students, international students, leadership, professors, involved, important, organization, microaggressions, people, campus, staff members, engagement, sharing, club, group, members, leader, graduate students, higher education


Laura Vaughn, Lixing Li

Lixing Li  00:00

Hello, everyone, welcome back to our global connection channel! I am your host Lixing. Today I am happy to invite Laura Vaughn to join our podcast channel to talk about international student leadership. Particularly we will discuss the benefits and challenges of international student leadership and engagement within the United States. Before we get started, I would like to invite Laura to briefly introduce herself to our audience.


Laura Vaughn  00:24

Hi, everyone. My name is Laura Vaughn and I have worked in the field of international education for about 10 years, I was an English teacher in Japan with the Japan exchange and teaching program for two years. And then I worked as an international student advisor at the University of Mississippi for eight years. I’m currently entering my second year as a PhD student at Florida State University, where I have an assistantship with the leadership Learning Research Center. My research interest is International Student Leadership, since there’s a pretty large gap in the research about that topic.


Lixing Li  00:57

Welcome, Laura. We’re so happy to have you join us today. When we talk about leadership, I have so many images of great leaders in my mind. And as we know, leadership has been exercising a lot in higher education. And we often hear this word in our daily work as well. So what is leadership? And how is it different from being a leader?


Laura Vaughn  01:18

Great question. So leader and leadership are often put together as being the same thing. However, they’re actually very two different things. So the textbook definition of a leader would be a person who is perceived by group members as having a legitimate position of power or influence in a group. Whereas leadership is the process of influencing a group to help it reach its goal. So to kind of put it together, a leader can use leadership, but so can all members within a group. So leadership is not just for the leader of a group, leadership can be done by everyone who is in a group. So it doesn’t necessarily so if we bring it to an example, of a higher education, student organization, leadership can be shown by every single member of an organization. It doesn’t have to be the president doesn’t have to be the Vice President, that the treasurer, the Secretary, it can be any member of the group who comes up with an idea or has suggestions or has active participation in that group.


Lixing Li  02:28

I see. Thanks for the clarification of the concept of leadership and all other sharings I believe this is very critical. In our conversation today. Once in a while, I was confused with leadership with being a leader. I heard many students have been confused as well like, oh, how can I demonstrate my leadership if I am not even a leader or being in a leadership position? And not everyone could be in the leader position, as you shared. And why we always emphasize leadership that explains why people have such misunderstanding or puzzles.


Laura Vaughn  03:02

Yeah, and I think there’s also some cultural differences. So if we look at some cultures around the world, their image of leadership and really what’s promoted in media and culturally is that oh, leadership is only for leaders. They only emphasize that you have to have these traits to be able to have leadership or to be a leader. And really, that’s not what we’re looking at. In current leadership research. We’re saying no leadership can be done by everyone. It’s not just one person who can show leadership. And that’s a little bit contrary to older images. Some cultures even today view leadership as


Lixing Li  03:42

thanks again for the point of cultural difference. And this culture difference make people have different opinions on leaders and leadership. As we know, leadership skills are so important in education, no matter and high school, college admissions, academic studies, and even career development after graduation. So Laura, in your studies, what are the benefits of student engagement and building that leadership skills?


Laura Vaughn  04:06

Somebody I really admire and has done a lot of great work about this topic of student engagement. And those benefits would be Dr. Chris glass. He’s written several really great articles and done some studies on various experiences and student engagement, especially when it comes to international students. And one of his articles is called educational experiences associated with international students learning, development and positive perceptions of campus climate. And this study found that student engagement equals a greater level of learning and development as well as it gives international students positive perceptions of campus climate, which is really good and important for students who want to get that connection. And it’s good for schools as well because students who are more connected to the school generally will have better performances, and will have better, I mean, they have better perception of the school, which means maybe they will tell their friends or you know, online, a lot of international students are very connected with their culture groups, and like groups back home. And so that power of word of mouth is very important. So if a student has a great experience has a positive perception of a campus through that engagement, then they’re going to tell everyone they know. And then the people they tell will probably tell other people. So their their social cluster is going to go, oh, well, this school is really friendly to international students, I want to send my kid there, I want to send I want to suggest this school to other people I know. And this is kind of echoed in another study by Dr. Glass, who found that students who have professors that show more of a personal concern for the students, they become more active and involved in class and have again, that higher sense of belonging. And so the goal of higher education is to educate students and get them to graduation. And making sure that students have connections and social ties with their campus is really critical to international student success. For example, belongingness, and that idea has been shown to improve grades for international students. And that same study I mentioned before by Dr. Glass, found that leadership programs, cultural events, and community service enhances a sense of belongingness for all students, not only international students, but these positive impressions. Like they really help with international student retention and recruitment. Even though that part, I don’t know off the top of my head about research for that. But I mean, if a student’s happy, then I’m sure it definitely helps them get to graduation. It’s


