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The Precarity of Being an International Graduate Student

By Jingyun Dai and Rohan P. Naidu

Despite the current political climate, Harvard, in contrast to its peer institutions, saw an increase in international student applicants for 2018-19. Many international students, just like many American students, dream of coming to Harvard to pursue excellence in research. And, just like many American students, we face the ups-and-downs of being graduate students.

Unlike our American peers, however, we often work far away from our families and friends with uncertainty around when and how frequently we might be able to go back home. Importantly, our visas—and many of our rights—are tied to our status as students at this institution. As a result, the usual challenges of graduate school—the precariousness of our compensation and healthcare benefits or maintaining healthy and productive relationships with our advisors—are magnified manyfold for us. This severely restricts our ability to advocate for ourselves when faced with difficult situations at work, such as harassment or unreasonable expectations from our supervisors. Many of us choose silence over risking our academic careers, especially because for some of us, based on our country of origin, losing visa status may mean never getting a second chance.

In fact, we personally know cases of international graduate students not speaking up with accounts of sexual harassment in their labs, about being denied time off to visit family, or about being ridiculed by our advisors while being passed on for professional development opportunities like conference funding.

Faced with these challenges, we feel vulnerable and often without substantive support from the administration. Our mental health care staff routinely lack sensitivity to pressures unique to being an international student, and the high cost of accessing external care, especially given visa restrictions on where and how much we can work, means our concerns often remain unaddressed. There are also few systems of support to help us manage relationships with advisors and supervisors. Troublingly, we do not know what recourse there might be if we were unjustly forced out of an academic program, even though being forced out often means being forced to leave the country because our visas are tied to active status in academic programs.

This lack of systematic support from the administration mirrors what we see at the undergraduate level with students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Moreover, despite the pro-immigration stance the administration has taken rhetorically, the actual responses from the administration to the increasingly restrictive immigration policies on the federal level have been feeble, to say the least. We cannot help but often feel that this university is not a place made for us. While in recent years the University has stepped up its efforts to recruit students globally, it has not coupled these efforts with adequate resources for those it recruits.

How could international students address these issues? How could we push the University administration to do more for international students? Such advocacy requires that we band together to speak up boldly and organize actively; while we may be a few in number in our own departments, we make up nearly one-third of the graduate student population at Harvard.

One way to get our voices heard and turn organizing into real leverage is via mobilizing for a union. The right to join and participate in labor unions in the U.S. is legally protected for international student workers in the same manner as it is for domestic workers. Full participation in our union would empower us to shape student workers’ priorities as a whole and bargain with the University administration on an equal footing to improve our conditions. Full access to our union’s grievance procedure would ensure that we have the ability to fight back whenever faced with unjust treatment.

Across the country, graduate workers’ unions have won powerful protections for international students. For example, in 2015, graduate employees at the Wayne State University secured a clause in their union contract that an absence due to immigration procedures shall be treated the same way as an absence caused by illness or injury. At the University of Connecticut, graduate students won provisions in their union contract that prevent the university from imposing visa-related fees on international students. On our own campus, the Harvard International Office established an emergency hotline for international students and scholars who encounter difficulties entering the border in April 2017, after the International Scholars Working Group of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers advocated for such a measure for over two months through a petition supported by hundreds of Harvard community members.

Mobilizing for our union would not be a panacea for all of the challenges we face, including the rise in xenophobic policies federally. But it does provide one concrete way for us to hold the University accountable and make specific demands. Our power in this process originates from the fact that student workers across the entire campus come together, join forces, and have each other’s back. International student workers, who now make up a substantial portion of the membership of various local unions affiliated with the UAW, have also significantly shaped the priorities and advocacy efforts of the UAW on the level of national politics. In recent years, the UAW has actively advocated to lift limits on employment-based green cards for foreign students graduating from American universities with advanced degrees and to expand the OPT program.

Ultimately, our Harvard is better when all members, including our international students, work with the stability of a contract and the security of a community that can organize in times of need. We are voting for this better Harvard by voting "yes" on April 18 and 19, and encourage our fellow international student voters to join us so that present and future scholars have equal access to opportunities regardless of where they were born and what their passports say.

Jingyun Dai is a first-year Ph.D. student in sociology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Rohan P. Naidu is a first-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrophysics at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The authors are both international students from China and India, respectively.

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