Following a programming series for ‘international students week,’ the International Student Alliance (ISA) organized a celebration reflecting on a bittersweet year, which took place at 30 College on Thursday afternoon. While the celebration was an uplifting and recreational event, many international students also voiced frustrations and concerns in response to the uncertainties that lie ahead.
International Week at Bowdoin aimed to celebrate Bowdoin’s international student population. While it represented a moment of coming together, many international students have spent this year dealing with ongoing isolation and uncertainty. Many international students have been underwhelmed and frustrated by the College’s handling of issues international students faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some arguing that the response has mainly been retroactive instead of proactive.
“I feel like the question about international students is often considered, but if there is not someone in the room who has actually had that experience, that question might be answered too fast and not explored in depth,” Yordana Gerdzhikova ’23 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Raima Chakrabarti ’22 reflected on the effects of the travel ban implemented over a year ago. She discussed its effects on her as someone who calls Thailand home.
“Especially with COVID[-19] this past year and all of Bowdoin’s sudden decisions, I feel like I can confidently say that international students have always been an afterthought,” Chakrabarti said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Chakrabarti has noticed similar dynamics a year later. Unlike last summer, when international students were guaranteed on-campus housing, this summer only those who fit regular criteria or have been able to get a job through the College are afforded summer housing.
“I just always feel like in order to ask for us to be included, I need to ‘trauma-dump’ and say ‘Hey, this is the reason, this is the reason, this is the reason’ … and it’s kind of frustrating on the administration’s part because for them, this is just a decision they have to make for their job. For a lot of the international students, it’s our life,” Chakrabarti said.
Zeynep Tuna ’22 has been experiencing this same difficulty in acquiring summer housing. She explained that, while it’s easy to feel optimistic about the positive progress at combating the virus, the College still needs to acknowledge that vaccinations do not resolve challenges faced by international students.
“I do think that Bowdoin really needs to do better in terms of remembering that in the U.S. vaccinations are being released and things are starting to look better. But that’s not the case in the rest of the world … I think Bowdoin really has to improve in that sense and kind of not make us grovel for basic necessities such as housing,” Tuna said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Ignacio Perez-Hervada ’22 mentioned that, on a recent Instagram story posted by Bowdoin’s International Student Association (ISA), one Bowdoin student had replied that international students should just “deal with it,” referring to challenges international students face because of the pandemic. The person claimed that those who travel from outside the country to attend Bowdoin chose to be international students and therefore chose these obstacles.
Perez-Hervada said ISA opted not to respond to the message.
“Some people just think that our problems are not valid because we chose to come here to study, and we don’t agree with that. We are entitled to the same attention from the College and everything,” Perez-Hervada said.
Given the size of Bowdoin’s endowment and the relative lack of resources dedicated to international students, many ISA members expressed their wish for Bowdoin to invest in a dean or office designated specifically for international students. Currently, Khoa Khuong, associate dean of upperclass students, is the only individual designated by the College to handle international student affairs while also performing his work as a dean.
Gerdzhikova and Perez-Hervada agreed that a designated dean for international students to match that of other NESCACs with smaller endowments than Bowdoin’s would be a huge step in the right direction.
“Most NESCACs except for Bowdoin have a dedicated international dean, while we have Dean Khuong … we love him, but he also has to take care of half the school. And so there’s a few things that a lot of the NESCACs are doing which we aren’t and so that’s honestly what we see the College could do better in, seeing what peer institutions are doing and saying ‘we should do this too,’” Perez-Hervada said.
In the absence of clear and concrete support and leadership from the administration, in addition to working with the College, the ISA serves as a much-needed source of community and support for international students of all grades and backgrounds.
“First and foremost, I think it’s really important that we create a community that international students can rely on,” Perez-Hervada said.
ISA continues to be the vehicle for international students to voice their opinions and find support.
“Having an organizational body that can [both] foster communication with the administration and be a source of collective celebration and expression of discontent is, I think, very valuable for the school itself and for international students,” Gerdzhikova said.