Lixing Li  07:01

It is really hard to study independently, absolutely independently, without any involvement in engagement with professors and students. Well, just being a human being is really hard to absolutely isolate yourself, without any connections to the society or any friends, that’s impossible. And students usually have some kind of group projects with team work assigned by professors when required by curriculum, which I really appreciate. And I found that’s really critical for students development in higher education. Like to say engagement and sense of belonging complement each other. The more involved the students are, the more sense of belonging, they feel. And meanwhile, when you feel more sense of belonging in the university, the more likely you want to get involved with campus activities or group work, and which definitely improve the coursework.


Laura Vaughn  07:56

Definitely. And honestly, the opposite can happen as well. If the campus is discouraging, and professors are discouraging, then that hurts students perception of belongingness and being able to engage on their campus, and that can, you know, often lead to student dropout, which is what we don’t want as higher education professionals.


Lixing Li  08:18

Yeah, that’s sad. Yeah. Yeah, this we just learned so many benefits of student engagement. What do you think are the obstacles or challenges that influence international students involvement in campus in organizations?


Laura Vaughn  08:33

So some of the obstacles or challenges that I’ve personally seen, or I’ve read about in studies, there, there’s a lot. One is cultural differences in various countries versus the United States. We have, of course, cultural differences, but also expectations of organization involvement or club involvement. So in some cultures, they have clubs and organizations in their universities, but they’re more of a you put your name down on the paper, and you don’t really go or your super, if you sign up, then you are super involved, do you have to do everything with that organization or that club? And then the United States, it really varies on The Club. Some clubs and organizations are super active, some are passive. And so I think one of the obstacles is that  international students might be a little uncertain on what is the cultural expectations of them, if they were to join a club, or if they were to get involved? And they’re like, Oh, well, do I have enough time for that? Or is it something that I can just sign up for and not go? So there’s a little bit of that uncertainty with the international students on what’s expected of me if I were to join an organization, and they might not know that and then another potential obstacle is, and I, you know, we hate to say this, but it’s very true domestic microaggressions towards international students. And this is on all levels. So, you know, an international student might be interested in learning more about campus organizations or clubs. And they might go to a staff member and say, Oh, how do I join an organization? What do I do, and the staff member could do a little bit of gatekeeping, based on the student being an international student of like, oh, well, maybe you should join the sports club, because it’s really intense, or all the international students, oh, they’re a part of the, for example, badminton club, maybe you should join the badminton club, without actually listening to the student about their interests and what they want to be a part of. So the student might not care about badminton and might want to join the baseball club. But a staff member could discourage that, depending on the impression that they have. And again, that’s that’s a microaggression of trying to go well, maybe you should look at this organization instead of this organization. And the same thing with faculty members, a student could be really interested in participating and being active in their academic program. But if a faculty member is discouraging, or if that student tries to participate in class, but they’re never called upon to answer a question by a faculty member, that also gets very discouraging to student and so I mean, they might stop trying to answer and stop being willing to be engaged in their class, you know, those are very easy ways to get somebody who is interested in trying and being engaged to get them to shut down. So when it comes to students, I suppose like an example could be if a student joins the baseball club, they could have matches in the baseball club, but because they’re international student, the other members of the baseball club may decide to just put them on the bench and not allow them to play no matter what their ability is. So those are again, microaggressions. And some of them can roll over into macro aggressions, that can discourage a student from participating or being a part of the organization, if they’re not welcomed, or not treated kindly, when they go to an initial meeting. If other students in the organization don’t, you know, welcome them as they would any other student, then that’s going to discourage them from being a part of these student organizations. And, you know, another thing that I I’ve especially heard, this next point, is a lack of language fluency. So when I was working as an international student advisor, I often worked with English as a second language students. And we would try to encourage them to join student organizations. But because they were still learning English and working on their fluency, they would really get nervous about searching for organization, and they didn’t know necessarily how to find that organization. Or if they did find an organization they wanted to join. They were scared to join because they thought, oh, but I’m not super fluent in English. So I don’t know how to say hello, or I don’t even know, they totally knew how to say hello, and on a conversation, they were so scared of making those English mistakes. And they were so scared that they were going to make a mistake and be laughed at by other members, which again, goes into microaggressions. Yeah, domestic students laugh at you for making mistake in your English. And if you have that fear that that’s going to happen. That’s a heavy obstacle to getting involved on campus, even if it’s just a fear of wouldn’t actually happen. And then another challenge that comes with international student engagement is that sometimes it’s just not important to their career goals. And maybe they are interested in becoming involved in getting to know people on campus. But they’re if they join a club, and that club isn’t going to help them in any way get a job as they return to their home country. Because in some cultures, extracurricular activities doesn’t really matter. When you get hired, they’re looking at your grades. They’re looking maybe if you’re in a research type of field, they’re looking at your research. They don’t care if you’re a member of the Omani Student Association. That’s not important.


