Since the mid-1900s, the United States has been the destination of choice for international students, and each year almost half a million international students enroll in American universities (Haynie, 2014). These students typically arrive with clear academic and professional goals, but they may not have considered what it will be like to be functioning in a world where they rarely feel fully seen or understood. When these students leave their country of origin, they leave one world behind and yet do not quite belong to the new world in which they have arrived. They have been accepted based on their academic aptitude but little else may be known about them. This transition has particular implications for international students in graduate clinical training programs in mental health.
Students who are entering clinical training programs are quickly asked to engage in nuanced, culture-bound activities aimed at promoting clinical skills. Newly arrived international students suddenly find themselves in a place where they are speaking in a second language, adjusting to cultural nuances and engaging in some form of reflective practice. They are forced to negotiate an unfamiliar set of institutional and cultural rules while trying to build social connections with their host national counterparts. They must deal with unpredictable encounters, idiosyncratic communications, and problems of racial discrimination.
The current body of literature on international graduate students is primarily focused on academic experiences and achievements (Cole, 2010; Smith & Khawaja, 2011). A lesser body of research attends to the circumstances of their lives, circumstances that are affected by a number of different agents—educational institutions, faculty, supervisors, friend networks, and fellow graduate students (Gareis, 2012; Zhang & Goodson, 2011). The aim of this paper is to illustrate the personal and developmental experiences of a small group of graduate students enrolled in PsyD and MA psychology programs at the University of Denver.
By highlighting a collection of lived experiences, we hope to offer insight into the top three categories of concern: 1) language, 2) reflective practice, and 3) interpersonal connections. Based on these interviews, it appears these three areas of identity and functioning have significant impact on the individual identities of the international students. Specifically, by sharing the pain, struggle, joy, and hope of a few international students, we aim to highlight how the way they express themselves, understand themselves, and connect with others impacts the way they negotiate their identities and their relationships in graduate school. The desired outcome was to create a document that would capture the internal experience of international students in such a way as to help faculty and supervisors create learning environments that are not only safe, but mutually beneficial; a space where learning is reciprocal and bidirectional.
Language as identity/personal ways of knowing. It is generally agreed that language and culture are closely related. Language can be viewed as a verbal expression of culture. It is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Language provides us with many of the categories we use for expression of our thoughts, so it is therefore natural to assume that our thinking is influenced by the language which we use. The way in which individuals express and understand themselves is a huge piece of their identity. Asking international students how their native language impacts who they are and how they see the world should help faculty and supervisors get beyond translation issues into deeper facets of identity.
Our international students give support to the idea that, while at times language is indeed a barrier to connection and understanding, it can also be a gift. The difficulty is a non-native speaker can clearly see that the perception of themselves in other’s eyes is often skewed by the language barrier—thus the impact of being misperceived by others leads one to struggle with the development of clear perception of self. What is described is a dissonance; limited shared vocabulary creates a distorted perception of self to self and others:
So I feel like I speak English like a 10-years-old kid; when I speak Japanese I feel like a 30 year old man. I see two different personalities. I’d like my classmates know about it. When you don’t speak English good people may think ‘this guy is not really worth talking to’. I want to share but I struggle to understand how I can deliver my message properly. It takes time for me to understand what I want to say and how to express it. By then the topic has already gone. I imagine international students have good insight to share but don’t for reasons that I just explained. Classmates see this guy that doesn’t have anything to share. It’s not always true. You shouldn’t judge by the words but also you should try to draw out the insight. —International student, country of origin Japan
Every sharing is a new experience and challenge. . . Finding a balance is a strange feeling. The way people look at me makes me feel discouraged to ask questions and sometimes I feel like I am not smart enough. —International student, country of origin Taiwan
For these students, language is intimately connected to identity. They experience two different versions of themselves: The version that thinks, speaks, and reflects in their native language, and the English version of themselves, restricted by shallow vocabulary and more consuming language processing.
Yet, as students in graduate psychology programs continually hear, therapy is about the process. The presence of international students enriches the process of communication within the classroom as all parties involved explore their relationship to self and others through language, sit with discomfort and confusion, and practice cultural navigation skills required in therapy.
