Framing the Issue
In this two part blog series, I will focus on emotional resilience in high-achieving low-income (HALI) international student populations in universities in the United States, though applicable to students crossing cultures to study in other regions as well. Most students from this demographic gain access to scholarships in the U.S. by virtue of their brilliance, leadership potential and demonstrated dedication to impacting change, with assistance from college access programs in their home countries. The hope is that they will return to their home country, and contribute their vision, skills, and hard work toward an inclusive development that considers the marginalized populations from which they come. Some programs choose to focus on, or include, HALI students from rural backgrounds, women, refugees, or other marginalized populations, such as LGBTQ-identified or those with disabilities. Another common factor is that they have experienced marginalization and difficulty accessing educational opportunity due to poverty. If these students have already overcome so many challenges and successfully gained admission to a university abroad, why do the challenges they face there cause them significant setbacks academically and emotionally? And what can various actors who have invested in and supported them do to help minimize the negative consequences of these setbacks?
In November 2014, while working as the program coordinator for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at U.C. Berkeley, one of our undergraduate freshmen scholarship recipients from Africa committed suicide. There had been no signs recognized by program staff, her family, or her friends, so everyone was in a state of shock. I provided direct ongoing support, particularly for several students who were severely affected by this event. While the campus community of academic advisors was beginning to familiarize themselves with resources on the value of cultivating resilience in students, no one I consulted was able to point me toward a specific group activity or method. Therefore, I designed a ‘Resilience Workshop,’ with a focus on peer storytelling and community-building. From my experience, I came to believe that this kind of work is essential with this demographic of student.
At a partners’ convening hosted by the MasterCard Foundation in Toronto, I presented on my experiences and observations with colleagues in higher education at sessions focusing on mental health. In 2017, after I had left my position at Berkeley and had begun working on the college access counseling side, I had a similar experience at the HALI Indaba in Rwanda, a conference for representatives of college access programs across the African continent. It was clear that, beyond the very cumbersome logistics of assisting students to obtain and retain these opportunities for higher education all over the world, all parties involved are concerned with the emotional well-being of the students, having had personal experience with high-achieving low-income students struggling with the adjustment, or with recovering from difficult events that happened while abroad. In addition, some students have expressed concern that perhaps unresolved trauma associated with experiences at ‘home’ can contribute to students’ reluctance to return home at the end of their studies, which is often the primary aim of both access and scholarship programs. If these students have already overcome so many challenges to be in a position to successfully gain admission to a university abroad, why is it that the challenges they face there can sometimes become insurmountable? And what can these various actors who have invested in and supported them along the way do to better understand the students’ challenges and help minimize the negative consequences of these setbacks?
Understanding the Factors that Contribute to Students’ Challenges
As with most traditional students, international students from low-income backgrounds are also learning how to live on their own, manage their time well, establish their academic and career pathways, and not run out of meal points. Similarly, as with other international students, those from low-income backgrounds experience the normal, yet significant stresses of adjusting to a new culture, typically without the support of family and community nearby. On top of all of this, though, they have some unique pressures in the present, as well as past traumas that affect how they respond to these pressures. Many international students from low-income backgrounds may be the first in their family, or in their entire community, to access higher education, with the added prestige of it being abroad. Like many first generation and minority college students, they experience ‘imposter syndrome,’ or the sense that they do not belong in this academic environment and fear being exposed as a fraud, as well as ‘stereotype threat,’ a situation whereby students fear confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. Students may also encounter racism, feel excluded from extracurricular activities they cannot afford, or suffer from survivor’s guilt. For example, they might feel guilty for having a meal plan while their family struggles to feed themselves at home.
On top of all these identifiable stressors, there is a less visible factor that can turn all of these stressors into triggers. If these students have experienced poverty, they have also likely been exposed to various traumas at a young age, including, but not limited to: food insecurity, sexual assault, displacement, loss of one or both parents, domestic violence, lack of access to basic healthcare, or community violence due to discrimination or political conflict. There is significant existing research demonstrating that individuals who have experienced a certain number of traumatic events early in life are less naturally resilient when confronted with trauma later in life.
But how do we understand what could constitute a new ‘trauma’ for this demographic of student in an academic context? A common character attribute in this demographic is perfectionism and a strong identification with their academic success, as it is what has enabled them to achieve their most defining successes. While most college students struggle with adjusting to new expectations in the classroom, when students from this demographic are balancing all of the factors I’ve outlined above and then get the first B in their life, they are not just worrying about their grades—they are questioning their sense of self. They are also less likely to seek help when struggling, due to imposter syndrome or simply habit, as they have typically been incredibly self-sufficient in order to overcome significant barriers. Many high-achieving students view campus resources as something that less capable students need to access, and these particular students may be less adept at navigating systems, having systematically been excluded from accessing resources at home. They may also choose not to discuss their problems with family and friends at home, who either have real or projected expectations that they make the most of this opportunity. Without accessing these resources, they try to handle the issue on their own, to varying degrees of success.
Part 2 of this blog series will explore what students and practitioners can do to foster resilience, and provide some resources for further reading and guidelines for implementing activities with HALI students.
Written by Jessica Clarkson, Country Director of USAP Zambia.