New Fellowship Supports International Student Flourishing
In 2021 the Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) and the International Studies Office launched a new program called the International Student Citizen Leaders Fellowship to provide increased support to UVA's international students. This spring they selected eight students from seven countries forming the very first cohort.
According to the program's co-creator, Caren Freeman, international students can sometimes feel isolated in their everyday encounters with fellow students due to a combination of factors.
"There are the challenges of studying and socializing in a non-native language, the discomfiture of American categories of race and nationality, and the difficulty of parsing the tidal wave of information related to student programming," she says. “One of the most common and agonizing things we hear," says Freeman, "involves the struggle to make friends and the generalized feeling of not fully belonging."
Freeman, who is an anthropologist and student advisor in UVA's International Studies Office, knew of CSC's Citizen Leaders Fellowship, led by Leslie Hubbard, Program Director for Student Engagement and Contemplative Instruction, which helps student athletes gain personal and professional skills through community engagement. The two met one day over lunch to strategize ways to utilize Freeman’s training in cultural anthropology and Hubbard’s expertise in contemplation and models of flourishing to come up with a way to help international students.
What emerged was a pedagogical approach to ethical leadership, modeled on the citizen leaders fellowship, with the addition of a credit-bearing course and an emphasis on ethnography—where students gain an understanding of the University, their place within it, and the perceptions and perspectives of others.
“The two fellowships are designed with the same goals in mind,” says Hubbard who helped launch the program with Freeman, “to empower students to become community leaders by doing something truly exceptional for their community while giving them the opportunity to develop the knowledge and long-term skills to pursue more engaged, healthy, successful lives at UVA and beyond so they may flourish.”
CSC's definition of flourishing embodies well-being from a holistic point of view. Hubbard describes it as "deep states of health and actualization of potential in all aspects of life—physical, social, emotional, cognitive, academic, and professional—as well as to actively contribute to the well-being and flourishing of other people, other communities, and the natural world.”
Through the fellowship students learn practical skills that support flourishing, such as deep listening and ways to find a sense of “home” or refuge in their bodies and the surrounding physical world. The fellows are also given training in self-awareness to explore their personal values and what it means for them to become compassionate and ethical leaders. They then create and implement a community-building project which reflects their own individual passions, interests, and their evolving discoveries of what helps them to flourish.
When choosing a project, fellows are encouraged to reflect upon the challenges they've experienced first-hand and the ones they discovered were shared by other students. They are trained in basic research methodology and receive mentoring to help them conduct ethnographic interviews.
Through their research, students identified five key challenges to well-being:
Communication difficulties especially in social situations
Feelings of being snubbed or excluded
Difficulty accessing and processing information regarding university resources and programming
Understanding and coping with the imposition of American categories of race and nationality
Homesickness or feelings of not belonging at UVA.
International fellow, Liron Shvilberg is a second-year Engineering PhD candidate from Israel. He said it was difficult for him to make friends and find support networks. In response, Liron’s project was to create a series of gatherings called International Food Fridays—uplifting and casual events held in the Engineering School—which focused on a particular culture’s food and some activities associated with that region of the world. His goal was to promote conviviality, curiosity, and social connection.
Other projects created by fellows include spaces where students could speak openly about race and explore ways to cope with discrimination; research proposals to help discover ways to bridge the gaps which segregate international and non-international students; and outlets to create and aggregate resources for students.
Hubbard says she has already seen improvements in students in the few months the program has been running.
"The fellowship has been so helpful," she says. "Students are constructively mitigating problems that they themselves have suffered through, while receiving a sense of fulfillment knowing they are helping others, potentially for years to come."
Fellows will present ethnographically-informed results of their projects including lessons they have learned about international student flourishing on April 29, 2022 at the International Student Citizen Leaders Fellowship Assembly. The event will be held in the West Oval Room of the Rotunda with President Ryan in attendance.
