As part of programming for International Week, which celebrates international students and occurs in the last week of every April, Bowdoin’s International Student Association (ISA) hosted a talk led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Shruti Devgan “This International Life.” Devgan, a former international student and current international scholar herself, shared her own experiences with these identities as well as her perspective on how recent events have challenged and complicated the experience of international students in the United States.
“Being an international student or an international scholar is a complex and nuanced experience,” Devgan said at the beginning of her talk.
Devgan explained that while being an international student is often seen as an amazing opportunity accompanied by its own privileges and advantages, the pursuit of the so-called “American Dream” comes at a cost.
One of the biggest recent hurdles for international students has been the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions and college regulations spawning from it.
“As a former international student and as someone who is an international scholar, I felt extremely anxious for all students who were dealing with such a stressful experience,” Devgan said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
To reflect on this, she wrote an essay entitled “Temporary. Alien. (Not) Alone,” from which she read an excerpt during the talk. Devgan explained that this piece offered her an opportunity to make sense of what had happened to her and what was currently happening to international students through sociological methods.
“I was thinking about how at the time, when I was much younger, and my visa was rejected multiple times, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just happening to me, it was because of something larger than me,” Devgan said. “It was because of social structures and historical reasons [that] I was going through the experience that I was.”
She explained that studying sociology made her realize the connections between her own experience and greater conflicts and structural issues.
ISA member Raima Chakrabarti ’22 has taken multiple classes in the sociology department, including one with Devgan. In a Zoom interview with the Orient, Chakrabarti explained that applying sociological terms helped validate her own lived experience.
“Just mentioning all these different sociologists and these theories that they’ve worked on kind of reassured me that ‘Hey, what you guys are experiencing doesn’t make it brand new, it doesn’t make it alien, it’s legitimate and it’s not all in your head,’ which was reassuring,” Chakrabarti said.
Devgan was careful to note that the experiences of international students are first and foremost their own.
“This is my lived experience, and it informs obviously everything I do in life, and it also informs my research … I’m able to make these connections between my own experiences of living … [and] also this transnational life, living in two places at the same time,” she said.
A prevailing theme from Devgan’s talk and the student conversations that followed was the question of how one conceptualizes home.
“It’s a source of great angst for us, it’s a yearning for stability … we are at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Devgan said in her talk.
ISA community outreach coordinator Zeynep Tuna ’22, said she related to this feeling.
“It really did make me realize I am leaving home to [go to] Turkey, and I am also leaving home to [go to] the U.S., so it’s both ways,” said Tuna in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And, I will probably never be able to decide where I want to be … There’s just not one place.”
For the last section of the event, students were encouraged to share their own experiences and connections to the ideas Devgan spoke about.
“I loved the fact that you, we were able to have that conversation at the end and that students were able to share their stories … their ideas of what home is, how tricky it is to define home,” Devgan said.