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Learning to Value OU’s International Students – and to Understand Their Challenges

Every April, the College of International Studies holds International Awareness Week (IAW), five days of events that celebrate world cultures, international education and study abroad through presentations, workshops and other activities. This year, international student adviser Mukarram Lillard, along with her colleagues in International Student Services, decided to facilitate a presentation/discussion on the value international students bring to the University of Oklahoma, the state and the country at large.

Correcting Misconceptions about International Students

“I felt there was a need in the local community – we need to educate people about international students. There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings,” Lillard explains. Her inspiration came in February, when the OU Daily published an article on international students at risk of deportation due to a change in bursar policy. The piece sparked conversation about the challenges international students face, and while many in the community offered support, others took the opportunity to launch criticism. “The social media comments really affected me personally,” Lillard says. “I saw people needing to be educated and to learn some facts.”

As a response, Lillard and her colleagues conducted some research via NAFSA (Association of International Educators), recruited some international students to help and organized the first information session on the south oval in March, with two more sessions to be held during IAW. For her presentation on Tuesday, April 9, Lillard teamed up with Youssef Kamel, an OU student from Egypt. “I wanted to involve international students, because they are the best ones to speak about themselves,” she said.

The presentation, entitled “The Impact and Benefits of International Education,” drew a crowd of students from a wide range of majors, including a number of Global Engagement Fellows. Lillard began by sharing that she came to OU several years ago as an international student from Gaza, and as a Palestinian, Muslim woman, has faced her fair share of challenges here. Lillard and Kamel then reviewed some statistics on international students’ economic contributions, pointing out that they bring $39 billion annually to the US economy and $260 million annually to Oklahoma’s economy. “Some people think that international students come here to take away from domestic students,” said Lillard. “That is a huge misconception.”

Challenges Facing International Students

Lillard also took time to describe the rigorous rules, procedures and standards facing international students, which many domestic students may not understand. International students must follow various complex rules to enroll at the university, to work at the university, to stay enrolled and eventually graduate and, if they wish, to stay on after graduation for a job or internship. While most are “up for the challenge,” Lillard emphasized that the stresses of college combined with experiencing a new culture can sometimes be overwhelming, and can exacerbate mental health issues. This is why, she explained, we need to have compassion as “they become part of our family.”

Lillard also dispelled the myth that international students are given more leeway or special treatment than their domestic peers. If students fail to meet the requirements for remaining at OU, she explained, “It’s pretty black and white”: they are given a short period of time to address the issue before immigration status is terminated. It’s a harsh reality of which international students must always be aware.

A Student’s Perspective

After answering some specific questions on immigration and deportation procedures, Lillard handed the floor to international student Youssef Kamel. Kamel is part of a group that has voiced opposition to the administration’s new policy requiring payment of overdue bursar balances before enrollment. He explained that this policy has had impacted international students in particular, because being enrolled is a requirement for staying in the country. If international students face a financial setback, he explained, many cannot come up with money quickly because they are ineligible for aid and lack the credit score or American co-signer needed to secure a loan. In the example of the student featured in the Daily, a family emergency in the fall disrupted her funding and she needed additional time to pay off her balance.

Reflecting on his own time at OU, Kamel concluded that it has been “a positive experience, in the big picture.” One reason for this has been the scholarship funding he receives through the United World Colleges Scholars Program, of which OU is one of the strongest supporters in the country. “I was very, very lucky to be able to come to OU,” he said, noting that the most positive aspect of his experience has been the diverse, supportive community of international students he has joined.

On the other hand, Kamel described one of the biggest challenges as forming relationships outside of the international bubble. It can be difficult to bond with domestic students, he explained, because he doesn’t want to be the “token brown friend,” or to always be reminded that he’s the “different” person in a group. The goal is to get past the point where people think of you as an “international student” and to be seen as a regular college student, he said.

Stereotypes and Assumptions

The discussion then turned to the critical issue of stereotyping and discrimination faced by international students. Whether or not the intention is or context is hostile, Lillard pointed out that it is problematic to expect international students to speak on behalf of their entire country or religion; they only represent themselves as individuals. This sparked a conversation among students in attendance, who agreed that not only does this happen here in the US, but it can happen to American students studying abroad. A student who spent a semester at OU in Puebla, Mexico, noted that she often felt called upon to speak on behalf of Americans, and that she was asked to answer for President Trump’s policies.

We all make assumptions about others, Lillard noted, and the important thing is recognizing and correcting this behavior. “Discrimination, racism, sexism, xenophobia – it is not a ‘US thing.’ It is not a ‘white people thing,’” she explained, adding that in fact, we see discrimination in all cultures, and it is where power lies that matters.

Growth, Patience & Community

As the event drew to a close, focus returned to the positives of the international student experience, as one student inquired, “What is the most valuable thing about being an international student?” For Lillard, it was the “huge amount of personal, emotional and mental growth, exploring myself and how I interact with others.” For Kamel, it has been all about community: “meeting people and getting to connect with those from different backgrounds.”

When asked what advice they would offer prospective international students, the two presenters kept it simple. “Throw your expectations out the window,” Kamel stated. “It’s not better or worse; it’s just different.”

“Embrace patience as much as possible,” said Lillard, adding that though it took her a number of years, she now considers Norman her home. “Give it time; it will grow on you.”

To learn more about international student admission, requirements and procedures, community, programs and more, visit the International Student Services website. To keep up with international events on campus, check out the CIS events page or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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