Laura Vaughn  14:48

It really there are a lot of international students are looking for things that will help them in the long run. And being involved in student organizations doesn’t always happen. It’s not always as important for them, and then I mean, I guess and that kind of goes into my, my next thought is, yeah, if they’re planning on going back to their home country, you know, they’re trying to maximize the most of their time in the United States, to get all of the skills that are needed to get a job back in their home country. And again, it’s just priorities, they do not prioritize getting involved in student organizations.


Lixing Li  15:27

Thanks Laura for the sharings. That made me think of what are as you say, your last point, their priorities? That makes me think of why they’re studying in the United States. What are their outcomes, what they’re looking for, from an American degree? Is this just purely the education or all the experience because apparently, all this experience involvement engaged in the part of experience that are definitely intangible. It might be playing important roles in your job or anything career in the future someday, but we never know at this point. But they definitely are intangible treasure for a human being. So well, we talk about the obstacles and challenges, how have you seen international students show signs of leadership?


Laura Vaughn  16:14

So I’m always very impressed with the students who they have all these obstacles, but they decide, you know, what, no, I want to make friends, I want to get involved, I want to I’m in the United States, I want to make the most of my time here, I want to make these connections with people. And so I’m always really impressed. There was one example that I have, of a very impressive show of, like self motivation was back during the height of COVID, when it was very difficult for a lot of the international students to get visas and come over one of our incoming graduate students at the University of Mississippi, she decided, it’s so hard to meet people because of the quarantine requirements because of how separated everyone was. So she decided to go ahead and make a group me chat for all of the new international students to try to go well, if we can’t meet with each other in person, we can at least get to know each other virtually. And that was a fully self starter. And she had that motivation to get to know people. And so having that willingness to start something new was really amazing. And it’s not just her that showed in that sign of engagement or leadership, it was the other people who saw her interest of joining that and then joined the group meet and became involved in that group me chat, so that when it was a little bit safer to have a social gathering, they could all meet up together. An example of other engagement and interests that I saw was actually last week, when there was a international graduate student orientation. So I’m a part of the Congress of graduate students at Florida State. And we had a recruitment table at International Student Orientation, graduate student orientation. And it was really interesting to see the students who came to our table. So a lot of the students were just interested, we had some free T shirts and things and so a lot of them just wanted to free swag. But some of the international students were like, Oh, wait, you’re a congress, your Student Government. I’m, I’m interested in being involved. I’m interested in learning about how to be a representative of my college, and, you know, meet new people, and try to help people through the Congress of graduate students. So it was very interesting to see the difference of the students who were just like, Oh, yes, hi, I’m here for the free T shirt, versus those who actually ask questions. And we’re interested on the front side about getting involved. But I do want to say like, it’s important to, you know, be proactive on the front side. But I think it’s also equally important that those of us who are on the staff and faculty side, also make sure that those opportunities are there for the students to get involved. So as members of the Congress of graduate students, we were there at international graduate student orientation, to say, hey, we’re here, get involved with us. We want to, you know, be here for you. We’re here. We’re welcome. We’re open, you know, get involved with our organization. Yeah, I think that’s, that’s equally important. As the international students coming to us, we need to go to them as well. And, you know, I think it’s really Really important that, you know, and then the students who have been successful with student engagement and signs of leadership that I’ve seen, when they find the organization that really works for them, they might not be the leader, but they might just be suggesting things and be interested in being involved. You know, if that organization that they’re a part of is going to have an event, they’re the ones who show up. They’re the ones who help out. So and that’s leadership as well. I mean, they don’t have to be the person to suggest the event, or to completely organize the event. But they can be the ones to help put the event on, and be a part of that event, and encourage their friends to come to the event. So things like that are some of the ways that I’ve seen international students really become engaged on a campus. That is


