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International graduate students lack sense of community

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While the Bechtel International Center frequently helps international graduate students with practical issues such as obtaining visas and completing employment training, the center has struggled to offer those students an equally important aspect of the Stanford experience: a sense of community.

Photo courtesy of Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News
Photo courtesy of Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News

Stanford’s international graduate student population has increased dramatically in recent years, with internationals currently making up approximately 30 percent of the graduate student population. However, John Pearson, Bechtel’s director, expressed concern that the international graduate community has become less cohesive as the population expanded.

“What we’ve seen are very strong, supportive, active international student organizations based on country,” Pearson said. “Beyond that, though, is what can Bechtel do, or maybe other offices, to think about what it means to be an international graduate student more globally, not based on your nationality but based on the fact that you’re an international graduate student.”

Pearson partially attributed the declining sense of community to the creation of on-campus graduate student housing. International students had previously often used Bechtel as a meeting place or hangout spot instead of just a location for events, according to Pearson.

“When you’ve got more and more international graduate students living on campus, Bechtel’s place in their lives changed a little bit,” he said. “Rather than being a kind of drop-in place, it becomes a place where we have more programs.”

According to Roshan Shankar M.S. ’13 MPA ’14, Bechtel is located relatively far away from many of the graduate student residences, making it more difficult for international graduate students to attend the center’s events.

Shankar, who interacted almost exclusively with other Indian students during his first two months at Stanford, said that many students participate only in programs within their ethnic community. These events are often hosted by one of many different graduate cultural groups instead of being hosted by Bechtel.

“There are a lot of voluntary student organizations that do a lot of events, but most are either divided by their ethnicity, their country or special interests,” he said. “When you come from a different county and spend four years of undergrad in a different country, you are sort of accustomed to the way things are back home and tend to flock to the people from your home country.”

Ateeq Suria M.S. ’13 Ph.D. ’16—the international student representative on the Graduate Student Council (GSC)—agreed.

“People from certain backgrounds tend to initially hang out with people from their culture,” Suria said. “When students are new and experiencing culture shock, they feel more comfortable being around students who they can communicate with on a more comfortable level.”

Although Shankar, Pearson and Suria all agreed that self-segregation inhibits the formation of a cohesive international graduate student community, they had different proposals for how to draw the community together.

Shankar suggested restructuring the international graduate orientation to more closely resemble the undergraduate New Student Orientation. According to Shankar, one of the primary differences between the undergraduate and graduate international student experience is that graduate students have to “actively seek out” events to connect with the international community, which can be difficult for introverts.

“There is a whole welcome party [for undergraduates], the Resident Assistants stand outside and make them feel at home,” Shankar said. “When I came to Stanford, I had to go to the housing desk and pick up my keys and go to my place alone. You have no contacts here, and that’s sort of overwhelming.”

Pearson agreed that the transition to life at Stanford can often be difficult for international graduate students and said that Bechtel hopes to host more events in partnership with the GSC to provide opportunities for international students to socialize.

According to Pearson, Bechtel administrators have also had less time to plan events since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because administrators have had to focus more on the regulatory aspects of bringing international students to campus. Pearson said that Bechtel has only recently been able to focus on programming again, having hired a part-time program coordinator this year.

However, Suria said that he believes the problem is not a lack of events but rather poor attendance at those events. He suggested that the events could be marketed better and further in advance, asserting that many students struggle to find time in their schedules for last-minute events.

“Perhaps the events could be scheduled months ahead of time and students could be told about them before they arrive at Stanford so that they can plan for them,” Suria said. “There is always space to do more, but at the end of the day, the responsibility is on the students to go to the event.”