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Graduate School Life: Perspective from an International Graduate Student of the Humanities.

June 10, 2013

The end of this spring semester of 2013 marks my fifth academic year of tenure (though in calendar years, it has just been about 4.5 years) in the United States. I first arrived as a graduate-scholar under the Fulbright international program. I need to point this out not from any sense of self-importance: far from it. I need to put this upfront because what I say next could signify an experience that differs from an international graduate student who arrived under the more usual circumstances. For one, they are not likely to be imposed with an inviolable two-year home residency requirement, nor would they have their academic ‘progress’ tracked with as much diligence.


 I also need to qualify the views I give here by stating that I have had no formal experience with education system in the US prior to coming over as a PhD humanities graduate student, nor with any other international educational experience, having completed both my undergraduate degree in physics and Master degree in English in my home country of Malaysia. In other words, I arrived at the doorsteps of US higher education as a more or less ‘mature’ student.


Being in graduate school here is a full-time career that leaves you without a whole lot of time for extra-curricular activities, not that it is impossible to attempt to have a bit of a ‘life.’ As someone who is completely alien to the culture of life in the US beyond the exposure one gets from the media and some random American transplants or tourists (I have actually started watching more American TV since I arrived as a way of making sense of my life here), my experiences have been both eye opening and challenging, to say the least. Add to that smoldering mix a bunch of social guffaws and misadventures and we have an international student fit for the madhouse, though I like to believe that I have survived a bewildering life with my sanity mildly intact without recourse to anything pharmaceutical.


Among my then new experiences includes navigating the university culture in a way I never had to before. That involves figuring out what graduate school education means, especially in the humanities, and what are the things that has to be done beyond writing that dissertation and getting that PhD, all of which I was completely unprepared for when embarking on that journey.  The other thing is to figure out what it means to be an alien trying to establish a presence that is more than academic while making full use of this uncommon opportunity. Living in a town where a huge proportion of its intellectual life is centered around the universities (as there are a number of universities nearby besides my own), with unfettered access to all things intellectual and cutting-edge, was something new to me, coming from a country where academia is pretty much controlled, and knowledge tends to come second or third hand for many different reasons I will not enter into here.


As a Fulbright scholar, I was invited to an ‘orientation’ event that attempts to ease me and all the other newbies, into this new land called the USA: I am not sure how successful that was for most of us, since all the participants, excluding the organizers, are internationals. While it gives you a sort of touristic overview of what is it like to live in America, nothing beats the grind of day-to-day living in our respective constituents thereafter and learning how to beat the system day- after-day.


One thing that most international students have to deal with, from the first day they arrive, through all the subsequent years they maintain their residency in the US (unless they managed to obtain green card status in that period, and possibly still then), involves the filling up of reams of forms that taxpayers including myself have to pay for. The forms could be online or in a paper format, but the ‘paper’ trail is long, regardless. First, one has to obtain social security or you won’t be able to receive your salary or fellowship from US sources. Then you figure out what forms to fill up to get paid (including and especially if you acquired additional funding from other US institutions outside of your own), how to file for taxes (rendered more complicated when one is on a long-term ‘exchange’ status), how to find a place to live, if you have got your immunization records up-to-date (I was almost threatened with deportation in my first month here because I apparently was unaware of such a clause), and if you may want to get a drivers license (or local ID of some form) so that you can reduce the amount of daily humiliation stemming from carrying a foreign passport around.


There is also that uneasy relationship you have with your visa and academic sponsors where you feel like you are on eternal probation since your movements and ‘accomplishments’ have to be regularly reported, above and beyond that of a regular graduate student. By times, one gets into such a contentious relationship with the bureaucrats as a result of extremely tangled red tape that if you have a problem with claustrophobia or aquaphobia, the affective sensation is pretty similar. This keeps you, until you learn how to adjust some years after, from really feeling at home in your new ‘home,’ maintaining you in that constant stress of precarious living, which of course, has a strain on your ability to build firm new relationships.


Nevertheless, despite my status as a (non-Muslim) citizen of a Muslim country, I am more fortunate than my friends from countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, mainly because my situation is a little less complicated, and I have more freedom to come in and out of the country, and to go home for visits should I choose to, without potential repercussions (for the most part).


