Connecting the dots to support international students
No one understands the student experience better than alumni. IAS staff members Jung Lee, Assistant Director of Academic Services, and Sakara Buyagawan, Program Coordinator for Academic Services, bring this invaluable perspective to our Academic and Student Services team, and use it to support current IAS students.
Lee earned her undergraduate degree in special education from Ewha Womans University in South Korea and worked with elementary and middle school students for several years. After moving to the U.S., she enrolled in the Master of Arts in Policy Studies program, where she studied human rights policy and was a research intern with the Seattle Human Rights Commission. Lee graduated in 2013 with her master’s degree and a graduate certificate in international development policy and management. She joined the IAS staff shortly thereafter.
Buyagawan earned a bachelor’s degree in American & Ethnic Studies in 2016. Having honed her organizational skills in retail, she targeted education management as her next career move and worked for a small private college. Although she enjoyed her role, Buyagawan felt something was missing, particularly “the social justice, diversity, and equity work that had been such a big part of my undergrad studies.” When IAS announced an opening for a program coordinator in 2018, it “felt like the perfect next step.”
Lee and Buyagawan’s passion for serving students motivated them to pursue a UW Bothell Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement Fellowship with international students in mind. They knew that international students have different concerns than their domestic counterparts, and they wanted to explore how IAS could better meet their needs. When the fellowship began in Fall 2019, neither imagined the impact a global pandemic would have on international students.
Early on, Lee and Buyagawan surveyed IAS international students to gauge challenges and opportunities. They found that while international students could navigate academic requirements quite adeptly, many struggled with social aspects of their new environment. Challenges “like community building or understanding how to find a doctor in a country where you don't understand the healthcare system, things that I had never thought about as a domestic student,” explains Buyagawan. “This was great information, and what we had intended to do was offer in-person workshops around these topics.”
The pandemic and pandemic politics, however, changed their game plan. As a result of remote instruction and government visa policies, many international students suddenly found their immigration status in jeopardy. In July 2020, counter to public health guidelines on campus reopening, the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) reinstituted requirements that international students attend in-person classes in order to enter and remain in the US.
In response, Lee and Buyagawan partnered with IAS senior lecturer and Associate Dean for Curriculum Development Deirdre Vinyard to offer a hybrid course, “Supporting International Students.” Conducted as a mix of in-person and virtual meetings over Zoom, the class was designed to provide an orientation to U.S. higher education and to meet SEVP’s requirement. It also met international students’ critical need for connection, to one another as well as campus academic, social, and community resources.
“One of the students from the group said that it was her first quarter here. She doesn't know anybody or have any friends, so breaking down that isolation is a huge priority,” said Lee.
The course and its development brought together resources from across campus. “Our different departments all see specific needs that international students have and we're all trying to address them,” says Buyagawan. “Colleagues in the Center for International Education, Career Services, the Library, and Counseling Center were responsive and proactive when we reached out,” adds Lee. “We have all the services; we just need more connections and partnerships” to help students connect the dots.
SEVP’s policy is still in effect, and uncertainty remains a constant. Yet this is nothing new to most immigrants, as Lee points out. “When I immigrated to this country, I was really stressed about the uncertainties, but fortunately the process went pretty smoothly.” By contrast, recent policies and circumstances mean that international students have had to navigate so much more. Lee honors their perseverance and determination. “They're really amazing and calm, even during the pandemic. They are trying to stay positive in a foreign country with their goal for academic success and degree completion, and that is really inspiring.”