Global Connections #6: Advocating for international students: International Student Advisory Board 

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Podcast Transcript: Global Connections #6 : Advocating for international students: International Student Advisory Board 

Guests: Meena Pannirselvam and Yi Xuen Tay

0:00 Xiao Yun Sim

Hi everyone, it’s a pleasure for me to be able to speak to Meena and Tay today who are both international student from Malaysia. Same as me. I’m also from Malaysia as well who are currently first year students in the Student Affairs program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

I’m excited to chat a little more about the student organization that they started that advocates for international students on campus. I do want to turn the microphone to both Meena and Tay to have them share a little about themselves, and maybe talk a little about why they decided to go into Student Affairs.


0:30 Meena Pannirselvam

Awesome. So, hello everyone, thank you for having me here. This is Meena, I use she/her/hers pronouns. And so, a little bit about myself, I am an Indian Malaysian who came to the United States about three and a half years ago for my undergraduate studies, I majored in finance and mine and economics. I decided to work a year, under the Optional Practical Training also called OPT and came to the realization that finance was just not my cup of tea.

So, during my undergraduate years I had been involved in various Student Affairs offices and programming, and I loved it. So, a former supervisor of mine had suggested that I looked into that into the education administration student affairs program, and after

having conversations with a couple of Student Affairs practitioners I applied of the program and here I am.


1:30 Yi Xuen Tay

Well hi everyone so my name is Yi Xuen Tay and I go by Tay and my pronouns she/hers.

Similarly to Xiao Yun and Meena who are on this call, I am from Malaysia. I am a Chinese Malaysian, and I came to the US to specifically to Lincoln Nebraska also about three and a half years ago. Fun fact, Meena and I were actually on the same flight from Chicago on that landed in Lincoln Nebraska and for some reason we never made that connection until we started grad school together so that was really a fun little connection that Meena and I have, um, I did my undergraduate in psychology and I had a minor in sociology, and I think the experience that really changed how I went into Student Affairs was first even finding out that it was a field. Um, I remember speaking to a career coach that talked to me about, oh yeah, I did my master’s in student affairs and I was like, wait, what a student affairs. So, I found out a little bit more about it, I had several on campus positions and in my senior year after working at the International orientation team I knew that student affairs is where I really want to be where I really want to spend my time at. I also did a year of Optional Practical Training at one of the global offices at on campus, and that’s when I really found my passion and international education, specifically thinking about inclusion equity and social justice spaces. Um, yeah so that’s how I really changed my field into Student Affairs I don’t think it’s huge of a change from Finance to Student Affairs, that, that Meena did but a lot of the things that I do. Currently, um, I do feel lucky having that psychology background.I think it’s helped me a lot in terms of adjusting to grad school. So, yeah.




3:33 Xiao Yun Sim

Thank you for sharing that.Who knew from being on the same flight with an end up being in the same program right now completing a master’s program in student affairs and working

alongside together with this student organization that both of you are running. Ao I did mention earlier in the introduction that both of them started a student organization on campus at University of Nebraska Lincoln. So I do want to introduce the advisory board that they started, having Meena and Tay share a little more in depth what the organization does so if any one of you wants to jump in. Can you share a little about the International Student Advisory Board, ISAB that you’re created.


4:14 Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, so the International Student Advisory Board is there to serve and to be an advocate for all international students and the university. So, we are a group of students who are seeking to elevate the words of the student group. We do this through uplifting and amplifying the voices of international students, educating the campus community about international student issues and actively challenging and entering an inclusive community for international students.


4:47 Xiao Yun Sim

Yeah, thanks for sharing that Meena. But I do want to backtrack a little about understanding the reason behind starting to International Student Advisory Board. So, from my personal experience with both of you I had a little context of why you all wanted to start, start this  advisory board but for our audiences who are tuning in today do you want to just share a little about the reason behind starting ISAB.


4:53 Yi Xuen Tay

Yeah. Um, I think, really from a personal story. I think all of us here who are listening to the podcast probably knows about the July 6th SEVP guidance that was placed on international students at that time that, if, if, universities where to go fully online that international students were being chased out of the country right and while Meena and myself were fortunate to be in an institution that announced that they were going to open the campus they were going to be some in person component that we were not going to be affected by this specific ruling like the messaging and just the rhetoric behind why that policy came about was just so uncalled for, like all of us were like, What is going on? Like, what did we do to deserve this type of treatment, right, that we are getting chased out of the country? And we all have, like lives that are built here. And I just cannot imagine for my international student, like brothers and sisters who are affected at different institutions, like how their experiences and how stressful it was for them, um, but just really thinking about the localized context here at the Lincoln, Nebraska. While I have a really great support, network of support that was expressed to me through faculty and staff, and within my workspace at that time, I just felt very powerless in terms of talking about this issue with folks, I didn’t feel like there’s a space on campus for me to really elevate my voice to the campus leaders or to a broader audience about why we feel so attacked by this specific ruling. Yeah.


Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, so kind of to add on to that, we definitely had friends who left the country who decided to pursue an online program, or even just transferred to another institution, because they felt like they were not supported. And so we actually came about the advisory board, after having multiple conversations with so many different people about, you know, starting an advisory board for international students, we were really wanting to have a collective voice for international students, and there was no follow up. So there is a disconnect in the institution. There are like, you know, multiple, great international student base, recognized student organizations on campus who really focused on the culture and their, you know, respective country, but never a collective voice for international students. So, you know, one day, Tay, and I gotta have a class, and we were waiting for the bus. And, you know, she asked me if like, Hey, where are you? Are you wanting to start an international student advisory board with me, and it was like Kismet. We continue talking and coming up with ideas on what this organization should look like our goals, the purpose of it, what will international students gain out of it, and so on the planning, and the initiation of it was all done in the span of two months, it was done during our winter break, we had sent in our constitution for the organization, we have met with numerous people. So some of these people continue discussions with us, we call them our champions, they just provide enormous support for us.


Xiao Yun

Yeah, I hear that, like, both of you came in into starting this advisory board with a lot of passion and really wanted to speak up and represent the international community as a whole, in advocating for that. But Meena, you did mention a little about reaching out to the people that you call champion. So this is open to both of you, either one can take up this answer, but who are your go-tos to learn about starting a student organization? Or who are the professionals on campus that support that this great idea of both of yours?


Yi Xuen Tay

I think, for us, right? It, it was actually really hilarious, like how we even stumbled upon that like the phrase of like International Student Advisory Board in the first place. Um, I was actually working on a class assignment, writing a paper and I wrote specifically about the experiences of Asian international students near racism and COVID-19. And I happen to speak to this professional staff at the institution who works in the English as a second language program. So she works with a lot of international students and she herself was an international students of more than a decade ago. I’m not trying to, you know, out her age or anything. But she talked to me about a group that existed like that in the past when she was still an undergrad. And she was actually president for that group, which is called the International Student Advisory Board and their work was much more focused on really bridging the culture and the friendships between international students and American friendships. Um, but for some reason, the, the specific organization was kind of just went away after a while it was never continued. So that’s when I realize, oh, there are groups in the past that really focuses on international students like as a group as an entire entity. Um, so she was really one of the individuals that Mina and I talked to really about starting this organization, we wanted to take it a step further, more than just talking about cultural differences and building friendships, we wanted to really tackle and look into the issues that international students based on campus, I’m more specifically about other folks that we talked to, we talked to a lot of faculty, a lot of professors who may have an international student background or have worked with a lot of international students to know the specific struggles that we have. And that goes to the same to staff as well. We talked to a lot of coordinators, we talked to the international office on campus, we talked to folks that work in the international space and knows about working, what it’s like working with international students, and they just have been a huge support. I’m thinking like, It amazes meenan myself, just how many people recognizes the need for this group. I’m like, one thing that we’ve noticed, after talking to so many people is that, oh, wow, they know, we need this group, they know that this group should exist. And that really reaffirms us that we are on the right track with setting up this organization on campus.


Xiao Yun

Yeah, thank you for sharing that today. I want to switch gears a little about I remember, Meena did talk about what does ISAB International Student Advisory Board does, um, you mentioned a little about uplifting, uplifting and amplifying the voices of international students and educating the campus community. So I was just wondering, again, open up to both of you either one can share, how can we actively challenge and make sure and ensuring that the campus is inclusive to all international students?


Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, so I guess like a lot of times the responsibility to excel and adapt to the US climate and culture often falls on the shoulder of international students. A lot of literature studies and reach research focuses on supporting international students, but not really try to, in integrate in it, like try to understand what the systems of oppression that create negative experiences in the first place. So it’s like really important, I think, to get other people, domestic students, and also the institution to really understand how they can help international students rather than and making international students adapt to the US culture. And it’s also really important for us to recognize that international students are not a homogenous group, we really do consists of different race ethnicities, we are from different countries, we have different culture. So rather than just having us categorized as one, we really need to focus on our differences and how to better accommodate us international students. Yeah.


