The diasporic academic – a narrative in the making

This post marks the start of a new blog – The Diasporic Academic. Starting a new blog allows me to choose a more appropriate title to reflect my current state of affairs. For the past two years, I was using Teacher Sherrie, a blog I started when I embarked on my MAT in TESOL, to write about my PhD experiences and research topics. I’ve been thinking about my academic narrative recently, and I realise that the ‘teacher’ label is simply not the right ‘frame’ for my current, and potentially, future endeavours.

I first heard about the term ‘diasporic academic’ from Wendy Larner during her Keynote Presentation at the 2016 ISANA conference. The presentation was based on her 2015 paper, and according to Larner (2015), the diasporic academic is defined as one with multiple national affiliations. Examples include a researcher from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project, and a doctoral student from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes.

Image credit: Imma Moles

Apart from identifying academics as having links in more than one country, ‘diasporic’ further points to these individuals as being intermediaries, acting as transnational knowledge brokers. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

I remember being inspired by this perspective of foreign/non-native researchers. I wrote down personal notes on what this term meant to me and I discussed this term with some fellow international doctoral students. We concluded that the concept of the diasporic academic was promising but also lamented that the current university climate viewed international doctoral students as funding and research targets more than transnational knowledge brokers. My initial enthusiasm was snuffed out quickly enough.

Recently, however, the term ‘diasporic academic’ began to resonate with me again. In the past six months, I’ve been translating my data, analysing it through translanguaging efforts (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012), that is, thinking in both English and Chinese to make sense of Chinese text and presenting the argument in English. I also finished a draft article on being a bilingual researcher, and presented about conducting cross-cultural research in an English-dominant environment. And then as I sat down thinking about who I was as an academic, what kind of narrative I was trying to write, the answer presented itself: I am a diasporic academic.

I am a diasporic academic, not only as a foreigner researching about international students in New Zealand, but also as a third generation Chinese Singaporean having to differentiate myself from other Chinese, both nationals and diaspora, to those unfamiliar with the ‘Chinese diaspora‘. I have to point out that ‘diaspora’ is a highly contested territory and many may disagree with how I have used the term. Nonetheless, I believe it is a term whose meaning is evolving with changing patterns of migration, whether temporary or permanent. And so the meaning I attach to being a diasporic academic will no doubt change in the course of developing an academic identity and career in the years to come.

 

References

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Developing its conceptualisation and contextualisation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 655–670. http://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2012.718490

ISANA NZ PD Day in Hamilton, 16 June 2017

My reflection on the ISANA NZ Professional Development Day held in Hamilton on 16 June 2017: http://www.isananz.org.nz. (Original article archived here.)

ISANA NZ PD Day in Hamilton, 16 June 2017
Sherrie Lee, Student Member, ISANA NZ

The ISANA NZ PD Day in Hamilton was held on 16 June 2017 and facilitated by Terry McGrath and Sylvia Hooker. The ISANA NZ PD days across New Zealand were generously sponsored by Allianz/Marsh and Uni-Care.

Terry opened the session with updates to ISANA activities, most notably, the partnership with Education New Zealand(ENZ) to present eight workshops on the topic of pastoral care of international students at the upcoming New Zealand International Education Conference (NZIEC) in August. Another important update was the launch of The International Student Wellbeing Strategy by the Ministry of Education, and the funding available for education providers to implement ideas to strengthen international student wellbeing.

Picture

​Terry also highlighted that ISANA NZ was looking at providing more professional development workshops and invited greater involvement from the ISANA NZ membership. With rapid developments in the international education scene, ISANA NZ is also looking towards increasing its membership and increasing funding for its operations.

Terry also introduced NZISA – New Zealand International Students’ Association – a student organisation in its early stages of formation. As a student representative of NZISA, I spoke briefly about how NZISA came about. Following discussions about the needs of international students and their student voice at the ISANA 2016 conference in Wellington, a group of international student leaders came together to discuss forming an international student organisation. Currently, the proposed constitution is in its draft stage and the students are working towards a formal establishment of the association. (Postscript: more info about NZISA as reported by PIE news.)


