Last week, I was coaching an international alumni working in the US who asked me if she would be safe to work in the US even though she already has an H1-B visa. Will that change? What should she do? Should she expedite her permanent residency process? She was truly concerned. Another student I know, who was speaking Spanish on the street, had someone yell at him, “stop speaking that f******g Spanish. Trump is the President now.” The fear is palpable for many. And it’s understandable. It’s not just a figment of their imagination.
During November of a typical academic year, new international students start their deep descent into the darkest time of their acculturation to the United States. This is when overwhelm, self-doubt and depression can really take hold for new international students. Between November and December is when many of the students who have interned with my firm, “fall off the grid”. They start calling in sick. It’s hard to reach them. They don’t respond to emails. The only way I’ve gotten through to some of them is a simple text that says, “please text me to let me know you’re ok.” Thank goodness, they’ve responded. But often I won’t see them again until January, after the break. Few will discuss what really happened during those dark months, but they’ve somehow nursed themselves back to a version of their old self. And admirably, they soldier on for the rest of the year
This Fall, I worry even more for international students because of the election last week. I’ve seen a degree of sadness and fear permeate American individuals after the Presidential Elections that I’ve thus never witnessed in my lifetime. I’m still sorting through the underlying causes of this deep sorrow and malaise that seem to have swept through so many lives.
In the immediacy, I worry particularly for the international students who are feeling more vulnerable than a typical year and yet, as we know, will not reach outside their community to seek comfort and support.
Advisors and faculty are the extension of these students’ families. Most students don’t have family here. I think it’s incumbent among us – the staff, advisors, faculty, coaches – to proactively reach out to these students so they know they are cared for, that we are safe people with whom they can share their anxieties, who want to offer help and advice. Indeed, fellow American students should be encouraged (and trained) to extend extra support to their international classmates at this time. They are in contact with international students the most.
University advisors, faculty and coaches must do the outreach to international students because students may not feel secure about who is “safe and who is not safe” to talk to. Given the results and how scared many Americans are feeling, one must amplify that fear for international students and all students who are visibly not representative of the majority. Many of us may feel ill about this reality. But it is a reality we must face. For the sake of our students.
Below, are suggestions for you to help international students (and students of difference). Efforts can be coordinated within and across departments. But I also believe each of us can be an explicit point of “safe contact” for any student on campus. Our observation of a student in our class, walking on campus, can give us the clue of a student in need.
- Clearly define unacceptable behavior, in a scale from “rude” to “harassment” for international students. The concept of having “the right to not be harassed” is new to many. Detail actions international students can take if they are confronted/harassed, from the informal (talk to a trusted advisor) to formal (e.g. an Ombudsman, Dean’s Office). Assure them that their complaints will be taken seriously and that authority figures of the university want to help
- Faculty members – are particular students not coming to class with increased frequency? You can contact your academic advisor counterpart to report this. Or you can contact the student yourself, and simply “check in”. Something as simple as, “I haven’t seen you in class and I want to make sure you are doing ok. Indeed, there is much going on at this time of the year. If I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
- Academic Advisors – consider organizing outreach efforts to students to “check in”. Meet with professors to see if there are any unusual absences or discussions in class. A simple “tea time with students” could be a great way to give students a “face-saving ” reason to show up in your office – and hence, an opportunity to start a conversation. Many international students will not want to explicitly tell you they have issues, but if you offer a low-key event, it’ll give them permission to ask.
- Career Advisors – because this is a time of intense job search related activities, organizing a “check-in” /”advisor coffee chat” / “drop-in-and-chat about your search” could be great “excuse” for students to engage with university staff. Email students individually to invite them. They yearn that individual attention. Once there, you can broach about the broader topics regarding their wellness and feelings given the election results.
- Coordinate “meet and greet” outreach to clubs with high international student populations – students have often told me they prefer to not expose their weaknesses, and thus tend to under-seek help. Advisors / staff / faculty can host talks related to a “professional topic” where students would be able to “save face” and show up. You can then start / shift the topic to check in on their wellness and to get a pulse on how they are feeling without explicitly doing so.
- Leave around “easy to discretely pick up” information with confidential resources students can use if they are feeling atypical levels of anxiety –in the restroom and lounge areas. Detail explicit signs of stress and anxiety so students can normalize their anxieties and feel okay to approach an expert for help. Send emails / messages on social media so it’s seen as a “normal” issue.
- Talk to student leaders of clubs to get a pulse. Provide them with resources to give to their classmates. Give them your cell numbers so they can contact you in case they know another student that needs help.
- Identify the “weak links” where students could get approached (in public transport / walking to campus / project teams / restrooms / school events / etc) – and devise strategies to increase their safety.
- Get training from your mental counselors so you know signs to look for that indicate stress / withdrawal / depression
- Communicate with parents through official newsletters and updates so they know their children are being cared for. Give them resources that their children can utilize in the university
- Increase your Office’s points of contact on campus for students to broach / engage / utilize support. Set up tables. Eat in the cafeteria. Read in the student lounge. Make it easy for students to approach you.
- Solicit the support of American students and general interest clubs. Help American students understand why this can be particularly challenging for international students, especially those who are visibly different (e.g. those wearing hijab, speak non-English language in public, are dark-skinned)
This is an extraordinary time in our country and thus an even more poignantly extraordinary time for your all students, including international students. Indeed, staff and faculty are the substitute for students’ families. It’s an opportunity for each of us to reach out and assure these students they are welcome in our country, warmly embraced on our campuses, and cared for as a group and as individuals.
Every act of kindness and engagement from each of us, matters.
If I can be of further support for you and your students, please don’t hesitate to contact me.