Yi Xuen Tay

And I think I can add a little bit to like, I know, Meena talks about this, and we seen the we are seeing this a lot with how racialized experience that international students have, right? I’m thinking about students from Africa, countries that have to adjust to coming to the US with such a heightened racialized climate that’s unfortunately against and discriminatory against the black the African Americans in the country. So how are they adjusting to some of that? And really thinking using a more critical lens to understand the experiences of international students thinking about what are some of the systems in place, I’m thinking about racism, nativism, thinking about discrimination, Neo racism, that international students face a much more broader, like lens to looking at international students than just Oh, they need to be able to speak good English, right? Like that notion of speaking good English is already itself very, itself, very problematic. So having a broader lens more critical lens thinking about our practice as student affairs professionals and from the campus community.


Xiao Yun

Yeah, thank you for both for sharing that insights on that. And I do really echo what both of you say that we need to first use a broader lens in terms of providing and I would say that rethinking your approach should prove up providing support for international students and also recognizing that our international community are not a homogenous group like everyone this. You might come from Asia, but within Asia itself, there are so many different countries as falls into the branches, and how can we be more intentional and be able to provide individualized support for those students is really important. But I do want to jump in for the next question to get some of your thoughts on that is that in light of COVID-19 what so what are the support that you think international students would most benefit from?


Yi Xuen Tay

I like to use this example. And I talked about it earlier, too, is thinking about how the US, the community responded and really came together to advocate for international students. When we realize how ridiculous the July 6th guidance was, right? We all realize that this is really the one of the most ridiculous, like guidance we’ve kind of seen being put out by the government at that time. And we saw just this uproar from just like students, from faculty, staff, from institution, campus leaders, and even businesses, some nonprofit organizations that really came together to advocate for international students at that time. And while we saw that amazing, like uproar, and just like that advocacy, that work kind of went away when the rule was rescinded, which is totally understandable, because maybe to them, they don’t see that huge need anymore. But I think it’s hard for us to think about how we can be more proactive in terms of thinking about supporting international students and not just responding to international students need when a crisis occurs. So that is one that I always like to think about is how can we be more proactive in terms of our actions. Um, but you know, with COVID-19, it’s been so hard, like, so many things have changed, right? Some of the international students are stranded here in the US, some of them have to go back and prefers to be back in your home countries because of the different reasons and that can include what am I going to do when I get affected I’m so thinking about mental health resources and how we can really provide them with those mental health resources. Um, it’s also really hard to advocate to international students about the importance of mental health, like going to counseling or things like that, when it’s not common in a lot of our cultures to be talking about things like this. I know what I mean, and I talk about this a lot, but we like from our like, background, we have this like, just deal with it type of like thinking right? So how can we like sleep it off ? Like sleep it off, you won’t be depressed tomorrow, right? So like, how can we start bridging some of that call that differences having some of those really vulnerable conversations with our international students, more specifically about mental well being?


Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, to add on to that, we also should be thinking about ways to actively address racism experienced by international students. So, you know, given that international students are coming from like, different countries, and I can speak on behalf of myself, I’ve always seen racism as just a part of my life, you know, as a person of color, my skin is a darker shade, compared to a lot of other people. I just faced discrimination everywhere I go. So as a student of color, you, you know, you face this every time and like going to an institution or like coming to an institution at the United States. It’s not any different. So as I mentioned, I always feared for my safety and my sense of security, especially it being in the States. During my first year, I was actually harassed while I was walking back to my dorm on campus from getting denied. I was told to go back home as I didn’t belong here, which was, you know, followed by a couple of racial slurs. It was scary and shocking, really. So like providing appropriate support and really understanding that international students do face racism and like reaching out to them to do proper reporting because you know, international students, again, they are fearful of that they tend to get scared to go to the police. So if you’re not reporting that crime for set harassment, they’re really not going to know, numbers, they’re really not not going to know about where to increase patrolling and stuff like that. And again, like, a lot of us, come here, you know, we are learning new things. And we’re also adjusting to the culture and all, we don’t really, I guess we don’t really understand what microaggressions are, we might face it on a daily basis, but we won’t come to a realization that what we actually faced was a microaggression until like, someone points it out, or until we learn about it. And like, again, with what I said, we really need to be thinking about how to increase and how to push reporting and all these like bias incidents. And we, we, as international students, we tend to work hard and really keep our heads down whenever it comes to, you know, working with someone or voicing our opinions or thoughts like that. And this is how a lot of bullying happens. Because we’re just so shut down, we’re just like, so quiet with a lot of things. And we need to be we need to start getting loud with some of the things I know, sometimes it is intimidating, and sometimes it can, you know, cause a lot of trauma reliving our experiences. But it is vital, I think, to bring up issues, and stuff like that. So again, like coming back to COVID. Right. And being an international student at the United States, healthcare is expensive. like just spending a certain amount of money for services that I feel like we don’t even use as often as we should be, is a little bit too much. And I guess like going back to COVID-19. And using, I guess, like, utilizing and getting vaccinations, there’s a lot of like,


emotions around that. Because you know, for some of the students who have family back at home, some of them don’t have vaccination yet. And really to think about the Yes, it’s a luxury that you’re getting a vaccine right now, as we are at the US, but think about my my grandma, who is like hitting her 70s to think about my dad and mom who are actually still going outside teaching, going outside to work, but still being very exposed to the, to the pandemic and to the virus. It’s scary to think about.


