barrier began to be less of a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my days when I just want to speak in Spanish or my English is simply not good. All I can do is be patient.
Another significant language barrier (which is really a lack of language) is the overuse of acronyms. Acronyms that may make sense to Americans can be problematic for international students not used to acronyms and abbreviations common in the United States. I laugh now, but often had to Google acronyms or abbreviations, including those used in class by professors, because I didn’t know the meaning!
Language barriers are not exclusive to the academic environment of international students. For instance, outside the classroom, it was daunting to ask over the phone and in English for a medical appointment. The first time I had to do that was during orientation week. I had the courage to dial the number of the medical center and try to make an appointment. I wrote down everything I was supposed to say. However, the response I received on the other end of the phone was not ideal. The person who answered told me my English was not good and hung up the phone. After that, I decided to go in person. At that time, I did not have a car or know anybody. So, I decided to walk the 45 minutes to get to the center and make the appointment in person. To this day, I hate speaking English on the phone!
- Cultural Differences
Different cultures have different norms and expectations, which can be confusing and overwhelming for students adjusting to a new environment. Students may need help adapting to new ways of learning and interacting with others, including neighbors and peers. While adapting to a new region can be daunting even within a country as large as the US, being immersed in another culture 24/7 can impact academic success. For example, being unable to walk to different places because you always need a car, or not being able to hug or greet people as you would do back in your country because that is a no-no here—these adjustments are difficult. These seemingly simple things are significant differences and, over time, can make it challenging to thrive in your new environment.
- Academic Background
When I decided to come to the United States, I was already working in academia, had teaching experience, and had some peer-reviewed publications in Spanish. Some professors in grad school did not respect my experience or my research ideas. This, of course, is not an issue confined to international students. Some professors thought that imitating my accent in class was funny and that diminishing my publications in Spanish was acceptable. I remember a professor—the same one who said that my English was not good—said that publications in other languages would not make any difference in the United States and that publishing in Spanish was not worth it. I spent many years in grad school thinking (wrongly) that this was true and that I needed to start from scratch in my academic career.
- Immigration Status
Oh my! This point is the most complex and most difficult for international students. Depending on your country of origin, your country’s political and economic situation, your immigration status, your visa category, and your prospects after graduation, your situation will radically differ from other students. Note: if an American wants to know how intricate the immigration system is and wants to find a way to understand how visas work, ask an international student. Over time, I became an expert. I even built my legal case to remain in the United States without a lawyer!
The immigration status of international students is complicated not only for students themselves, but also is not well understood by most Americans, including fellow grad students and professors. The type of visa and how long it is valid affects whether you can travel to a conference outside of the United States, travel back home for a visit, or do something as simple as renew your driver’s license.
As an F1 visa holder, you have restrictions on working outside the university, and there are work implications for partners (F2 visa holders) coming to the United States. The requirements change when you are a J1 or J2 visa holder. Becoming a Fulbrighter (likely a J1 visa holder) means that upon completing your graduate studies, you must return to your home country to complete the two-year residency requirement. After years of studies in the United States and potential opportunities, Fulbrighters are restricted from changing their legal status after their post-graduate studies or accepting long-term professional opportunities while in the United States. Understanding the requirements of and differences among visas is essential. The panicked moments I faced because I forgot to sign a form, request a form, or request a travel authorization added to the professional and personal stresses I had to deal with as an international grad student.
- The situation in your country has changed, now what?
Many international students have to face their countries’ political and economic situations changing while they are studying in the United States. These changes could be due to natural disasters or political dynamics.In my case, I left Venezuela in 2013, and since then, everything—politically, economically, socially—has changed for the worse. After 2013, many Venezuelans living abroad faced the reality of being undocumented (because they didn’t have an up-to-date passport) or had to deal with a temporary visa that did not allow them to travel. That was my situation. I could not go back to Caracas for years because I was unable to pay to renew my visa (or pay for an airplane ticket!). Given the economic sanctions on Venezuela, which started while I was in grad school, direct flights were no longer a possibility, and connecting flights were prohibitively expensive for a student. Also, trying to help relatives in need back in Venezuela became a part of my routine. Many readers may remember news about the lack of food, medicine, or basic things like toilet paper. This impacted every Venezuelan abroad emotionally and financially, even when we were not explicitly discussing the situation.
Being a grad student is hard and being an international grad student—even in the best circumstances—is harder. What can you do to navigate the many challenges you will face?
- Build a Support Network.
One of the most important things I did to navigate graduate school was build a support network outside my department. I networked with students from other departments and people from the Latino and Latin American communities. The friends I made outside my academic department were my rock and my family. Surrounding yourself with supportive people is essential. To this day, the most important people from my grad school years are those who encouraged me to continue my studies even when I thought I would not be able to make it or that I was not enough to get a PhD.
Another way I managed to build a support network was to connect with other international students within my department. When I arrived in the United States, no one was waiting for me. The environment was not welcoming, and I was lost with everything I was supposed to do. One thing I promised myself was that I would not become apathetic; I resolved to help other international students by extending a helping hand before they even arrived at the department. If there was a need to chat with a prospective international student, I would volunteer. I would also volunteer to host international students when they visited in person. I would check up on new students each semester and have coffee to discuss our challenges as international students (and also advise them about which professors to avoid!). These were fun—and, I hope, helpful— conversations all around.
- Familiarize Yourself with the Academic Culture.
Each university has its own academic culture, and international students may find adapting to a new academic environment challenging. That was the case for me, even as someone who had completed a Master’s and had already worked in academia in my home country. Take time to familiarize yourself with the academic culture at your university. Attend orientation sessions, speak with professors, and seek advice from other students to better understand the expectations and norms of the academic community. In my country, there are not as many resources for universities as in the United States. Take advantage of that; if you are unsure about things, ASK! Also, take the time to understand expectations. For example, I didn’t know that attending professors’ office hours was expected by some professors.
- Seek Support When Needed.
Graduate school is stressful, and international students may experience feelings of isolation or homesickness. On top of that, if you are studying in another language, it takes time to adjust to reading and writing in a second language. It is essential to seek support when needed. This can include speaking with a counselor (my advisor at the international student center was magnific!), joining a support group (in my case, friends outside my department were most important), seeking help at the writing center to review your work, and talking to friends and family members back home. Whoever is your support, connect with them.
- Take Care of Yourself.
A common expectation in grad school is that you will not have time for yourself. If you do, you are not doing things right, or you are not doing enough. That is the most dangerous thing I ever heard or experienced in grad school. I knew I was struggling while I was a student. Still, I took the time to manage my classes and activities in order to take advantage of therecreational center (the campus gym) and otheron-campusnon-academic services. Without a day off, I could not have survived the pressure. To this day, I make sure to take time for myself without caring about what others think about my “me time.”
Graduate school can be challenging for any student and can be particularly difficult for international students who may be far from home and dealing with cultural and linguistic differences. The importance of support during this time cannot be overstated. Support can come in many forms, including academic, social, and emotional support. Despite the challenges of being an international graduate student, it is possible to succeed with the right support. International students bring unique perspectives and experiences to the classroom. With academic, social, and emotional support, international graduate students can thrive and achieve their goals.
Featured image: MCB PhD class of 2014 by snickclunk, Creative Commons 2.0.
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