Having spent two days in Raleigh, NC at the International-Domestic Student Summit of the ACS was awesome! The tips we learned on Monday from Dr. H. N. Cheng on how to communicate more effectively with our colleagues, and from Dr. Jodi Wesemann on why it is important that we start charting our career paths even as we are still many, many, many months away from finishing grad school as well as how we should go about this exciting task were eye-opening. I think everybody in this Summit will agree with me when I say that we learned skills we will all be making much use of in our careers for a very long time from these two excellent facilitators!
Yesterday's sessions focused more on challenges and difficulties international students face before, during, and even after they pursue their chemistry degrees in the different univesities and colleges in the US. The sessions also identified ways how the people around internationals can help alleviate some of the added burdens being someone from abroad adds on top of the daunting tasks of completing coursework, TAing, and of course, doing research. The morning session was facilitated by Dr. Darla Deardorff, who is quite an expert on international education, having worked, studied, and travelled across six continents. Among the more important things I learned from Dr. Deardorff is that breaking the language barrier is just the tip of the iceberg of international competence. There is so much more behind the words we speak. Even fluent speakers of English often mean different things when they speak with one another, mainly because we all come from a vast array of cultures.
The students were then divided into groups that identified steps that can be done at the local, national, and even the global levels to help internationals integrate better into the American environment. Some of these steps were actually quite simple, such as chemistry departments holding activities such as small sport events among graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and staff; colleges and universities explaining the roles international TAs play in helping educate undergraduate students, especially the freshmen; and domestic students helping their international counterparts deal with aspects of everyday life Americans take for granted such as getting a driver's license (some of the international students in the Summit said it took them THREE WEEKS of going back and forth to do this!), as well as opening bank accounts and how to avoid all the fees bank charge for every little thing one can think. I honestly think that some sort of a buddy system between an American and an international student early in their graduate careers can help the student from overseas adjust better to their new environment while at the same time giving the local student a unique opportunity to learn about life outside the US.
Other suggestions from the students may require much more organized efforts from many sectors. These include lobbying for greater transparency at the US embassies when processing visas (that's right! no one actually explains why an application for a US student visa is denied despite all the documents the university an international student intends to attend provides), making financial aid and scholarships a bit more available to international students (especially to undergrads who bring in their own money and pay two to three times as much as the in-state student does in tuition costs), and allowing more international students to pursue their careers here in the US (don't we want the best-trained people to remain in the country?).
I am really very grateful for having had the chance to be part of this Summit. I learned so much from all the facilitators and my student colleagues who also came here to Raleigh. Thanks a lot to Steven Meyers and Varsha Ramani for organizing this activity and bringing all of us together!