Next comes figuring out what and which community that one belongs to. For some internationals, they have a huge community of their own nationals on the same campus, so they were able to establish a strong network of alliances that allows the dissemination and trading of information. While there are a few of us Malaysians, and some Singaporeans (our closest neighbor next to the Thais), on campus, our numbers are few and we come from such diverging backgrounds that for the most part, we were only able to help each other with practical (rather than academic) considerations. Having some go-to people, be they other internationals or locals, can go a long way in figuring out the day-to-day survival in your new habitat. If you feel like you are the only representative of your country on campus, this is then a good time to break out of your comfort zone and look for other friendly faces around.


As an international humanist-in-training, the situation becomes more isolated because you often feel as if you stand alone as a token representation of your culture, region, geography and everything that is alien.  There is a high degree of US exceptionalism in many humanities program, though by no means all, and I have heard more than once, the complains that even students of comparative literatures tend to be rather Americana centric. This, for the most part, stems from the fact that the humanities departments are maximally populated by American students of not particularly diverse backgrounds with the exception of cultural or social anthropology (at least not in the more elite institutions), their social science departments might have a slightly more equitable number of internationals, and most internationals are gravitated to the professional schools or the natural sciences.


This is not in itself a negative criticism because I am very certain that such exceptionalist preoccupations are prevalent in the other campuses of other nations, not excluding, my home country (though there are claims that European campuses are more open to multicultural approaches in the humanities). Moreover, it is not uncommon for many international students from the humanities (and social sciences) to exude the same level of exceptionalism with their own regions even on American campuses.


However, this can be alleviated as long as we are willing to participate in an exchange, whether through workshops or just informal discussion groups, about knowledge and geographical areas unfamiliar to us. Rather than depending on the campus international student services or multicultural organizations to do this, graduate students should also be pro-active in fostering this exchange over sitting back and complaining about lack of interest. I can’t say I have myself been overly pro-active in this since the stakes play out differently for me, but for those who find this important, there are plenty of chances for that, as the next paragraph indicates.


As someone who did not have the capacity to independently organize academic events on campus before, it took me some time to realize that such possibilities, with some constraints, are possible in the new academic environment. In other words, I learn that I can now form working groups (if I can garner critical support), host conferences, or run certain social events, as long as I know which institutions and people I can go to for the different things. For people from non-US institutions, such processes are, by and large, not as transparent and also tend to be rather politically infused and hierarchical. Hence, if you desire to organize a film festival featuring the best films from your home country, or even a night of poetry and literary reading, this is your chance to do so.


Now comes the more ‘fun’ part. While it is strenuous to attempt navigating the social and cultural aspect of one’s new home while trying to maintain good standing in graduate school, there are occasional opportunities to do so, and I managed to use travelling for conferences and short courses as a way for me to learn more about the different parts of the very huge country with its broad spectrum of cultural practices and traditions.


Of course, maybe because I am out there on my own with no protection of familiarity (or even family in this country), I am more vulnerable to having some of the weirdest things happening to me, such as the many times I have been stranded with no buses home (I did not have a car for many years) and even having to once, in a strange town, walk two hours in the dark, to return to my hotel. Of course, in the course of taking America’s public transport of various kind (mainly the plane, bus and the train) or just from taking long walks, I have had interesting encounters with the mentally-ill, the homeless, the disenfranchised, and also individuals who probably exoticize me as this ‘Asian chic’ with a strange accent. 


In conversations with the everyday American, I am often humbled to realize how much of a bubble academia is and how much it is of an unknown territory for most Americans. As it is, I never like talking about my status as a graduate student in the rare occasions I venture home as I lack the ability to translate the rarefied environment of American higher education that is even more alien for most of the people in my home country to an everyday vernacular in a manner comprehensible (blame my translation skills if you must). But I find that, even if we share the same language in this country, academic life is so replete with its own jargons and assumptions that many people outside of it find the former completely incomprehensible. This has gotten me thinking real hard as to how to make my intellectual work more useful and accessible to the everyday person.


Finally, even though it has not always been easy, I have managed to find a community of people who understand and know that I am not like them, but who accept me despite of that. In fact, some have managed to help me realize that my difference itself is something to be celebrated rather than to hide, which I was guilty of attempting to do doing in my early years here as I was then overtly self-conscious and desperate to fit in, a feeling I have never had since my days in grade school.  What is required is a sense of humility and being open to something that may not seem attractive at first glance. As an international student, I learn to be practical, to be more savvy about my rights, resourceful in finding out things, and also make full use of certain facilities that can help improve my professional standing.

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