Interview by Mirko Savkoviç | Challenges faced by International Graduate Students

Molly Swindall is the elected International Class Representative at the IMSISS Erasmus Mundus Master degree program at the University of Glasgow, Dublin City University and Charles University in Prague. Through her undergraduate education, she studied in China, South Korea, Japan and United Kingdom. Her interests include USA-China relations, China’s Rise, and the U.S. Intelligence Community

Mirko Savkoviç

What are the major additional challenges international students are facing compared to local graduate students?

Molly Swindall

There are two major issues that I would say international students face that are more challenging than the challenges that local students face. The first would be the distance from family and friends back home. Yes, European students also face this, but it is much easier for them to get home. As an American, it would cost around US$1,000 and takes 12 hours to reach home. I realize that I am privileged in this regard; other international students face those same issues, as well as having to deal with visa issues. It’s difficult for us, as we might not be able to go home for holidays or see our family for them. It is also more difficult for family and friends to visit us, so homesickness can be a major issue for some. The other challenge is cultural. Despite Americans and many European countries having similar cultures, there are still vast differences and I can’t even compare them for students who come from Central Asia, South East Asia, or Africa as do some of the students in our cohort. Sometimes there is nothing more comforting than hearing your own language spoken by a fellow country(wo)man or eating food from your region of the world. These are two issues that I think that many sometimes forget, as they aren’t spoken about that often.

Mirko Savkoviç

Why is it important for higher education institutions to be aware of specific needs of international students?

The issues I discussed above that both have to do with homesickness is a major reason. The stigma around mental health is thankfully starting to lift and it’s an important issue that is starting to be discussed. One never knows what a student is going through in their personal lives (this goes for all) but the distance and “culture shock” can exacerbate these issues. I, and another student, both lost our fathers while in the program. Mine was unexpected and when I came back to school, it was difficult to have my family thousands of miles away. Were it not for my friends in the program, I think I could’ve fallen into a depression. International students are missing an established support system and it’s important for this to be recognized. When you’re accepting an international student, you are giving them a home for their time at your university. Like any good host, you should be aware of how your guests feel. A host would check-in and the same should occur with international students. In our program, we tried to hold get-togethers and there was an international dinner where everyone brought a dish from their county. This was not only a chance to discuss our homelands but also to share and teach about our culture. I think an understanding of this at an institutional level is key too. Needs are different for every student, but a support system should be in place, even if it’s as simple as access to counseling or access to a room on campus for an international dinner. The golden rule is “do to others as you would have them do to you”. If you were travelling to a “foreign land,” and leaving your family behind for the first time or for a long time, how would you like to be treated?

Mirko Savkoviç

What were the major challenges you personally experienced as an American student in the European Union?

Molly Swindall

I would say the biggest challenge came with some of the teaching styles or academic assignments. I attended a major U.S. university, but I was in the honors college, so I never really had large lecture, style classes. The size of the classes warranted more of a lecture than a discussion-based seminar; something I was surprised about considering that this is a masters’ program. Thankfully, all of my professors were extremely friendly and willing to talk about anything and are still very open to having good relationships with their students. This is something that I like to have with all of my professors. When it came to the workload, I was surprised that in a few classes we had a number of assignments: paper, weekly quizzes, a group presentation, and a final test. This was foreign to me as well. I’m used to maybe a paper and a test or two papers, but when one has 4 or 5 classes with 4 assignments each and only 13 weeks of classes, one definitely has to learn to manage the workload. The final challenge, and the biggest one for me, was ensuring that my papers were written in British-English. I remember I got one assignment back and I had points deducted for using American-English as opposed to British-English. The paper however, had no grammatical errors, according to the grader, so I found this a little crazy. I asked my professors if I could write in American-English and while most said that it was not a problem, as it is only really a minor difference, for the most part, in spelling, a few did say I had to write in British English. I’ve had to become conscious of making sure that -s becomes a -c or that my -z is an -s, depending on the word.

Mirko Savkoviç

Can you share some of the good practices of cooperation with university administration at your institution?

Molly Swindall

I’ve found that the administrations have been VERY willing to work with our program at all three universities. Our cohort was the first official cohort, but third ever of the program, of the IMSISS Erasmus Mundus program, so all the kinks that come from being the first had to be worked out. For the most part, the administrations were very receptive to our concerns. Trust me, we had a lot. I came in during the second year as a Representative but the other two Representatives, Aizhan and Britta, were very easy to work with. We gave the other students a chance to express their concerns and we took them to the administration in a meeting. The other Representatives also took concerns to the administration before I was elected as a Representative. This occurred before I was elected as a Representative, as well. Never did I feel like the administration of all three universities were belittling our concerns or not listening to us. This is a huge positive. Administrations are notorious for being locked in their ivory towers and not actually understanding what is happening on the ground. So, an administration that is willing to listen, especially to a younger generation who sees things differently, is going to be successful.

Mirko Savkoviç

What are some of your recommendations for universities in Asia and Europe which want to attract and provide the best experience for international students?

Molly Swindall

Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships… did I mention scholarships? That was one of my biggest pulls when applying to programs. My parents always said they would pay for my Undergraduate degree (well in my case degrees) but beyond that I would have to pay. I was only interested in programs that were funded. While the program I’m in is incredible, (the countries drew me to it), I would have stayed in the U.S. to study had I not received a scholarship. This would have been a detriment, with how international the world is. I absolutely think someone cannot change their country, lead their country, etc. unless they’ve had international experiences that teach them about how the world truly works. In addition, I think a true chance to learn a second language is huge in drawing people in. That was one element that I wish was stronger in my program. As mentioned earlier, these countries are inviting international students, students that they are hosting. They need to be good hosts, make sure that the students have a support system in the form of an international office. This office needs to take its job seriously. There should be events: whether student run (with the office’s support) or university run. There should be access to information about counselling, (where to find it, price, etc), as well as to support groups, and religious opportunities. An international student is likely coming in with no-contacts and might not have ever been to that country or even that continent. An EU student who is assigned to each International student (or group of students) to help orient them would be another positive, as it would make the first days in a new atmosphere and culture much easier.

Interview conducted by Mirko Savkovic

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