Overview Update: International Education in New Zealand
Terry provided an overview of the international education landscape in New Zealand. International education is valuable for longer term migration with declining numbers in the New Zealand work force, as well as for international relations. He highlighted recent statistics of international student enrolments and the key stakeholders involved in international education (ISANA NZ, SIEBA, ANZSSA).

Terry then moved on to focus on the importance of pastoral care for international students. Supporting students’ living and social needs is valuable because it contributes to their overall experience of studying in New Zealand. He highlighted that the goodwill of international students is influential and important for New Zealand. He cited the example of Kiwi expatriates working overseas who have benefitted from such goodwill.

Terry also pointed out the implications of recent developments. Firstly, with the industry having a substantial economic value of more than $4 billion, one needs to ask where the money goes to. How is the government using the money to benefit international students? Secondly, the recent change to the Code of Practice of Pastoral Care for International Students means that the Code is now outcomes-based, which provides greater flexibility for education providers to implement the Code. With a pragmatic approach, how then are outcomes measured?

Workshop 1: Ensuring Well-being in Living Contexts
Terry and Sylvia presented an overview of accommodation issues faced by international students. They discussed the following dominant patterns that influence living choices:

i) social class
ii) communication of pre-arrival information
iii) thinking processes such as, prior expectations
iv) coping mechanisms, especially when living in isolation
v) economics
vi) leadership, e.g. being influenced by other international students
vii) lifestyle factors

One interesting example given, was how an international student would willingly spend a few thousand dollars on a car (because it was relatively cheap compared to buying a car back home), but was unwilling to fork out a couple of hundred dollars for a bed (because it seemed to be exorbitant).

There were two breakout groups (under 18s, over 18s) to discuss accommodation issues. I joined the group focusing on over 18s. It was interesting to find out the preferences of different demographics of students. For example, Chinese students preferred homestay arrangements at least in the initial period, Indian students tended to opt for rental accommodation with fellow nationals, while European students, particularly those who were on short-term courses, looked to Airbnb for living arrangements.

I also shared with the group my personal experience of looking for accommodation for my family and pointed out the difficulty in getting up to date and specific information about property rentals prior to coming to New Zealand. In my interactions with other postgraduate students, I found that personal networks provided valuable information related to living arrangements.

NZQA Update
A representative from NZQA (Harsha Chhima) presented on the updates to the Code of Practice for Pastoral Care for International Students. Harsha highlighted the available resources related to the Code of Practice, such as, resources in different languages for international students. She also highlighted that the new focus on outcomes was based on the principles of ‘high trust and high accountability’. Signatories are required to submit a self-review to review their pastoral care practices and procedures to see if they meet the outcomes of the Code of Practice.

I asked the question of whether there are checks and balances since signatories may be biased in providing evidence of their own conduct. Harsha responded that the department scrutinises the documents submitted by signatories and will act promptly if there are any discrepancies or there is insufficient evidence.

Workshop 2: Pastoral Care in a Cross-cultural Context
Sylvia and Terry presented on the multi-faceted and complex topic of pastoral care (which is itself complex) in a cross-cultural context.

Picture

There were several important aspects which could have been workshop topics of their own, and which I highlight below.

i) Pastoral care is demanding and those in such positions need to recognise the need for self-care, e.g. identifying close contacts whom they can talk to, ask for support from, etc.

ii) Responding to religious sensitivities regarding serious issues (e.g. death) require knowledge and appropriate communication. A useful resource was highlighted – A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity.

iii) Intercultural competence can be thought of as different levels: i) having cultural literacy (knowledge of different cultures), ii) cultural intelligence (being able to function in culturally diverse settings), and iii) cross-cultural competency (having the necessary skills, attributes and behaviour to interact meaningfully between different ethnic cultures).

iv) Elements of social cohesion: i) Belonging, ii) Participation, iii) Legitimacy, iv) Inclusion, v) Recognition.

v) International Student Cycle – the most neglected aspect is probably the post academic transition stage and how students can be supported to transition to employment in New Zealand, back to their home countries, etc.

