By Hanna Suh
When I first agreed to write a piece about how international students might be psychologically affected by the new administration, I had no idea how relevant this piece would become. It turns out, the last couple of weeks have been the epitome of how the lives of millions can be imperiled in the face of a new agenda. As I allow myself to reflect back on how tumultuous the past couple weeks have been, I feel a wide array of emotions. Sadness, despair, anger, hopelessness are present, but most importantly, hope.
The past two weeks have highlighted the life stories of international students and lawful residents more than I can remember since my arrival to the U.S. in 2011. I welcome this attention, as I stay vigilant about the implications of this growing attention. I welcome it because it humanizes the psychological experiences of international students. It informs others about the stories of international students through real life stories. When we can put a face to a story, the story becomes more powerful and appalling, generating empathy from others. One person was detained at an airport, had her visa revoked, and was unable to continue her medical residency. She will not be allowed to apply for a working visa for 90 days. Another individual holding lawful permanent residency was detained at an airport, patted down and briefly handcuffed. Through painful stories like this, people come together to vocally and proactively support equality, integrity, and dignity. Those who have been targeted gain comfort and hope in seeing others supporting and marching for them.
At the same time, I stay vigilant. I remain vigilant because the dialogues about international students other them. A different box is created where “international” individuals are considered “outsiders.” And in fact, they are outsiders born in different countries. Does this mean that they are dangerous? Regardless of the positives they bring, should they be considered potentially threatening because they are the “unknown?” Unless these outsiders assimilate to support the established system, which is oppressive against minorities, they become a “safety concern.” And, I worry about this othering, how it chips away empathy, connection, and the humanity inherent in individual stories.
International students undergo a tremendous adjustment upon arrival. The psychological cost they pay to acculturate is immense. Despite the difficult adjustment, international students seek US higher education for the betterment of their academic pursuits. By doing so, they learn but also give back. They give back by relaying their perspectives in classrooms, globalizing curricula, educating others about different cultures, and bringing money to institutions. In sum, international students contribute to the education in the U.S., but without knowing them on a personal level, it would be hard to acknowledge the asset they bring. When international students are reduced to mere numerical quantities of how much money they bring to the U.S., it implies a dangerous assumption and dialogue of assessing human value and integrity through financial merits.
So, I suggest we mingle. I suggest we make an orchestrated effort to know the “others.” Through learning each individuals’ life stories, we can feel for the other. When we feel for the other, their pain can be felt by us. And when that pain is felt, you can no longer other them, but to join them.