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.



Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205.

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

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: (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.


​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.


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.

Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty

I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.

I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.


Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.


Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.


Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.

2016 – A year of living intensively

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I look back at this year and I think of myself as a circus performer balancing plates on my fingertips, toes and nose. Those plates represent data collection, conference papers and presentations, thesis writing and serving the postgraduate community. At times, some plates were spinning slower than others, but none of them came crashing down. I could be extolling the virtues of productivity, but I have to concede all that scheduling and compartmentalising has awful side effects that affected not just myself, but my family as well (a Guardian article elucidates this reality).

Through this one very intensive year, I learnt lessons that no textbook can teach you about doing research – that you never only embody a single role of the PhD researcher; that you mustn’t confine yourself to just doing the PhD; but that in the end, you are ultimately human, not machine, a being with limitations and a spirit that needs to be nourished.

“I am a PhD student.”

Sure, I am a PhD student. My purpose is to conduct research and report on it. And while it is a time and life consuming endeavour, I am also many other people – a mother, a wife, a friend. However, the personal realm didn’t feature much on my very filled out Google calendar. In fact, maybe because it didn’t get penciled in, it just didn’t get done. Since the better part of the day was filled with academic, mostly mentally exhausting, activities, by the time I came home, it was pretty much leftovers for my family in terms of energy and attention. As a non-resident and non-local, building relationships with other families and peers was also important, but that simply dropped off the radar – there were no leftovers after the leftovers. And as for the fabled ‘me’ time, it was barely experienced except when I was on a plane to Wellington to attend a conference.

“Publish or perish!”

And of course, when you do research, there is a need to communicate it to a wider audience. Conferences and publications are important academic/research activities – especially when future employment opportunities are dependant on them. While the PhD research is the central focus, there is also a need to seek out appropriate conferences and publishing opportunities. I was very fortunate to have participated in the recent ISANA Conference, a conference that nurtures doctoral students by having a doctoral consortium and encouraging doctoral students to publish refereed papers. It was also at this conference that the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ was put in perspective. The life of an academic is one of writing – and very importantly – publishing. Getting your work reviewed by intellectual others who are detached from your work and yourself (i.e. not your supervisors and friends) builds the inner capacity to be critiqued and to respond as part of the scholarly conversation. So even though doing the PhD is demanding, it’s simply not enough to write a long and complex tome only a handful of people will read. And even if you were interested in non-academic jobs, prospective employers would still need to see you doing more than just being holed up in a room writing endlessly.

“Is there any wax left in the candle?”

So I’ve realised that I’m more than just a PhD student but the commitment to doing it is draining my energy away from important relationships in my life. I’m also convinced of the need to be a productive academic during my PhD candidature, and not wait till after the PhD. This seems to be leading to a conclusion where I resign myself to another busy year ahead and hope that family and friends will be understanding and forgive me for my lack of tenderness towards them.

But I reject that conclusion. It will be another busy year, without a doubt, but it will also be a more intentional year. My intentions are not grandiose plans, but about making family time a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’m thinking short trips with the family during school holidays. Better yet if I have to pay for the trips. I know I can’t devote the same amount and kind of energy towards friends but my lunch and coffee breaks can be planned with them in mind. I think the main challenge, however, is to have ‘me’ time that sits outside academic and personal demands.

So instead of going through another intensive year with relationships dangling at the periphery, my hope for 2017 is to be intentional with my time with people who matter, and perhaps I should start with myself. It won’t be a solo trip to a mountain top, but a still morning or quiet evening in prayer.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

Supervision conversations


I had a supervision meeting today and I came out of it feeling encouraged and refocused. It was not simply a matter of kind words or specific directions.  It was the way the conversations among my two supervisors and myself allowed one another to express, respond and reflect.

I usually audio record the meeting and listen to the recording as I write up the meeting notes. In the past, I would summarise what was said and wrote it in the third person, but lately, I’ve been writing it as a conversation and using the first person instead. Although it takes a longer time to represent the meeting in this manner, I derive great satisfaction from doing so.

Firstly, by replaying the meeting in my ears and mind, I recapture those aha moments, and pin down the triggers that caused particular responses. While the point might be, say, to focus on a particular research method, the conversation points that led to that are just as illuminating. By representing the exchange as a conversation, I am able to track my thought processes, and have a better appreciation of the advice given.

Secondly, the thought processes that are captured in this conversation format are unique to this particular meeting. I may have considered some of these points I made in my researcher journal or in conversations with others, but the way my ideas and my supervisors’ responses are woven together do not appear anywhere else. Had this meeting not taken place, I would not have certain conclusions or convictions about aspects of my research.

Finally, the ability to track my thought processes through roughly transcribed conversations, and the uniqueness of these conversations, contribute to my ongoing thinking about my research. This, to me, is invaluable for helping me shape my thesis writing. Perhaps it’s a bit strange to think of supervision meetings as reference material but I am certain that the things I have captured in conversation will inform the writing on methodology and analysis.

Making time for supervision conversations is important to me. Not just a meeting to report facts and receive advice, but a space for genuine dialogue and and gentle persuasion.