Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part IV
Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of society in North America and around the globe, including higher education. In the past few weeks, graduate student contributors have shared their perspectives on how this crisis has affected their personal and professional lives, reflecting on the importance of fostering empathy and community, mental health struggles and survival strategies, and activism.
While all graduate students have been affected in myriad ways, part four of our series focuses on the experiences of international graduate students, many of whom face heightened challenges, from a lack of local and familial support networks and a recent surge of xenophobia, to travel disruptions and bureaucratic complications that make it impossible to predict whether returning home may mean being unable to continue their programs. Challenges extend also to U.S.-based graduate students doing research abroad, who have had to abruptly return to the U.S. due to federal travel guidelines. As the representatives of a community of researchers and instructors of various linguistic and cultural traditions, the Modern Language Association’s Executive Council recently recommended that institutions “provide legal and other material support to international students and scholars” during this difficult time. The following contributors’ reflections echo the need for such support.
Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Connecticut
As an international graduate student in the U.S., I am part of a large demographic that often faces a more severe form of precarity than its American counterpart. Without intending to downplay the extent to which all graduate students occupy a much lower rung on the academic ladder when compared to most faculty, I would like to emphasize the delicate situation in which international students find themselves in the time of COVID-19. As graduate students across the United States organize to have the value of their labor recognized and their needs addressed by the universities that benefit from their research, teaching, and service, it is important to highlight that a subset of this same population is currently contending with a heightened threat to their professional lives and emotional well-being.
As a member of this subset and a Ph.D. candidate on an F-1 visa, I am caught between closing borders; it is nearly impossible for me to leave the United States now to visit my mother in India, who is recovering at home from a surgery and is, therefore, immunocompromised. If I make the decision to be with my mother, I might not be able to gain entry to the U.S. because of my visa status and the various recent travel bans that have been enforced (quite justifiably) by the Department of Homeland Security and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. My re-entry into the U.S. is also contingent upon when and if this pandemic ends and restrictions on regular international travel are eased. If I am unable to enter the U.S. before the required start date for the Fall 2020 semester, then my trajectory in the Ph.D program might be disrupted, if not cut short altogether. In this moment of crisis, when most of us are trying our best to help out older parents and immunocompromised family members, many international graduate students cannot even begin to think of going back home to be with family on different continents, thousands of miles away.
The short-term and long-term effects of this crisis on international graduate students will be far-reaching. Teaching online has proven much harder to accomplish for international graduate instructors located in a different time zone from their students, a situation that may well continue into the fall semester. Summer work opportunities, already in short supply for international students, have been decimated. This, in addition to the uncertainty that will beset the academic job market for the foreseeable future and the fact that the steadily intensifying negative sentiment toward legal immigration and foreign workers in this country (due to the pandemic’s detrimental impact on the economy) will ensure that the odds are stacked against prospective job applicants like us.
Quite unambiguously, the best option for me right now is to stay where I am, at least until governments across the world implement best practices to allow international travel again. In the midst of this uncertainty, I can only schedule Skype calls to help my ailing mother figure out how to order essentials online and take comfort in the fact that at least I can do something, even if it is not enough. Like many other international students in the U.S., I am having to deal with multiple anxieties simultaneously.
Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies, University of Pennsylvania
International graduate students—as a subset of the graduate student population—are hurting in specific ways. As student-workers with contractual obligations we are being forced to navigate this crisis under less than optimal circumstances on both educational and economic levels, often without clear guidelines from our administrations. For the most part, university communications regarding international students have been directed to our undergraduate brothers and sisters, many of whom were left to fend for themselves after having to vacate student residencies. Universities rely heavily on graduate students as cheap labor, but, over and over again, the university system has been reluctant to acknowledge grad students as part of their workforce.
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, most international grad students are struggling to make urgent decisions that might end up putting their legal status in the U.S. at risk. American embassies across the world have stopped processing and renewing visas and international travel is rapidly coming to a halt. Most international grad students have very limited support networks in the U.S., and those are being heavily disrupted by university closures. Many international grad students have little familiarity with the U.S. healthcare system and there is real concern regarding our capacity to cover potential Covid-19 related expenses (inside or outside the U.S.). International grad students are prone to experiencing discrimination and racial violence, as xenophobia and ethnonationalist bigotry continue to gain momentum in the U.S.