Xiao Yun

Yeah, I’m sorry, we know that you’ve had you experienced that in your experience. And I do want to thank you for being vulnerable on our podcast, and by sharing your personal experience. But you did talk a little about as a person of color being in United States, like the experiences that you have you basically the experience that you need to overcome, I do want to talk a little in touch a little about Asian students, racial experiences during COVID-19 itself. Wanting to share a test, not a testimony but share a story about a friend of mine, also an international student being on campus during the COVID-19. He was actually being called racial slurs or just being called of like, go by home to China. Why do you eat a bat or being spit on while just walking? apart? Like, what are the things that Asian students are international students because of your skin color or any of the things that you share about that you get attacked upon? And how can an institution or our community members come together to provide that support? And I do think that I think Tay you mentioned earlier of like, because of the DHS ruling, you were able to see the committee members, the business partners like people who are not in higher ed come together in terms of providing that and advocating for that, but I do feel that international students are a unique population and how can Student Affairs professionals or institution itself better support this population is really important and how can we make our voices being heard on campus? So I don’t know if Tay if you want to share any points on that.


Yi Xuen Tay

Yeah, I mean, XiaoYun, I really echo like, I think I’m fortunate, like, I am Malaysian Chinese that I do look like this Chinese person, right? And I am, I think really fortunate to have I have been in the space where I was the target of overt discrimination, right. But I’ve felt a lot of microaggression. And it took me a long time to recognize and realize that those are microaggression. Because I don’t know, like, a part of me is like, Oh, yeah, maybe No, it’s just like, I’m reading them wrong, right. But no, it was like, I’ve been in so many situations in my own apartment, that when people see me like standing in the corner, like with my mask on, they would scoot to the other side of the elevator to try to stand away from me. And while they think that, oh, maybe she just wants her space, this was so harming for me, because I just kept thinking about that incident. And now every time I take the elevator, I try to avoid crowds, like I have, I see a huge crowd going in, I never go in. So these are like the small things that really impacts like the international student’s experience.


And I think in terms of institution, the first thing to really realize is and really understand is the anti Asian racism and hate and violence that has already been in place, like right in the United States. And we’ve seen this a lot with just recent events. And I’m really just the campaign to stop Asian hate. That’s a big one. So those experiences, while may seem much more focus incentric to Asian American experiences. The fact is that we look like Asian Americans, and we still get the same treatment, as they as age other Asian Americans were received, they don’t see they don’t know that we are an international student. That’s not a, like an identity, you can see from our faces, right? They just see that, oh, you’re Asian. So that’s one that we can do is thinking, like, I really tried to talk to staff and faculty about educating themselves, like really thinking about the history, right, and how those lenses can be applied to really understand what’s going on with the international student community. And why we feel hesitant to speak up so many times, because first we have that cultural background that really, sometimes not encouraged us to be this, like outspoken about issues like this. But also Second, we don’t know where’s the space, we don’t know where to who to go to? We don’t know, if if we even talk about these issues, are they even going to be addressed? So that’s one of the reasons why this type of like advisory board, this type of group, like needs to exist on campus, because we want to be able to, like, start building those connections and start talking to campus leaders about these are the actual experiences is that you’re not hearing? Or maybe you’ve listened before, but you’re not actively adjusting? How can we hold you accountable to make some of those changes for us? Yeah


Xiao Yun

yeah, I want to thank you today for sharing that. And I do want to talk, not talk a little, but I do want to share the sentiment of like, pre-COVID. This has already been existing in our community itself, but it’s not being spoken off. And with the help of our Student Advisory Board, I do think that it is also a platform where we can introduce all of these issues and topics to our international student community. And I think both of you did talk about a topic from a different country a different cultural upbringing, we might not know what’s microaggression we might not know what’s discrimination, but how can we make sure that we educate and share those information for our international students community and when they are faced with those situation, they can report those incidents to the institution so that they could take action on that. And I do think that the, for me my personal example. When I first came to United States, like five years ago, the I experienced of like, okay, they don’t they can pronounce my name Xiaoyun. So I had to give myself an English name because my professor told me, Hey, your name is really hard to pronounce. Can you give yourself an English name? So I at that point, I didn’t know what was microaggression. I haven’t even heard of the term. So I do think that with this advisory board, you are able to do so much and put a lot of the good information out there to share it to our domestic folx, and also our international community. So I do want to step off of my soapbox and knowing that our time is almost towards the end of our ending, though. My last question to both of us that now, or where do you think someone should start in terms of helping the international community?