I always ask others to ask me to repeat or rephrase things. Sometimes I can see that this guy didn’t understand me and just let it go. You can tell from a facial expression and where a discussion goes. Sometime I just repeat myself even though they don’t ask. But sometimes I just let it go. It’s still challenging to be really connected with someone talking but I am really happy to be asked. Someone who knows I am so happy to be asked, they ask. —International student, country of origin Japan
Reflective practice/different concepts of self. Self-reflection is a concept to which many international students are not accustomed. When teaching about and prompting self-reflection, it is important to note that many international students do not understand what “self-reflection” means or what is being asked of them, and may have little knowledge about how to examine their perceived collective identity via individualistic identity prompts. International students should be given the opportunity to practice reflection at key points within their training, both on an individual and group basis, and receive appropriate feedback about how they are doing. Some of our participants expressed concern that there seems to be existing cultural stereotypes attached to international students regarding their ability to reflect:
They don’t get that self-reflection or self-awareness is associated with culture. —International student, country of origin Japan
Self-reflection is integral to psychology programs and training, and the experiences of international students offer a poignant reminder of the cultural influence, perhaps even the culture-bound nature of such practice. For some, they are being asked to reflect from a new center (that of the individual), and then share personal insights using a language level not sophisticated enough to accurately capture their truth:
I am from collectivist country and so self-reflection was pretty challenging. It’s not that I never had chance to reflect but just less opportunities to think about myself because society is more important than individual in our cultural mindset. —International student, country of origin Japan
I didn’t always know if what I was sharing was too much or not enough. I would look around and just see blank faces and in my mind I was thinking ‘stop talking’ but I also knew this was a huge piece of the clinical training. —International student, country of origin Taiwan
Despite feelings of discomfort, students recognized the value of self-reflective practice and described a willingness to engage with and learn from these experiences. Interestingly, one student described finding inspiration in the cultural divide and using American peers as models for self-reflection:
[Fellow classmates] are really good at reflecting and sharing their reflections with others. I was so impressed by that and I just wanted to be like that. I took that as a good opportunity to do self-reflection but there is pressure because they are really good . . . When the topic comes to self-awareness or reflection it’s hard. Sometimes partners are struggling to get something draw out from me so it feels like it might be a hassle to talk with me about some topics. I’d say that self-reflection is one cause of being, I don’t know, left out. —International student, country of origin Japan
This student’s experience highlights a place for reframing the cultural diversity from hassle to opportunity: an opportunity to practically engage the multicultural training students are receiving in their program, to explore their own reactions to communication challenges, and to process how cultural diversity plays out in therapeutically-minded conversations.
Facilitating opportunities for meaningful interaction. While international students simultaneously negotiate multiple dimensions of their own social identities as they deal with practical issues of language and cultural practices, they also have first-hand experiences with international and global issues that are often mere academic abstractions to many of their U.S. peers. Although international students discussed the challenges associated with negotiating these identities—and many mentioned distancing tactics and insensitive peer comments—they also shared experiences about how these difficulties contributed to more complex understandings of the world, of themselves, and of their relationships with others.
Students expressed appreciation for their immersive educational experience in the U.S., but also a need to connect with other international students. These connections are replenishing; students are able to return to the identity lost in translation, share experiences of being an international student, and gain respite from feelings of isolation:
Connecting with students like me is like an oasis. Being around so many American is a really good environment to learn something but sometimes I need to get rest and so talking with friends who are struggling with the same issues, or same situation, sharing what you are facing and what you are thinking under same circumstances was really helpful. It’s like an oasis in the desert. —International student, country of origin Japan
I found it useful to meet and talk with other international students about what I was learning and how I was thinking about the course material. I only wish there are resources to help us connect with other international students and mentors so that we could talk more about what we are learning. —International student, country of origin Hong Kong
It became clear that meaningful experiences of connection led to a sense of belonging which supported the international students’ resilience and sense that they had something unique to offer in class or small supervision groups. When professors and supervisors signal social inclusion and facilitate participation, international students take the opportunity to share differing perspectives with the group:
As an international student I bring to the table knowledge and a unique point of view that can differ widely from my American peers. English is my second language and used to be an obstacle to communication with my clients. However, I have the opportunity to be a role model showing that it is okay to seek help and that it’s okay to say I don’t know. If I don’t pronounce the word correctly, it’s okay to admit my mistakes and learn from the experience. —International student, country of origin Taiwan
I still experience cultural differences but I have more opportunities to learn from different cultures. I could speak for minority group and work on topics related to social justice. My language and cultural background can be my strength. —International student, country of origin Hong Kong
Conclusions and Recommendations
Integration is an intentional process to create community, but it has become clear that it is not sufficient to simply bring people together, even in the same classroom. By encouraging domestic and international students to engage with each other in ongoing interactions, characterized by mutual respect, responsibility, action, and commitment, all students can thrive. Based on the narratives examined for this project, it appears successful integration should include the following: 1) active facilitation and recognition that difference can be a gift in the classroom, 2) engaged intercultural modeling by faculty, staff, and supervisors, 3) assessment, evaluation, and mindful reflection of intercultural and global competence at all levels of the institution (individual, classroom, school), and, possibly most importantly, 4) movement from “contact with” and “celebration of” cultures to deeper layers of engagement and enrichment, leading to the creation of common ground.
Too often programming highlighting international students is limited to the one-time, big event. This event, which often takes the form of an international student fair or show, can be good in celebrating international students’ contributions to a department and perhaps can help a domestic student learn a bit about another culture or cultures, but opportunities for meaningful and transformative learning also need to be strategically integrated and applied. Given this, we must work hard to go beyond the big annual event and integrate more frequent, highly-interactive opportunities for domestic and international students to connect within and outside the classroom.