University News

International grad students adapt to campus, country

Graduate School adds new referral system to ease transition for international students

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thirty-seven percent of the graduate student population is made up of international students, and that percentage will grow to 40 percent with next year’s incoming class, wrote Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Medical Science Andrew Campbell in an email to The Herald. The representation of international students among the graduate populace has grown faster than the domestic graduate student population due to the University’s work to “raise its global profile,” Campbell wrote. These students face a unique set of challenges, such as obtaining proper documentation, understanding American norms and finding affordable accommodation on College Hill.

Bureaucratic challenges

In order to study at the university, international students must first obtain either an F1 or J1 visa. While an F1 visa is granted to students funded personally or by outside sources, a J1 visa is granted to those funded by the University. These visas enable the students’ spouses to obtain an F2 or J2 visa, though the F2 visa does not allow dependents to hold gainful employment, according to the U.S. Department of State website. This can lead to financial difficulties for couples who must rely on only one source of income, said a married Canadian graduate student at a graduate student input session earlier in the semester.

The visas that international graduate students receive allow them to work no more than 20 hours a week and impose regulations on the types of jobs they can hold, wrote Inge Zwart GS, an American studies PhD candidate and the Graduate Student Council’s international student advocate, in an email to The Herald.

The Office of International Student and Scholar Services also aids in the visa application process. The OISSS “was very helpful (in) figuring out the process and getting all the paperwork in order,” wrote Sanne Verschuren GS in an email to the Herald.

Rajeev Kadambi GS, a fifth year PhD candidate in political science, found that acquiring a visa was a simple process. He simply followed  the rules and procedures of U.S. immigration from his home country, India, he wrote in an email to The Herald. He added that he knows other students who were unable to obtain visas or travel to the United States due to “internal political troubles” in their home countries.

Another unique challenge international students face is complying with bureaucratic procedures that come with studying abroad. “Moving to another country often leaves you stuck in between (at least) two systems of taxing, government and other bureaucratic work,” Zwart wrote. She added that filing tax forms has been a complex process. Other challenges completing paperwork for visa regulations, filing for a social security number as a non-US citizen, obtaining official translations and providing proof of sufficient funding. 

Verschuren also cited extra paperwork as a burden. In order to obtain a visa and pay taxes while living abroad, she had to fill out many forms and coordinate with the American embassy in Brussels, she wrote.

Cultural and linguistic barriers

Some international students face unique cultural barriers upon arriving to Providence. For Zwart, trying to adapt to social norms in the United States elicits “a constant feeling of unfamiliarity,” Zwart wrote. She added that she finds it difficult to understand relationships with other Americans, as well as American humor. Being back home, Zwart felt “much more relaxed” both in public and private spaces.

International graduate students also face language barriers. “Once I was in the States, I all of a sudden had to get used to repeating myself and speaking up and (more clearly),” Zwart wrote, adding that “there is definitely a certain insecurity that comes with that, especially in writing, too.”

The University provides language support with English Language Learning services through the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, which offers individual appointments and group workshops, Campbell wrote. As part of these services, a staff member was recently hired as the English language learning specialist to offer help in writing and speaking.

The University also offers English support for the International Teaching Assistants program, which “helps ensure that our doctoral students are prepared to succeed in their teaching roles,” Campbell wrote.

“It is normally the cultural changes that are harder,” Kadambi wrote, as a certain proficiency in English is “required as criterion for admission.”

“As an international student, one arrives in a new place, new culture (and) new system of work,” Suvaid Yaseen GS wrote in an email to The Herald. “It takes some time to adjust.”

Housing and healthcare

For Yaseen, finding housing was the most difficult challenge to overcome. He arrived in early August in order to find accommodations but found housing to be “not exactly ideal,” he wrote. The University offers housing to graduate students through the Office of Auxiliary Housing, but “University accommodation is expensive as compared to (off-campus housing),” Yaseen wrote. He added that if the rates were comparable, university housing would have been an easier option, especially for his first year in Providence.

University graduate housing is “very limited and expensive,” wrote Zwart, who listed Google, Zillow, Craigslist and the Graduate Student Listserv as helpful resources for graduate students going through the process.

As an international student, Zwart has had to explain to landlords her lack of a social security number as well as provide proof that she would have enough money to pay rent each month, she wrote.

For most graduate students who receive funding from the University in the form of a stipend, healthcare is part of that package, Zwart wrote. Master’s students do not receive stipends and therefore must use the University’s insurance or provide an alternative.

“Health insurance is a system completely alien to me,” wrote Yaseen, who uses the university-recommended healthcare.

Outreach efforts

The Graduate School organizes a two-day pre-orientation for first-year international students, Campbell wrote. Starting in 2014, the Grad School “expanded orientation and increased its collaboration” with the Office of Campus Life and Student Services and the OISSS, Campbell wrote. He added that the Office of Global Engagement has launched a “new one-stop referral system” called Global Brown Community and Support, which is a system “designed to help international students, faculty, staff and visitors on campus in addressing their needs.”

The grad school and Office of Global Engagement are “collaborating on new outreach efforts,” such as the workshop for international graduate students called “Unpacking Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S.,” Campbell wrote.

As international graduate students continue to constitute over a third of the graduate student community, many international student groups have been founded for the purpose of providing support and fostering community, Zwart wrote.

The University recently founded a Community Fellows program, which will help build a community for international students, Campbell wrote. The Grad School also plans to increase engagement with international graduate students by offering an international student feedback session in the spring “to get a better understanding of issues from their perspectives,” Campbell wrote, adding that he believes this session will become an annual event.