Jenny Baker
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International Students in I-O Psychology: Sharing Experiences and Providing Support

Xinyu (Judy) Hu and Alecia Santuzzi, Northern Illinois University; Sharon Glazer, University of Baltimore; Seulki Jang, University of Oklahoma; Marcus Dickson, Wayne State University; Elsheba Abraham, Virginia Tech; Bisi Atoba, Texas A&M University; Jessica Chackoria, DePaul University; Claudia Marina Della Pona, Roosevelt University; Nathan Iverson, California Baptist University; Ashley Soohyun Lee, Baruch College; Susana Gomez Ornelas, Roosevelt University; Kareem Panton, Hofstra University; and Lorena Solis, University of Calgary

The COVID-19 pandemic not only changed the world of work, but it has also impacted higher education. Specifically, international students, making up about 5.5% of the total U.S. higher education population and a $44b national export (International Trade Administration, n.d.), experienced uncertainties and challenges related to continuing their education in the USA during the pandemic. A survey conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE) during the coronavirus outbreak reported that the majority (92%) of international student respondents remained in the USA following the outbreak, whereas the rest either paused their education with a U.S. institution or continued taking classes remotely in their home countries with various technical difficulties (Martel, 2020). In addition, a new directive released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 6, 2020 regarding requirements for international students to remain in the USA for education suddenly created the threat of deportation and risks of COVID-19 exposure for those students. The directive also conveyed a sense of unwelcomeness to a large portion of international students and increased discriminatory rhetoric against specific racial or ethnic groups. This also placed significantly more demands and challenges on university faculty and staff to respond with flexible curriculum design and providing sufficient emotional and social support for potential psychological distress among international students (Redden, 2020). Though this directive was rescinded shortly after, international students are still facing both visible and invisible challenges in terms of virtual learning, travel restrictions, anti-immigrant rhetoric, barriers to career opportunities, and uncertainties of the future.

As universities and graduate programs continue to respond to many changes introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative not only for educators and domestic students to understand the new challenges these students face during their educational journeys in the USA and other countries, but also to cultivate an inclusive and safe environment for international students to voice their concerns and share their experiences. Therefore, we organized an alternative session titled “International Students in I/O  Psychology: Sharing Experiences and Providing Support” in a combined roundtable and panel discussion format in the 2021 SIOP Annual Conference, which provided a platform for current and former international students, domestic students, and graduate program staff (including program directors and faculty members) to discuss key challenges faced by international students and ways to support them, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, this session focused on two goals: (a) sharing international student experiences and (b) creating a space for educational programs and the broader academic community to show their support. During the first half of the session, Dr. Seulki Jang shared her personal experiences of overcoming various hurdles as an international graduate student and academic scholar. Her personal stories resonated with many attendees and helped stimulate our first small group discussions on challenges and concerns international students have faced and advice for future international students. Dr. Sharon Glazer then shared her research on international students’ experiences of acculturation and adjustment, which inspired further discussions on how we could move I-O psychology research forward in supporting international students.

The session attracted many international students and scholars from a wide range of countries (e.g., China, India, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea). The discussions generated many important insights on existing and emerging challenges, as well as potential recommendations for international students and graduate programs to address those challenges. Below we elaborate on specific challenges and recommendations that emerged from the session.

Sharing Experiences From International Students

Language Barrier and Social-Cultural Adjustment

Consistent with findings from a 2018 survey of international students in the SIOP community (Gisler et al., 2018), language barriers and social-cultural adjustment continue to be recognized as two major challenges in academic learning and socialization among international students. In terms of language barriers, many I-O students found that reading articles in English can take a longer time. Engagement in class discussion and even social interactions with peers could be difficult when using a second language or new cultural communication norms. These challenges could be attributed to anxiety of public speaking in a non-native language coupled with the time and additional mental energy required to translate and understand others. Dr. Seulki Jang offered some recommendations for overcoming the language barrier during graduate school. For example, she found that listening to TED talks or NPR news in the morning or during a commute helped improve speaking and listening skills. She also suggested setting a writing and reading goal for each day or joining groups to support writing and reading skills.

Related to social and cultural adjustment, many of our SIOP session attendees mentioned that they have experienced difficulties in feeling connected especially during the first year of graduate school, as most graduate students in I-O programs are domestic students. However, many also noted that intentionally connecting with others, joining various social groups, and soliciting social support from peers were helpful strategies for adjusting to the new environment. Linking to Dr. Glazer’s presentation of her research findings, I-O international students’ perceived congruence with values endorsed by U.S. students is positively associated with social-cultural adjustment for international students. Note that, as a self-selecting group that chose to pursue higher educational degrees in a different country, perceived value congruence among international students did not differ much from perceived congruence among domestic students (Glazer et al., 2018). Thus, in addition to recommending proactively seeking communities (academically or socially), we also suggest domestic students and graduate programs provide more comprehensive orientation programs or cultural activities to enhance both international and domestic students’ understanding of cultural values and reduce uncertainty and anxiety during social interactions.1