Immigration NZ – Update on policy changes
A representative from Immigration New Zealand (Bridget Harrison) presented on the latest policies and visas related to international students. The details can be found on Immigration NZ’s website pages specifically for education providers. Bridget also shared about the recent Pathways Visas which was potentially attractive to students as well as education providers (in terms of reducing administration), but was however, not clearly understood and therefore there needed to be greater clarification of the requirements. One of the points reiterated was that evidence of having sufficient funds was an important visa requirement, and that international students cannot expect to be guaranteed paid employment as a means to fund their studies.

A significant policy change was the requirements for the Skilled Migrant Category visa – notably the minimum remuneration of $48,859 per annum, and the increase in selection points (140 to 160). This then has an impact for students who consider overseas education in New Zealand as a pathway to migration. A few in the audience considered the minimum remuneration to be unrealistic since New Zealander workers would not typically receive such pay even after several years of working experience. Bridget said that there would be consultation in the near future regarding these recent changes and how they affect international students. Bridget also highlighted that students who were considering post-study migration should ‘be smart’ about their work rights and make full use of such opportunities to get their foot in the door.

I then raised the point about how there seems to be conflicting messages about providing students’ work rights, and then advising them about the challenges of finding paid work. I suggested that this was going to be an ongoing challenge with students having high expectations of finding work (e.g. as promised by agents) and the reality of paid employment for students.

 Workshop 3: Sharpening our Tools
i) Handling workload & avoiding burnout
ii) Building an inclusive student body
iii) Enhancing cultural literacy amongst staff
iv) Marketable features in our support programmes

I participated in discussion groups on ‘Building an inclusive student body’ and ‘Enhancing cultural literacy amongst staff’. In our discussion on building an inclusive body, I was asked what I thought would be an ideal inclusive body. I shared that it was having friendships and networks with locals like domestic students. I personally found this one of the most challenging aspects of relationship building. It was much easier to connect with fellow international students who had an immediate understanding of what you were about. Several in the group noted that internationalising the campus was about creating opportunities for greater interaction between domestic and international students.

The group also talked about how buddy programmes were useful by intentionally pairing a domestic student with a new international student. I suggested that for postgraduate students, a group of buddies, rather than individual persons, might be more effective in helping students and often the families they bring with them in the initial transition period.

In the discussion group on enhancing cultural literacy, all of us recognised the challenges of building such skills among people who may have limited exposure to different cultures or who hold strong views about those outside their own culture. For institutions to equip staff with cultural competency, it is necessary for management and decision-makers to recognise its importance and the integral part it plays in pastoral care.

Personal reflection
Staff working in roles supporting international students face a set of complex challenges such as, institutional culture and agendas, diverse student backgrounds, and ongoing global developments and unexpected events. The PD day was an important time to gather collectively, not only to hear the latest news, but also to share and learn from experiences from other people and organisations. ISANA NZ plays an increasingly important role in facilitating the professional development of individuals, who in turn shape the culture of international education in practice.

Being international

The international student experience is a complex one. What factors contribute to making it a meaningful one? Institutional policies and academic support are important, but so are personal attitudes and intercultural perceptions of both students and the host society.

group-239251_1920_international

My PhD research is on international tertiary students, focusing on students from non-Western backgrounds. In the case of New Zealand, most of these students would be Asian – Chinese, South Korean, Indian. My interest in international students stems from my previous study of English language learners. I was interested in their challenges in acquiring and using the English language, and their shifting identities in the process of language learning. In the course of preparing the research proposal in the past year, however, those research interests led to other concerns. My focus of my PhD research is on international students’ informal learning practices, investigating how they engage with their peers to help them in their academic learning.

In between having successfully defended my research proposal, and preparing for data collection, I’m now examining more closely the debates surrounding international students in higher education, or more commonly termed, the internationalisation of higher education, especially in New Zealand. The debates range from macro views of politics and policies, to micro issues of academic support, but are all interrelated. Three articles caught my attention for pointing out essential conditions for successful internationalisation – for both the university/country and the students.

