Today we welcome Hina Abel to BearTracks. Hina is a 2nd year PhD Student in Higher Education Studies and Leadership, and she apprentices in the Graduate School as a Doctoral Administrative Fellow and also serves as the secretary for the GSA Executive Cabinet. Last spring I asked her to reflect on her experiences as an international student, especially on what she found most different as a student entering the world of American Academia. I think you will find her ideas insightful–both for international students who can relate to her experiences and for domestic students to realize what they may take for granted. 

Acceptance into a PhD program at Baylor University gave me the keys to unlock my academic future. It also set me on a path of unexpected self-discovery. As a pragmatic person, I soon realized that entering the academy as an international student was not an especially pragmatic choice. For an international student, pursuing an international PhD is not simply an investment of time, but an investment that demands a re-imagining of your very self!

I wrapped up the spring semester with a better sociological perspectives on higher education, coming to a realization that the painful socialization processes that under-represented students experience are analogous to what international students experience.

So, what are the lessons learned on the paths I traveled this first year as an international graduate student?

  • #1 Online book delivery was a practice I was unfamiliar with. I called upon the efficient world of amazon for all my books, only to learn that amazon prime is the best way to go for timely delivery and there is such a thing as a student account. Planning and receipt of books work best if you find out what books are assigned for your next course, well in advance of the semester
  • # 2 Your Syllabus could be your best friend. In graduate school this matters. You can only have 3 (full-time load) per semester, as an international student. Syllabi besties are going to shepherd you through the semester. Never have I encountered such detailed syllabi in my life, that provide specifics with clarity, and require frequent reference for success in a course. I remain indebted to all faculty who set these up in the entirety of their splendor.
  • # 3 Canvas should be bookmarked for ready access. Course syllabi send you frequently to canvas–a mini library containing articles that your professors have uploaded as well as continual access to the course plan (syllabus). This is also the place to go to see most of your grades.
  • # 4 Reading is the child that is never ready for bed. It is an almost never-ending task. This one scares me as much as I celebrate it. It is a journey I began with trepidation and ended with rejoicing. Reflection on readings finished is like looking at your sleeping angel and thinking there’s really no one like them! When I enter class with finished readings, a spark is lit. There is nothing like completing your reading assignments and realizing you love them. I start each week wondering why I have to read so much and start each class thanking God for the readings!
  • # 5 Literature Reviews are incremental gains. I had no idea how to do one of these in the beginning. With a year behind me, I feel I am getting better equipped. I recommend going to your professor and asking them to show you how to do these.
  • # 6 Go to your professors when in doubt. For internationals this is something that doesn’t always come easily. Where I come from, a professor is not available outside class as such, so you get accustomed to not seeking them out. But in the US, time with professors matters. Professors will clarify things or point you in the right direction. It’s always a good idea that you have met up with your best friend first (the syllabus), before seeking clarity on syllabus questions.
  • # 7 Citations– Getting on board the ‘citation train’ is a requirement for academics. Zotero is free, open source and has an extension for your browser to pull your citations into the app. It still requires you to review and edit in your paper. Getting an understanding on what writing style your field requires is mandatory and I have been slow on learning this.
  • # 8 Stress-Sorry guys! This is going to be a lot! But it is worthwhile, I’d say. Think of it as refinement of silver or gold. To shine one day, walking through academic fire is necessary. Right now, we are called to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of our esteemed faculty!
  • # 9 Your Cohort-Of course you’re going to feel the heat! But like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, there are people standing in this with you. They are your colleagues and cohort members. The fire is kept going by your professors. Some fuel it more than others! But this is how silver, and gold are purged, how expertise is formed, and old habits broken to make room for new ones.
  • # 10 Moody. Although I don’t want you to become this, I do want you to go there. Often! The Moody Library has resources like I have never used before. From in house resources to online resources. You must find the resource person assigned to your department, set an appointment, and allow them to guide you on multiple research fronts. These folks are amazing and resourceful and its okay to tell them you don’t know anything! They will guide you.

In one year, I have unlocked some hidden gems that only grad students get to unlock. I am being equipped to explore the world of Higher Education scholarship in significant ways- broadly and deeply, and to devise a research path that my heart and mind want to pursue.

There is no doubt that academic stress can become heightened for us all, but a pure heart goes through trial with eyes fixed on God, because in him, all things become possible that we cannot do alone. When tempted to complain, I am reminded to keep my eyes upon my Father as the scripture says in Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

My commitment as a grad student is renewed each time, I remember that I was chosen to be here, and this fact helps me to move through difficulties in academic learning with greater grace. Paul reminds me in Hebrews 6:11, saying,“We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.”

L. P. Huber (2009), talks about resiliency saying that this is an attribute understood as a set of inner resources, social competencies and cultural strategies that permit individuals to not only survive, recover or even thrive after stressful events, but also draw from the experience to enhance subsequent functioning. Every semester we can do better, gain ground, and move forward. Resilience is most certainly an attribute that International students can call upon, regardless of faith or cultural background.

*Huber, L. P. (2009). Challenging Racist Nativist Framing: Acknowledging the Community Cultural Wealth of Undocumented Chicana College Students to Reframe the Immigration Debate. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 704–730.