2021-2022 Fellows and Projects
Kelvin Afolabi (Nigeria, first-year PhD student, Education). Having recently moved from his home country of Nigeria where Blackness is a taken for granted aspect of everyday life to the United States where suddenly the color of his skin was treated by others as the most defining aspect of his identity, Kelvin experienced this transition a loss of selfhood and human connection.To mitigate his isolation and flattened social identity, Kelvin is creating affinity spaces for Black students from African countries to enable them to socialize in the joyful ways and hospitable forms they do in their home countries and to get an uplifting reprieve from the weight of being raced in America.
Abdualhadi "Hadi" Alzahrani (Saudi Arabia, first-year Master’s student, Environmental Sciences). Recognizing that international students could benefit from extra encouragement and a supportive space in which to practice expressing themselves in English, Hadi is creating a forum called “I-Talk,” modeled after Ted Talks. As the name suggests, it is meant to be a comfortable space for talking about whatever topics are of interest to the students themselves, and in this way international students get to know one another, learn from each other, and gain confidence and practice with public speaking.
Gabriela Solé Delfin (Peru, first-year undergraduate student, pre-Commerce). One of the first things Gabriela noticed upon arrival at UVA is what she calls the “invisible gap” dividing international and domestic students. She observes that many international student events seem to attract or are designed exclusively for international students, with the upshot being that these well intentioned efforts to create a sense of community and ease adjustment unwittingly perpetuate the invisible barrier. Gabriela is conducting participant observation and survey-based research to better understand the factors involved in creating events, programs and social spaces at UVA that will bring international and non-international students into dynamic and fluid interaction.
Chinmay Nair (India, first-year PhD candidate, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering). As a first-year PhD candidate, Chinmay struggled with his adjustment to UVA and found it challenging to find and navigate essential resources such as information related to housing, financial aid, SEVIS documentation, transportation, and connecting with student organizations. Additionally the pandemic made it more difficult to connect and interact with fellow students and the greater Charlottesville community due to online learning and less in person interaction and events. As a result, Chinmay wants through his project to help create an environment where international students and American students break all barriers to celebrate, exchange, respect other cultures and bring a sense of ease, comfort, enjoyment and support.
Sue Oh (South Korea, third-year PhD candidate, Psychology). In South Korea Sue had never been conscious of her racial identity. She notes that this new awareness of race is one of the most challenging things she had to grapple with in adjusting to life as a student in the U.S. The rise of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic heightened her uneasiness and motivated her desire to deepen her understanding of American race and racism. Sue has created a safe discussion space for international students to talk openly and learn about race together as well as devise effective strategies for living amid responding to racial tensions.
Liron Shvilberg (Israel, second-year PhD candidate, Engineering). Noting that making friends and feeling supported was especially challenging for international students during the pandemic, Liron proposed finding a way for people who share common interests to enjoy themselves and feel more connected to another and to UVA. He decided to host a series of Friday afternoon gatherings in the Engineering School called International Food Fridays. The atmosphere at these events is by design fun, uplifting, and casual. Each gathering features a particular country or region of the world with associated food, games, and activities to promote conviviality, curiosity and social connection.
Yunkai Sun (China, fourth year PhD student, Materials Science and Engineering). As an active member of the Graduate Engineering Student Council, Yunkai is most interested in further addressing the needs of fellow international graduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences by both creating additional opportunities to connect socially as well as creating more efficient communication channels to connect international students to existing resources which are under utilized. To address these needs Yunkai began offering triweekly SEAS coffee breaks for international graduate students, organized an international graduate student liaison network, and set up a weekly newsletter for international graduate students at SEAS that showcases weekly events and opportunities for further connection.
Siyu Yao (China, first-year undergraduate student, Commerce and Mathematics). As a first year student, Siyu is experiencing firsthand the particular challenges that come with being both “first year” and “international.” While the experience of this initial stage of adjustment is still fresh and immediately at hand, Siyu seeks to create “survival tips” and collate existing resources around Grounds which would be of particular help to international first year students. He has proposed working with the International Studies Office to create a webpage to host the information he has collected and make it widely available to all incoming international students.
GROUP PHOTO: left to right: Sue Oh, Gabriela Solé Delfin, Yunkai Sun, Chinmay Nair, Liron Shvilberg, Kelvin Afolabi. Not pictured: Abdualhadi "Hadi" Alzahrani, Siyu Yao