Yi Xuen Tay

Oh, that’s such a good question. Like, it’s so hard. Um, and I think Xiao Yun, like I have, I do have a direct response to what you said just now. Because I think a lot of times, most of the people that we work with that were close with, like the committee members within like, international students, they know how to interact of international students, but it’s the broader, like the larger community that kind of just don’t see us, or they don’t have not interacted with us in the past, right? Or really just they see us as this like, niche group, that they don’t have to think about how to support them in the first place, right? Maybe they’re thinking like, oh, I’ll never be working with them. Right. So though, like, Xiao Yun when I think about the faculty member that you share, right, I just cannot imagine, like, what their experiences was like dealing with international students beforehand, before you even like went into their lives. Right. So I think this is one part that institutions can really take a hard look at is how can they begin to train any student facing roles like everyone with a student facing role to know what some of the immigration policies, what some of the laws are, what some of the specific experiences of international students that they face with like their different identities, racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, all of those types of identities, social class is a big one, too. And why international students while we share the same identity of being that international person, we are still so different. Um, and I think for me, I’m all about thinking about history, thinking about why international students, even how we even came to exist in the first place. And if you did, like a quick search about like the history of international students, you can really see that how our existence as a group is really seen as a, it’s really used as a policy tool, we’ve really been a group that’s highly politicized. And that ties in to how some of the immigration rules are set up how some of the policing really happens with international students when it comes to immigration related items. So that’s another one. I’m thinking about the historical roots of the international student group.


Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, so to also add on to that, right, definitely providing international students communication or discussed discussion, space is really important. I think, international students being so far away from their support system from their family and their friends. It’s, it’s really hard. So having someone to listen to students concerns and to just learn a lesson here. Preferably someone of power on campus, staff, faculty, that works, right. Just understand and just to see the struggles of international students, that we were also providing some sort of a safe and brace space for international students to discuss their challenges that issues any topic at all, if they want to discuss is really vital for international students. And also, I think, you know, with all these, like different news that is happening around the United States, whether that be hate crimes, whether that be political actions, or or like different immigration regulations that are being changed. Providing some sort of outreach to parents is something that needs to be ventured. Students face a lot of stress with their life, right? Whether that be from school, whether that be from microaggressions, from like teachers or other peers. And additional questions from parents can be a lot, asking for clarifications and next time, next steps that is like typically what my dad asked me like, first thing that he does when he calls me it’s like, so what is happening right now.


So what is the next step? And I’m like, so confused as like, I’m also trying to digest all the information that I just got to know. And my dad’s asking me this question, and I really don’t know how to provide an answer. So providing that outreach will be something institutions need to look at. Having, like an emailing system would definitely give them a peace of mind. And, you know, I’ve talked a lot about this. Students, international students, students of color, they really are put as advocates, they, um, you know, it’s like amazing to see empowered students serve as advocates for their identities. But we really need to consider the emotional, the mental and the physical toll that advocacy work has an on students. Aside from hearing their concerns we need we need to think about how can we provide them with spaces for community hearing and psychological support. So faculty and staff and domestic students and also students, just students of any population really, and you need to think about how can we provide practice solidarity with the students to bring collective power, equity, inclusion and justice to systemic issues on campus?


Xiao Yun

Yeah, I want to thank you both for sharing those great insights in terms of how to better support our international community, or what are the first steps that you can do and what your role can help with our international community. And our time is almost up. I do want to thank two all my dear friends who are joining me here today, Meena and Tay to share for them sharing about the great insights and what their Student Advisory Board is doing. And I do want to share and put a plug out there if folks who are joining and tuning us in today if you are interested to follow along about the International Student Advisory Board that both Meena and Tay is running, you can definitely follow them on social media, I’ll definitely put a plug in the description box itself and also the show notes will also include the direct link to their social media accounts. So I want to thank you once again, Meena and Tay for joining us today.


Meena Pannirselvam

Yeah, thank you for having us.


Transcribed by



International Student Advisory Board UNL – Instagram @UNL_ISAB

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