How a group of international scholars brought new awareness to the issues they face

When Milad Mohebali began thinking about an academic career, there were few other international students in his graduate program in higher education.

His path from degree to a faculty position seemed more complicated than that of his American classmates, who didn’t have to deal with the intricacies of visa sponsorship or Optional Practical Training. The issues facing foreign-born academics can often be little understood by their colleagues.

Mohebali, who is from Iran and is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa, began to talk with two early-career professors from overseas. Eventually, the trio organized a workshop for foreign-born faculty members and graduate students, under the auspices of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

“We needed to create a space where people could come together and share,” said Jeongeun Kim, an associate professor of higher and postsecondary education at Arizona State University and another of the workshop’s founders. “We had to demystify how the process works.”

The two-day international-scholars workshop, now in its fourth year, covers issues like immigration and legal status, networking, and the academic-job market both in and outside the United States. (Zarrina Talan Azizova, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Dakota, is the third co-founder.)

For international academics, legal issues can be especially pressing. Graduates have only a small window to move from their student visas to full-time work. As a result, international students who hope to start academic careers in the United States find themselves navigating parallel tracks: They have to stand out in the crowded academic-job market, while also dealing with the immigration process. Missing or delayed paperwork can jeopardize their legal status.

In departments with few foreign-born hires, search-committee chairs may have little experience with how to secure a work visa. It can be up to the applicant to figure out the process or to serve as the middle man between the hiring department and the international-scholars office, Mohebali said.

Legal issues can also arise when foreign-born professors move to another institution or from a temporary work visa to permanent residency. The organizers have invited immigration scholars and other visa experts to speak during the sessions.

The workshops provide a forum for foreign-born academics to talk about a broader range of challenges. For example, they can often be pigeonholed, Kim said: Other academics may assume they want to study the comparative aspects of a field because they are from overseas or that their knowledge of issues in the United States is limited because they didn’t grow up here. Some graduate students fear if they choose a specialty that’s not domestically focused they could hurt their chances of getting a job in the United States.

Faculty members who are not native English speakers can be criticized by students and others for their accent, said Katie K. Koo, an assistant professor of counseling and human-development services at the University of Georgia, who has taken over as the workshop’s organizer. And they may find academic politics confusing. “For foreign-born faculty, it’s not always easy to read the political atmosphere,” she said.

As part of the next workshop, she hopes to pair younger scholars and graduate students with mentors.

But Koo, who is also Korean, said the issues facing international scholars don’t end when they leave campus. As a mother of two, she had no family members she could turn to for support when juggling career demands and her children’s needs.

Foreign-born faculty members may also feel stress related to the xenophobia and discrimination brought on by the pandemic and the political environment, said Koo, who has studied the mental-health strains of recent events on international students. Yet they can often be left out of campus conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, she said. “As international scholars, we are not visible. We are not loud.”

To raise awareness, the organizers have opened the workshops to department chairs and other faculty members who work with international students and scholars. “There are people who are trying to better understand and to empathize,” Kim said. “We have challenges but a lot of allies, too.”

Chinese universities pull out of global rankings

For years, China, like many countries with higher-education ambitions, invested in its universities to drive them up global rankings. Now, three prominent Chinese institutions have said they are pulling out of international rankings.

A researcher who studies Chinese higher education said the withdrawals — by Renmin University of China, Nanjing University, and Lanzhou University — mark a “new era.”

“The Chinese higher-education sector has gained immense confidence in recent years, so the logic internally moves away from simply catching the West,” said Ryan Allen, an assistant professor of practice in educational studies at Chapman University. “Rather than American and British universities at the center, top universities in China see their own status as worthy of emulation and benchmarking.”

For years, Chinese government policy pushed researchers to publish in prestigious international journals, a key indicator in global rankings. On metrics of scientific output, China has been catching up with, or even surpassing, the United States. But in recent years, the government has de-emphasized international publications in decisions on promotion and research funding.

In a speech last month at Renmin, a top institution in the humanities and social sciences, President Xi Jinping called on Chinese universities to “blaze a new path.”

“We cannot blindly follow others or simply copy foreign standards and models when we build world-class universities of our own,” Xi said.

China’s inward shift could be another sign of academic isolationism at a time when Sino-American tensions are running high. And Alex Usher, a Canadian consultant and expert in comparative education, noted on Twitter that some critics have pressed for Chinese universities to be downgraded in global rankings because of their track record on academic freedom. “Given the move in some Western quarters to effectively say that Chinese universities are not ‘real’ universities because [of] academic freedom,” Usher wrote, “one can easily see why these institutions might think that this is a game not worth playing.”

Allen said political constraints may be part of the inward turn. It also is unclear if other Chinese universities will follow. But Allen points out that China wouldn’t be alone in having less of a focus on international comparisons — American colleges, after all, tend to pay greater attention to domestic competition than global rankings.

What’s your take? Share your thoughts with me at karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

Ukrainian president appeals for U.S. colleges’ help

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to American colleges to help his country rebuild and said it was critical for students and researchers to return to aid in Ukraine’s recovery.

“We can’t lose the power of youth, the power and energy of young people without which we can have no future and we cannot create anything,” Zelensky said on Monday via video to members of the Association of American Universities.

In his remarks to the group of top research universities, Zelensky called the damage to Ukrainian universities and other educational institutions by Russian attacks a “tragedy.” He welcomed the offers of support and partnership by American college presidents, adding that Ukraine needs expertise more than cash.

In response to a question by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, Zelensky said Russian students should not be discriminated against. Some congressional representatives have suggested that Russian students be expelled in retaliation for their country’s invasion of Ukraine. But Zelensky also appealed to Russian students and all students to advocate for freedom and democracy.

“Maintaining silence is not an option,” Zelensky said. “I don’t think a civilized person in this civilized world should turn a blind eye when somebody’s rights are being violated, somebody is being killed.”

Around the globe

The U.S. government agreed to reverse deportations and other immigration actions taken against students who enrolled in a fake university that was set up as part of a sting operation.

Colleges that host Confucius Institutes would be barred from receiving grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under newly introduced legislation. Bloomberg reports the bill on the Chinese-funded language and culture centers could be taken up in a key House committee this week.

A new scholarship for overseas study funded by the government of Saudi Arabia will not permit English-language study, a major shift from past when large numbers of Saudi students came to the United States to study English before going on to degree programs.

The U.S. Embassy in India is increasing its student-visa appointments as officials there said they expected another year of surging applications.

Foreign-educated immigrants’ earnings vary depending on the country in which they earned their degree, with immigrants educated in Western Europe, Canada, and India earning as much or more as college-educated Americans and immigrants from China, Africa, and Latin America earning less, according to research by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors lower immigration.

International-exchange groups have signed onto a new global declaration pledging to be safe havens for threatened students and scholars and to cooperate in seeking solutions to worldwide challenges like climate change and gender inequality.

Students at China’s elite Peking University protested stringent campus lockdown measures.

International students will finally be able to return to New Zealand at the end of July when Covid-related visa restrictions lift.

Pandemic-driven job cuts at Australian universities may have been too deep, according to a new study, which found that cutbacks exceeded the financial hit to institutions.

And finally …

Friends, have you played Globle or Worldle, a pair of geography guessing games loosely based on the popular word teaser Wordle? This weekend, I was introduced to them — by my 9-year-old nephew. Not since I convinced him to root for the Washington Nationals have I had a prouder auntie moment. If you have other kid-friendly geography activities for my future world traveler, let me know.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.