International students struggle to balance resilience and uncertainty

International students struggle to balance resilience and uncertainty

Dipakshi Sarma and Nina Rogers

According to Macalester’s spring 2022 Census data, there are currently 293 international students on campus representing 70 countries. Each international student brings with them unique experiences and worldviews while navigating the additional toll of being in a different country and culture, often drastically different from ones they’re familiar with. As they work to build community here at Macalester, international students are forced to juggle a multitude of priorities. This can mean that at times, they can put their mental health on a back burner. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted international students, especially in their ability to return home. With the emergence of new variants such as Omicron, many students were forced to remain in the United States due to fears of border closure and lockdown in their home countries. 

Anna Séne ’24, a Sènegalese student, arrived in the U.S. in August 2020 and has been unable to return home since.

“I have definitely been homesick a lot of times already this semester because I [was] really hoping to go home last winter break,” Séne  said. “But then COVID happened … and so now I’m going into my third year of not being home.”

These fears were exacerbated last year due to many international students’ experiences with remote instruction in the previous academic year. Several of them were attending classes and co-curriculars synchronously from their homes past midnight due to time zone differences. At the Kagin sit-in on Nov. 3, 2021, international students also expressed the burnout they experience from balancing the multiple on campus responsibilities they feel called to.

“Last semester was extremely hard because I had a lot of work to do in school and outside and also thinking about my family,” Séne said. “This semester, I decided to drop some of my responsibilities, because last semester was so hard.”

In addition to the opportunities they feel drawn towards out of interest, international students must also devote time and energy to fulfilling all the legal requirements necessary for them to remain in the country. Macalester’s International Students Programs (ISP) focuses on aiding incoming, current and graduated international students as they adjust to life in the United States from cultural, academic and legal standpoints. 

ISP does not directly offer mental health support for international students. However, through programs such as pre-orientation for international students (PO4IS) which aims to help new students begin adjusting to the US. Another such program is Ametrica which hopes to promote dialogue between students on a multitude of topics. ISP and its student mentors work to help students build connections and establish themselves within the Macalester community. 

Jessica Ding ’22  is a Program Assistant at ISP and a student mentor in Ametrica. Reflecting back on her own experience with PO4IS, Ding treasured the network that was opened up to her through her conversations with her mentor. 

“Every week my mentor would provide me or connect me with new resources based on that week, or connect me with their friends who [were] in the same area I [was] interested in,” Ding said. “It’s a comprehensive and very diverse conversation. We try not to limit the conversation to only about your parents, only about your life, only about academics: it’s about the four-year experience.” 

Despite these programs that are geared towards international students, gaps in care for international students persist. The Laurie Hamre Center for Health and Wellness provides counseling services available to all students at Macalester, but there can be a disconnect when it comes to helping international students specifically. 

“I feel like most of the Macalester structures are domestic student-centered,” Séne said. “They will know how to help the domestic students, but most of these workers –  counselors, staff, faculty – they don’t know how to assist the international students. It just becomes really hard mentally, when you have professors who don’t understand your experience, when you have counselors who don’t understand your experience.”  

In an attempt to better support historically marginalized communities, the Hamre Center created the position of Underserved Student Specialist last year. Hanin Harb, the first person hired for the role, is also a mental health counselor at the Hamre Center. As a BIPOC first-generation immigrant, Harb uses her individual experience as a guide as she works with students to develop coping strategies and address topics like imposter syndrome, isolation and belonging.  

My work is grounded in compassion, connection, collaboration, and curiosity to center students’ humanness,” Harb wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “There is power in gathering and sharing space that is sacred and meaningful. I incorporate mindfulness and education into my work to develop new ways to cope, promote insight, build resiliency and develop a greater sense of self.” 

Harb has found that international students can be hesitant to seek counseling. Language barriers, uncertainty in regards to the healthcare system and cultural differences can make seeking out mental health support especially difficult. 

Amid this chaos and uncertainty, international students are showing up for each other with intentionality this semester. Many are reflecting on their challenges and hopes for the semester, often echoing those articulated during the Kagin sit-in

“Our [ISP] mentors are so fantastic at being a first-line response [not just] to issues of mental health but to all sorts of trouble shooting things,” the Associate Director for Advising at ISP, Kara Warren said. “They have made great decisions in supporting students and knowing when to pass the baton and to connect people with other resources.” 

Some faculty and staff departments are attempting to follow up on these needs.

“It’s more of expanding our understanding of where we’re falling short – where Macalester is falling short – figuring out what we can do with our limited time and personal/resources to start meeting those needs,” Warren said.

International students are collaborating with each other and with various stakeholders to weigh in. However, this ebbs away the limited reserve of time and energy they have, especially when they are simultaneously juggling internship and employment opportunities, as well as issues at home, in a limited period of time.

In her position at the Hamre Center, Harb frequently engages with international and BIPOC students on issues including imposter syndrome, grief, family dynamics, belonging, interpersonal and romantic relationships, racism and acculturation. 

“[It’s] not about traveling: it’s about settling down,” Ding said. “Even though I went to international schools back in China, most of the school time I was speaking Mandarin instead of English, so it was a whole immersive experience.”

Evidently, a singular model cannot resolve this plethora of concerns. Harb emphasized that counseling services are not the ultimate solution for everyone.

“There are various strategies that can also be supportive and affirming such as movement, spirituality, community, routine, nature and creativity to name a few,” Harb wrote.

Most importantly, international students are not a monolith. As a diverse group of individuals with their own unique experiences and perspectives, international students have different challenges, dreams and expectations.

I want to emphasize that international students be thoughtfully understood as groups with separate histories, racial experiences and/or sociocultural identities,” Harb wrote. 

Leaving home and family behind to pursue an education in a new country is a feat of bravery, and recognizing the courage international students are required to have on a day-to-day basis is a part of the puzzle in the wider Macalester community showing support for fellow community members. 

“These are literally just 20-year-old kids trying to make it out in the world with nobody on their side, in a completely different country where most of the time [they] feel really scared for [their] lives,” Séne said. “Shout out to all my international students, just making it. We should give more credit to ourselves at some point. It’s big to be making it this far.”