Office of Inclusive Excellence

An International Student’s Journey towards Inclusion

April 4, 2022

By Alicia Gunness

All my life I have dreamed of coming to study in the United States. I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, a small twin island with a population of 1.3 million. I completed my first undergraduate program in 2015 in my home country where undergraduate education is free. You might ask if education is free, why leave? Recently, I have honestly asked myself that very question. I entered the U.S. in August 2021 to pursue a second degree with the goal of transferring into a doctoral program. My long-term goal is to become a research scientist with a research agenda focused on addressing the issues related to social determinants of health at the global level. I am so passionate about this work that I left my career as a teacher where I taught at one of the top institutions for over seven years. During that time, I was inspired to create a nonprofit organization called (C.A.R.E), which stands for the Center for Student’s Achievement Resources and Enrichment. Our work focused on mental, physical health and emotional well-being. I had the privilege of working alongside some great leaders in various levels of government to improve various aspects of the education system.

I made a tremendous sacrifice in leaving a wonderful career, job security, financial stability, friends, family, independence, and social status. I was excited to come to the United States and thrilled by the opportunity to experience the American dream. However, the reality of arrival in a foreign country, my independence, and the lack of a social support system had a profound effect on my mental health. When I arrived at my U.S.-based college campus, the international student’s department was extremely welcoming. They were highly supportive and worked hard to ensure that international students had an enjoyable experience. However, the system I came into is seriously flawed. International students experience a huge financial burden fueled by additional fees U.S. citizens are not forced to pay. As a result of my experiences with the system, I felt the brunt of financial fatigue, lack of effective and timely communication (particularly during the pandemic). As an international student, I was not familiar with the way things work. This was frustrating and added to my social and emotional well-being challenges. These are stressors that are not necessary. If more thought, care, attention and resources can be provided to international students, maybe (just maybe) more would come and those who do come could have more positive experiences with the collegiate experience. 

I have had to overcome many obstacles during my educational journey in the U.S. The first semester was truly a transitional period for me. I recall a time when I was still learning the  route to home on campus. I had never taken public transport before, so it was a first for me. One day, I found myself lost after getting off the bus at the wrong stop. I thought I was in my community, but turns out I wasn’t. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t have a phone to contact my roommate or anyone else who might be able to help me. I didn’t really know anyone besides  professors and advisors from the campus. Nevertheless, I have persisted. 

I have been continually frustrated by the lack of opportunities for international students. There are restrictions placed on research and travel opportunities for students. Too many of these are restricted to US citizens only. I have made inquiries but have constantly been told no. Even when I offered to pay, I was told I would not be allowed to participate. I felt alienated and alone. These rejections confirmed my feeling of being an outsider because I am a non-citizen in this country. The student jobs offered only offer minimum wage, which really is nothing considering the cost of living in the area. It was never my intention to have to experience paying such high rates for food, rent and other necessities, while receiving such a low rate of pay. 

The financial situation I am experiencing is not unique to me or something I am accustomed to or desire. It is super frustrating because international students pay more for the same level and quality of education as other students. I have had to rearrange my expectations and dreams of being a part of the research team that travels, because the opportunity is not available to me. I’ve had many unfortunate experiences in the U.S., including one where I was trying to use a card to make a purchase, something I had never done before. There was a customer in the store who yelled at me to hurry up. The cashier was kind and helped me out. It makes me sad that people are treated this way, but it’s a reality that a lot of international students  experience.  

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the African Heritage Research Collaborative (AHRC). I was very impressed because they never questioned me or made me feel I didn’t belong because I am Indian, not Black. They welcomed me and made me feel a part of the team. I enjoy my time working with my colleagues to make an impact on society in a positive way. Our work is a journey about standing against discrimination advancing towards inclusion.

My life experiences have helped me grow to be an advocate for addressing discrimination and bias. It is a mindset shift. I have become determined to help other international students feel more included and connected to one another, so they never have to experience the situations I have had to endure.  I hope that we can truly learn to love and respect each other, despite our differences in beliefs, culture, and political views. It is humane to be kind to one another, especially for those of us who are far away from home. We all need more support, care, compassion, and love. From the way I see it, more patience and understanding, improving communication skills, and learning about each other, can help reduce the occurrence of discrimination.

Alicia Gunness is a Human Development and Family Science (HDFS) student