Are we truly welcome here?

International students faced with marginalization, uncertainty, and precarity

Being international in the United States while a deadly pandemic sweeps the country is not a welcoming experience — especially not when many Americans think “foreigners” are to blame. One is reminded of the horrific aftermath of September 11, 2001: three thousand people dead, thousands more injured, and a wave of violent xenophobia in response.This second tragedy — the response to hatred with more hatred — led to hate crimes; increased surveillance of the “suspiciously brown,” severe tightening of immigration restrictions; and eventually 800,000 lives lost in the ongoing War on Terror. Faced with this hostile environment, MIT international students came together to form InterLink, a community that served to disseminate information amidst the drastic changes in visa regulations, support students facing anxiety and hardship, and above all, advocate for their concerns.

Fast forward to 2020, and it is hard not to experience a dispiriting sense of deja vu. Once again, the US administration has subjected immigrants and international students to an unending onslaught of travel bans, visa restrictions, detentions and deportations. Once again, those of us perceived to be of foreign origin have been made scapegoats for this country’s crises. Once again, immigrant and international students live in anxiety and fear over whether we can remain in this place we also call home, or whether we will be forced, on a whim, to leave. While we hope to see less direct hostility from the White House with the end of the Trump presidency, many of the structural challenges faced by international students at MIT still stand. Disappointingly, MIT has not always responded to this precarity with the full protections that we need — too many of us have been discriminated against or exploited for it. And so, once again, we international students and allies are uniting to advocate for our concerns.

MIT depends greatly upon international students for both teaching and research. Yet, the Institute often leaves us socially marginalized, under-supported, and crushingly overworked. Already lacking the support of family and friends at home, international students struggle with mental health at similar or higher rates than domestic students because of these stressors. For some of us, deeply rooted cultural stigma makes it challenging to even seek mental health care.

These challenges are compounded by the isolation that many of us face on arrival due to language and cultural barriers, especially for non-native English speakers. When academic and professional success require research presentations, technical writing, forming meaningful collaborations, and convincing professors to take one on as a student, these barriers can have significant impact, turning seemingly mundane conversations into laborious, frightening and unfamiliar tasks. Beyond the difficulty and labor of learning a new language, those of us from cultures that promote modesty are suddenly handed the burden of convincing our peers and faculty of our competence, an entirely alien endeavor. These challenges are often exacerbated by advisors and colleagues who have unfair and discriminatory expectations of us — unfortunately, it still happens that professors characterize entire nationalities as “lazy” or “not hardworking enough.” These barriers can make or break our connections with our peers, our colleagues, our teachers, and our advisers, dictating our academic and professional prospects.

We know that MIT has a vested interest in protecting international students when large numbers of us are in danger. Indeed, they did so when the Trump administration brought forward the Student Ban this past summer. Unfortunately, we have seen that this protection only extends so far. When the pandemic hit, halting in-person research, many international students were left without paid summer appointments. If not for student advocacy, they could have lost both their funding and visa statuses. When the Fall began, many departments chose not to accommodate the in-person coursework needed for new international students to enter. As a result, students who lived in the US for years were separated from their loved ones, simply because they were newly enrolled at MIT. Tragically, some remain separated today.

This administrative indifference is not unique to the pandemic, only exacerbated by it. When faculty harass and exploit international students, we see upper administration turn away from those cases and dismiss them as “advising style.” The RISE campaign has written extensively about the issues of harassment, discrimination, and abuse at the hands of advisors and have met with many more students too intimidated by the possibility of retaliation to even come forward anonymously. Too often, domestic and international students alike face the unchecked power of their advisors.

For international students, often facing cultural isolation and ever-present visa precarity, the power imbalance with our advisors is only deepened. We work unhealthy hours and sacrifice our personal lives, all for the chance that our advisors will look kindly on us and aid in our professional development. Unfortunately, this offers no guarantee of protection — there are too many stories of advisors exploiting us for the many hours we put in, only to discourage us from pursuing PhDs once our research is deemed “not good enough.” Some advisors go further still, failing us at our qualifying exams when we are no longer viewed as useful, and writing weak recommendation letters that undermine our academic careers. We know that saying “no” to our advisors or ever dreaming of reporting them could spell serious consequences for our professional success, not to mention the stability of our visa status. Many of us are too concerned to even sign a petition for necessary and reasonable changes, because we cannot risk being misunderstood as “ungrateful” by our superiors.

It is no doubt the same root of marginalization and discrimination prevents the full flourishing of domestic URM students and international students. Racism and xenophobia are two sides of the same coin, and we cannot address one without the other. That is why we are uniting together with the RISE campaign to root out all forms of harassment and discrimination while seeking to remedy the systemic issues of our vulnerability as graduate students.

To that end, we join the RISE campaign in the following calls to action: MIT must hire departmental DEI Officers to lead the work of building a more inclusive community — one cognizant of both the injustices faced by our domestic peers, as well as the exclusion we face as international students. We must provide meaningful protections for students and hold faculty accountable to prevent harassment and exploitation. This includes guaranteed transitional funding, so that students are not forced to choose between staying with a toxic advisor or leaving the country. And we must look very seriously at the cloud of retaliation that permeates our campus and hangs heavy over our most vulnerable and precarious community members. That vulnerability is a common concern for us all, and it is our responsibility to support each other, empower one another, and build a community where we can all thrive.

This piece was written by international student organizers in collaboration with the RISE campaign, including Tan Zhi Xuan, A.B., and G.C. Any questions about this piece should be directed at the RISE campaign at RISE4MIT@gmail.com. Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) is a grassroots effort led by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, Black Graduate Student Association, and Graduate Student Council Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. Our mission is to fight racism and sexism on our campus to guarantee the right to a safe working and educational environment free of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Please share your story with RISE here. We are also happy to share the international-support-network mailing list, a resource for connecting the international student community at MIT.