Anderson’s (2015) overview of the higher education scene in Canada, which shares similarities with the scene in New Zealand, highlights the challenges of teaching and supporting increasing numbers of international students who use English as a second or additional language (I use the terminology EAL – English as an Additional Language). Anderson raises the tension between recruiting international students as a source of much needed income, and the university’s social and educational responsibilities to students. It is the latter issue that is often debated – should international students meet minimally acceptable standards of language proficiency (and really, culturally appropriate behaviours and attitudes in the classroom and beyond), or should universities provide ample opportunities and support for students to learn the ways of the academy and increase their chances of success? Or a third, and in my opinion, a rather radical option – “establish more flexible and additive relationships with foreign students coming from non-Western academic traditions instead of expecting them to unilaterally morph into the conventions and practices of their new academic communities and discourses” (Anderson, 2015, pp. 176-177). Citing various research and offering specific examples, Anderson calls for more comprehensive and targeted academic support for international students and concludes that positive student experiences ultimately translates into better reputations for universities.

While the Canadian approach appears to favour student-centred and culturally appropriate support, Jiang (2010) points out New Zealand’s “lack of intercultural policies and strategies” to respond to demographic changes in international student populations. This is not to say that universities do nothing to address international students’ academic needs, but the lack of a culture of internationalisation at the policy-making level affects funding and staffing for timely and specific support. Jiang talks about the importance of developing intercultural or international relationships. She does not discuss what it means to be intercultural, but highlights the various levels at which ‘international’ operates on (i.e. political and educational levels). In fact, none of the readings I discuss here probe deeply into what it means to be intercultural (see Byram’s (1997) Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) model for an in-depth exploration) – but all call for greater facilitation of students’ acculturation to the host environment.

While Anderson (2015) offers an academic perspective, and Jiang (2010) a policy one, Butcher (2010) seems to suggest that societal attitudes and genuine hospitality are key to ensuring positive experiences for international students. Butcher compares different cohorts of international students in New Zealand – those from the Colombo Plan era during the 1950s and 60s and international students today. The scholars from the past were Asia’s elites; they developed close ties with New Zealanders, and vast amounts of goodwill exist between New Zealand and the Asian countries. Today’s students, in contrast, are no longer “unique or rare, [rather], their dominance in New Zealand cities is starkly evident, to the extent they have been referred to as … a ‘cultural invasion'”(Butcher, 2010, p. 12). Noting emphatically that Asia is New Zealand’s future, Butcher concludes that it is in New Zealand’s interest to invest in and cultivate networks with Asian students. The nature of new intercultural relationships require initiative on the part of the host, as evidenced in the warm reception given by New Zealand communities to the Colombo Plan students. Will friendships blossom between today’s international students and their hosts?

I’m not sure if Butcher (2010) is optimistic of a change in attitude, that is, to view Asian students as important bridges to New Zealand’s future, rather than an economic resource for present needs. As an international student in New Zealand, I personally identify with Butcher’s vision for rich intercultural relationships. I also believe that these relationships are multifaceted, complex, and take time to develop and nurture.

I recognise and believe in the potential New Zealand has in terms of creating a unique and valuable international experience for students. While fresh air and beautiful landscapes have always been New Zealand’s selling points, a more important experience takes place between people – people who welcome each other into their lives. The reality of intercultural friendships is never straightforward but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. I hope my research will uncover some of the complexities of the international student experience and start new dialogues – intercultural ones.

References

Anderson, T. (2015). Seeking internationalization: The state of Canadian higher education. Canadian Journal of Higher Education45(4), 166–187.

Butcher, A. (2010). International students and New Zealand’s future. Journal of International Education in Business1(1), 9–26.

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Jiang, X. (2010). A probe into the internationalisation of higher education in the New Zealand context. Educational Philosophy and Theory42(8), 881–897. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2009.00547.x