Immigration Status Restrictions and Discrimination Issues

Many students from I-O psychology programs are eager to seek job opportunities to gain applied experiences and obtain financial support both during graduate study and postgraduation. However, international students continue to face challenges in finding and securing job offers due to their immigration status restrictions and unfair treatment in the job search process. Specifically, international students (on F-1 visas) are only allowed to work off campus after 12 months of being active in a graduate program and are limited to working a maximum of 20 hours per week throughout the academic year, including summers. Toward the end of their program, students may apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a 12-month temporary employment authorization to work in one’s major area of study; STEM majors could obtain an additional 24-month extension, though the majority of I-O psychology programs are not designated as STEM (see next section for more details). This process introduces another source of stress because of the uncertainty associated with the preparation of paperwork, processing time, and resources needed for the job search. Adding to these typical challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the processing time (from around 90 days to 150 days or more). Many international students often feel a lack of control and anxiety due to these restrictions, which gets compounded with the typically experienced stress of graduate study. Some students in the SIOP session provided a few recommendations to enrich and gain relevant experiences while waiting for approval of OPT work authorization and seeking employment opportunities, such as working or volunteering in research labs, preparing research manuscripts or conference submissions, and preparing job applications during “off season.” Others also suggested the importance of attending to one’s psychological well-being during the job search process.

Not only is immigration status a stressor, but also it affects fairness in the job search process. Many international students have experienced biases against their nonpermanent resident status and harsh or subtle discriminatory comments related to their nationality, race, or religion during the interview process. It is important to recognize that discrimination based on demographic and other background characteristics can manifest differently across nationalities. For many international students, their encounter with discrimination due to their foreign status in a new country may be a first-time experience. As diversity, equity, and inclusion are increasingly emphasized in institutions, professional communities, and organizations, we recommend that international students and scholars also be represented in key committees for international voices to be heard (e.g., SIOP’s International Affairs Committee).

Providing Support From Graduate Programs and the Academic Community

Challenges faced by graduate program support staff are often not central to the discussions about international student education. One necessary step is for graduate programs to raise awareness among faculty, staff, administrators, and domestic students about common hurdles international students face. Programs may need to plan ahead to be sure they allocate sufficient resources (e.g., graduate assistantships) for international students and facilitate curriculum designs and implementation of support systems (e.g., mentoring programs) that accommodate international students’ needs. The COVID-19 pandemic also instigated more virtual learning, heightened racial rhetoric, and increased difficulties in the graduate school application process. Examples to counteract these challenges include graduate programs intentionally exploring the feasibility of flexible learning methods (e.g., hybrid) and providing accommodations in selection of international applicants, such as the use of standardized testing scores, to offer sufficient resources and opportunities during the application process (Woo et al., 2020). To mitigate social biases, coursework could highlight cross-cultural and international I-O psychology content to facilitate the understanding of current social problems and movements (Griffith & Wang, 2010).

Although typically beyond the scope of a graduate program’s control, some participants noted the value of a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code for international students. Having a STEM designation could qualify an international student for a 24-month OPT extension, which would give both international students more time to navigate the competitive job search process and employers more flexibility before having to commit to paying for a work visa. Despite the heavy focus on quantitative analyses and psychometrics, many I-O psychology programs currently do not qualify as a STEM program. Program directors across the USA wrote and cosigned a letter for SIOP to advocate the urgency of this issue in providing opportunities for the enlarging international student population in the SIOP community. In addition, such challenges around work authorization may exist outside of the USA. We suggest that this discussion could also take place in graduate programs and I-O psychology communities in other countries so that we can collectively improve international student experiences globally.

International students continue to make up an increasing proportion of the SIOP community; thus, providing a platform for international students to actively voice their concerns in a safe environment while networking with others is imperative to facilitating an inclusive environment in our community.

Note

[1] Several academic and professional communities have emerged in the field of I-O psychology: Blacks in I/O (linktr.ee/blacksinio), Latinos in I/O (linktr.ee/latinosinio), SIOP Student Group on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/siopstudentgroup/), Asians in I/O Psychology on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9058893/).

 

References

Gisler S., Gray, B., Roman, J-L., & Rothstein, E. (2018). TIP-Topics for students: The top five challenges international students in I-O face and how to overcome them. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 55(3).https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/TIP/TIP-Back-Issues/2018/January/ArtMID/20640/ArticleID/1433/TIP-Topics-for-Students-The-Top-Five-Challenges-International-Students-In-I-O-Face-and-How-to-Overcome-Them

Glazer, S., Roach, K. N., Carmona, C. R., & Simonovich, H. (2018). Acculturation and adjustment as a function of perceived and objective value congruence. International Journal of Psychology, 53(S2), 13–22. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12554

Griffith, R. L., & Wang, M. (2010). The internationalization of I-O psychology: We’re not in Kansas anymore…. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 48(1), 41–45.

International Trade Administration. (n.d.). U.S. education service exports. https://www.trade.gov/education-service-exports  

Martel, M. (2020, May). COVID-19 effects on U.S. higher education campuses: From emergency response to planning for future student mobility. Institute of International Education. https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Publications/COVID-19-Effects-on-US-Higher-Education-Campuses-Report-2

Redden, E. (2020, July 9). An “untenable situation.” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/07/09/harvard-and-mit-sue-block-new-rule-international-students-and-online-enrollment   

Woo, S. E., LeBreton, J. M., Keith, M. G., & Tay, L. (2020). Bias, fairness, and validity in graduate admissions: A psychometric perspective. Unpublished working manuscript. https://psyarxiv.com/w5d7r/download/?format=pdf

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