Most international graduate students cannot rely on their extended families to create structures that allow them to mitigate the vast economic and emotional impact of the current crisis. On top of living paycheck to paycheck, international graduate students are, in some cases and to varying degrees, a regular source of income for their families. Already being underpaid, the financial burden caused by emergency travel, medical costs, and other unexpected expenses will, in all likelihood, have a significant impact on international grad students’ ability to keep up with their academic programs. Indeed, without assurance of extended financial support from our home institutions, many international, underrepresented, and first-generation grad students will be unable to continue their progress toward their degrees, as research fellowships, grants, and summer programs have been suspended and job prospects are rapidly dwindling for those pursuing both academic and non-academic career paths.
Despite these disruptions, graduate students continue to work and teach remotely, and have been, for the most part, mandated to continue working toward their degrees in a timely manner. As a graduate student worker, I stand in solidarity with my peers and other fellow workers who are facing similar sets of problems: professional students, part-time and contingent faculty, dining hall workers, maintenance workers, and every other worker involved in breathing life into academia. Many of my grad student peers and I are calling for mentors, faculty members, and the academic community at large to actively reach out to graduate students and push for administrative guidelines that address the specific problems international graduate students are facing. We urge all academic institutions to support graduate students by extending funding packages for an additional academic year, pausing the time-to-completion clocks, providing free access to health insurance for all graduate students, and providing partial or full tuition remission to tuition-paying students. We call for university administrations to put students’ and workers’ well-being before profits. #SolidarityNotAusterity
PhD Candidate in Spanish and Portuguese, University of Kansas
Member of CSGSH
I am an international graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas, having done my M.A. in 2014-2016 and hoping to complete my Ph.D. soon. I grew up in Argentina, lived in Canada from the age of 15, and moved to Kansas at the age of 29 for graduate school. Fortunately, I am healthy, employed (through Spring 2021), sheltered, and I live with my fiancée. However, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted me in many ways, both negative and positive. I will share my experiences beginning with the downsides and ending on a positive note.
One of the negative impacts has been an increase in my anxiety related to job market prospects and time to degree. These anxieties have always been there to varying degrees; this mentally taxing aspect of graduate school was something I accepted early on in my M.A. as part of the process. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable changes that the (academic) world will undergo have made me psychologically spin out about my chances to both finish on time and obtain employment once I am done. My F-1 visa expires on May 31, 2021 and I am unsure of what will happen at that point. My department has traditionally hired ABD Ph.D. students as lecturers if they needed more time to finish their dissertation, but I don’t know if this will be the case next year. This uncertainty about my ability to remain in the U.S. has certainly hampered my ability to focus on my research and writing, especially during the first few weeks of quarantine.
However, this crisis has brought along some positive realizations to my life. An unexpected yet welcome outcome of being quarantined is that I have become more engaged in my neighborhood community. In the past 6 years, this had been something that I had been unconsciously reluctant to do. It had felt as though being engaged with my local community would cause me to put down roots in Kansas and thus uproot me from home. It turns out that getting to know my neighbors and hanging out with them—6 feet apart—has made me feel at home here in Lawrence. Now I have 3 homes and counting.
Oddly enough, quarantine has also brought me closer to my family and friends in St. Louis, Toronto, and Argentina. I have already spent 6 years in Kansas between my M.A. and my Ph.D., so I have long been far away from my loved ones. Though I kept in touch with them over the past 6 years, I think that the COVID-19 crisis has made me more aware of the relationships that truly make me happy and sustain me emotionally through the often grueling process of graduate school. I find myself talking to all of them more often and more candidly than ever before.
As a bonus, and in addition to the mental wellness that talking to loved ones promotes, I found in my dad—trained as a chemist, but a humanist at heart—an awesome interlocutor for my research ideas. It turns out that he is a fan of Frederic Jameson. Who knew?