Lixing Li  20:50

great. And these are great attempts, I think you were mentioning our designs, they’re very encouraging to our international students, I believe. Apparently, these are not very hard to start with, if international students want to get involved, especially like wanting to meet new people, and looking for organizations that meet their interests or passions, and helping out if needed. So I just noticed that among all the signs you just shared, it seems that your willingness to help and to learn are emphasized. And these do not require students to be the head of the group or experts or masters who know everything to be in charge, but just being willing to help. So for me, it is so critical to have such growing mindset and learning opportunities. So in your opinion, what can universities do to provide the opportunities and increase students involvement?


Laura Vaughn  21:48

So I’ve mentioned a little bit earlier about faculty having an important role on encouraging or discouraging student involvement. But when it comes to faculty members, I think it’s very important to make sure to not have these micro aggressions, to be careful what you’re saying and your actions towards international students, you make sure that if you’re calling on students call on everyone, you know, don’t especially single out the international students, but also don’t ignore the international students in your class. You know, don’t don’t discourage them. There was a really wonderful example in one of Dr. glasses case studies of a student who said that they became more involved, because the professor recognized that that student maybe wanted to be more involved, but could tell that they were very shy and very uncertain. And maybe shy is not even though correct term, because students, some students are shy, some are just nervous, they might notice that the student doesn’t necessarily have that confidence to speak up in class, and to give an answer. So in that case, it might not be a bad idea for the professor to, you know, specifically call on that student if they can see signs, but it really also comes to the faculty members to be actively engaged with their students, and to be aware that, you know, to just, again, treat their students with with equity. So that, you know, they are calling on the students who want to participate, but might need that encouragement, and that they’re also not ignoring students, which can cause a lot of discouragement and a lack of engagement in their classes. And the same thing, this also goes to staff members, you know, if an international student comes to them, and says, Oh, I want to, I want to join this, or I want to, I need help with financial aspect or something like that, you know, some staff members are going to go, oh, no, you’re international, go to your international office, the international office does not know everything, and is not the end all be all, for international student. What’s important is for staff members to actually listen to what the student needs, instead of just looking at them seeing an international student and going, Oh, nope, can’t deal with you. Go go to the international office, when the student might just be asking, Hey, how do I pay my financial account? Or, you know, how do I get my transcript? If you’re working in the financial aid office? Or if you’re working in the transcript office? You can answer that question. Yeah, for sure. Listen to what the student needs and again, treat them as any other student. Don’t just look at them as an international student. And that’s and so those are encouraging things for students so that they feel like the campus environment is a welcoming one so that they don’t feel shut down constantly by the university, because when they feel constantly shut down by faculty and by staff If that hurts their engagement, and that hurts their connection with the campus, but in the same thing also with other students. So we need diversity, equity and inclusion offices, to really put a little bit more effort on the domestic students to tell them, you know, be more welcoming to international students, whatever preconceptions you might have, take those, leave those at the door. You know, that’s not how you approach somebody from a new culture, you approach them with an open mind and open heart and really look and see who is this person that you’re talking to, because they’re a person, they’re not a preconceived notion. And I think we do need DEI efforts to really be more inclusive of international students and teaching domestic students how to avoid those microaggressions that continue to occur when they’re working with international students. Because I think there’s a lot of room for improvement on, you know, with the students, faculty and stuff, all around it all universities, there’s room for improvement, because I don’t think we’re doing nearly enough to encourage international student engagement. And that’s why we’re talking right now. In this podcast, it’s an issue that needs to be worked on.


Lixing Li  26:25

That’s great. Thank you, Laura, for all the sharings. Those are great points and comments. Yeah, just echo to faculty and staff support. I feel extremely lucky in my undergrad that all the professors and staff members are very nice, to me, encouraging me to be more engaged. I remember in my writing composition, one on one and 102. Professor, he always made sure that ask me questions for every class and had me to share my thoughts or comments or my life. And when I was not that competent in the first place, he always encouraged me and students in the classroom always gave me positive feedback and confirmation. “Oh, you’ve been doing great. And thank you for sharing that”. “I didn’t know this”. Something like that. That’s definitely a positive confirmation that encouraged me to be more involved in the future. And same thing for a staff member on campus say, particularly, they just say, if you’re interested in higher ed, that you can do any type of work in higher ed, even though you’re international students. And I feel very encouraged. And that’s why I decided to go to graduate school and pursue higher education admin program. Because of the encouragement. Yeah, so yeah. So you’re sharing just reminding me of all the wonderful memories when I was a student?


Laura Vaughn  27:52

Yeah. Yeah, it makes a difference. It makes such a difference to have an encouraging environment. Yeah, you can. Absolutely. Yeah. Who knows? Would you have been involved in higher education? If you hadn’t had those good experiences? Maybe not?


Lixing Li  28:06

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And thanks again, for all the sharings. And for me, it’s definitely a great learning especially helped me realize what leadership is. And we both work in higher education and student affairs, do you have any advice or recommendations to share with our university international students to be more involved?


Laura Vaughn  28:27

So I think when it comes to international students, there’s a really big term for people called Grit. So it’s just being able to stay the course not getting down on yourself. If things are difficult with faculty or staff, members, international students like is a lot of the time it is not your fault, that a teacher or a classmate or a staff member is not encouraging to you. That is not your issue. That’s the issue of the professor. I think there’s a lot of growth that needs to be done on the side of domestic professors and staff members because working with the English as a Second Language Program, we definitely had a couple incidences of professors coming to us and saying, Oh, this student can’t speak English. Like you should fix it. When and then when we talk to the student, the student is perfectly fine with the English that they’re speaking. Like, if they’re fluent, it’s fine. But it was because the teacher had a weird like a very strong accent. Not a weird accent, but like a strong accent. They used slang or they use terms like word terms that were unfamiliar to the students are used in a different way. And instead of trying to be flexible and seeing like, okay, maybe they don’t know this term, let me use a different word for it. They were just going on So the rational students who are having to deal with these type of professors and staff members, it’s not on you at all. Yeah, it’s, it’s the staff members and the professors that need to change. And so I hope that the international students who do run into these types of barriers, don’t get too discouraged. Yeah, find the professors who are encouraging, find the staff members, and the domestic students who are welcoming and kind and want to get involved. Because, you know, maybe you have a bad first impression. But, you know, keep at it and keep trying to become involved. And eventually, you will find, hopefully, sooner than later. But you know, you will find the group that you need to be in and that will be encouraging, where you as international student can become more involved on campus and make those connections that are so important. And if you don’t make those connections, then you might need to find another school. But hopefully not hopefully, you’ll be able to make wonderful connections at the school that you’re at, and that you won’t have all of the challenges that we’ve listed. Hopefully, you’ll only have good, good and supporting people around you.


Lixing Li  31:16

Thanks for the advice and from he just share about the language the slang thing, I found it actually a learning opportunities. While for me, like personally, I enjoy asking what does it mean of this phrase with my American friends and colleagues, and they enjoy teaching me and showing me the history and why we’re using that. And I also enjoy sharing, oh, we have another saying in Chinese, the railway translation is this, but I guess they are the same meaning. And I think because of their sharing, we get more close to each other. That’s how we build up the relationship. I think that’s also the positive confirmation that you are engaged and you get more and more confident. Yeah.


Laura Vaughn  32:01

Yeah, definitely finding those verbal similarities are always hilarious when you’re like, oh, this mean, the slang is very similar to this. And like you’re saying another language has something very similar. And you’re like, how did that develop? Where did that come from? Very interesting.


Lixing Li  32:18

Absolutely. Yeah. And thank you again, Laura for all your sharing today. Very inspiring. And I’m sure our audience have lots of takeaways and thoughts from our discussion today. I wish you all the best in your upcoming research here. We’ll love to hear more updates and new ideas and discoveries from your research soon.


Laura Vaughn  32:37

Thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. It’s been great.

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