What a Master’s Course on Community Engagement Taught Me

A semester of engaging with NYC’s international student community.

When I first started the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I knew I wanted to serve the international student community, but I had the wrong idea about how to go about it.

Being a part of this community, I had preconceived notions and bias that were hard to shake. I thought I knew what this community needed, what it wanted and what the best way for me to go about addressing those needs would be.

I soon came to understand that while admitting my bias and including myself in the process was important, it was even more crucial to value the community itself and listen to their wants and needs by engaging with them directly rather than forming my own opinions about what had to be done to help them, and the community engagement course at CUNY-J is entirely to thank for this shift in perspective.

Throughout the duration of the course, my classmates and I got to learn about design thinking, qualitative research and ethnography, the value of civic tech, the importance of comments and new ways of serving and engaging with audiences like Purple, Hearken and Meetup.

While all of these tools are different and innovative in their own right, each values listening first and foremost; it is baffling to me that, in this day and age, the idea that audiences should be listened to and included in the conversation is one that is cutting edge. The journalistic process must begin with the audience, and not in a “who’s our demo? Let’s look at these stats,” type of way (although that is also important). What a waste it would be to go about dedicating resources to try and serve a community only to find out that you didn’t listen to them enough to begin with, that you didn’t address their most pressing need?

Once I understood the importance of this, I went back to square one and listened.

Here’s What I Learned:

I used Hearken to ask people from my community what they most wanted to know about with regards to international students and immigration.

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The question/concern that I decided to investigate was the following: I would like to be able to access a list of employers that sponsor international students.

I picked this question because it was one that I was getting a lot across the board — international students seem to be generally frustrated with the job search process because many companies are unwilling to sponsor foreign employees. Having a tool to alleviate the stresses associated with a job search of this kind could really help this community.

Using Hearken was great because not only did I receive a variety of questions, but I was also about to talk directly with the person who had submitted the chosen question. I got a better idea of what she wanted to know and I very much look forward to sharing it with her (and all of you!) once it’s finalized.

But the main takeaway I got from the Hearken project was that the needs of international students, when it comes to immigration, are largely practical. They need to find an easier way to apply to jobs and they need to find an easier way to get informed about changing visa policies.

Throughout the coursework I’ve accomplished this semester, I’ve talked to a number of international students across 5 big schools in New York City: NYU, Columbia, CUNY, Fordham and the New School. I’ve also spoken with various HR reps and immigration lawyers. And, unsurprisingly, everyone’s frustrated. International students are frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on and because they feel like they’re at a disadvantage, HR reps are frustrated because they can’t hire the very best candidates for a job, thus boosting the performance of their company, and lawyers are frustrated because they feel that the way H-1B visas have been handled hasn’t been beneficial to anyone — not to skilled foreign employees, not to employers who need these employees and not to the U.S. economy.

Source: NAFSA

According to a study done by the NAFSA Association of International Educators, international students contributed nearly $33 billion dollars to the U.S. economy in the 2015–2016 academic year and created approximately 400k direct and indirect jobs. So, besides the obvious humane need to support international students’ quest to gain more valuable professional experience in the States postgrad, it is also in the national interest to keep attracting these high-tuition paying students with the promise that immigration options post grad won’t be as limited.

Since the election, international students have been more reluctant to apply to U.S colleges. Many are considering Canada, with its more liberal immigration policies, for school. Just take a look at some of the top results that come up on Google with the search words “international students United States”:

I’m also finding that international students are not connecting with each other — not particularly well within schools and certainly not in between schools. This is a shame as connecting with other international students and learning from them can be such a valuable tool.

To that effect, I decided to try and instill change within my own college campus and created the “CUNY-J International Students Organization.”

Although only 7 people attended our first general meeting, it was a really insightful experience as I got to learn more about their concerns: how to deal with the interview process as an international, what the OPT application process is like, etc. We do, however, have 18 members on the group, most of whom I’ve been able to meet in person, which brings me to my next point:

In terms of connecting with international students, I’ve found that the best way to get them to open up about their concerns is through face-to-face interaction. I’ve had some difficulty getting folks to open up online, so focusing on physical networking is definitely going to be a priority moving forward.

I have also seen that the challenges faced by international students when trying to obtain work authorization post grad are largely unknown. This is something that bothers international students because they say they feel invalidated when asking for what they want/need when no one really knows about the issues concerning them. Growing awareness about this could also, perhaps, instill change. So a part of my work will definitely be about getting their stories out there.

Goals Moving Forward:

I want to find a way to answer the job search and informational needs of international students, whether that be through a tool of my own creation or by using an established tool like Purple, for example.

I would also love to do more qualitative research through unstructured interviews (which seem to work best with students) and focus groups. I will, furthermore, need to talk to many more international students in order to get a better scope of knowledge regarding their needs.

Another goal I have is to find a way to get international students connected. My Instagram page, called “International Students of NY” (inspired by HONY) could be a great platform for this and a good way to redirect them to the Facebook page I’ve created for my community under the same name.

Instagram: @internationalstudentsny

I would also like to organize one or two events aimed at showcasing the work being done by international students here in the city. This would be a great platform to grow awareness about how skilled and valuable international students are and also to connect more students to each other.

Separately, a good way to perhaps inform my community will be to create a newsletter or podcast called “Aliens in America,” dedicated to keeping international students and other people interested in U.S. visas (that’s a lot of people) informed about what’s going on.

Some Final Thoughts on Community Engagement:

Folks in the journalism world love to throw around the phrase “community engagement,” thinking this amounts to likes, shares and comments. And while these are important, reporters need to find more genuine, substantial and creative ways of connecting with their intended audience members, to find out about their needs before assuming what they are. To address actual problems, physical or otherwise, faced by members of communities. Telling someone’s story indubitably has value but, for whatever my opinion’s worth, I would bet that any member of any community worth helping would much rather choose to have you help them solve an actual problem. And that’s why community engagement is so crucial. It shouldn’t just act as a label for social media monitoring after the fact — it should happen at the very beginning of the journalistic process.

As for me and my community, I feel very lucky to have been able to learn more about the needs of international students through the various tools I’ve discovered through this course. While I’ll certainly continue to learn throughout the year, I now have a much stronger handle on how to best go about learning about the community and how to go about serving it in an efficient way.

If you’re interested in following up on my progress with this community, make sure to follow me here and to check out my Medium publication “International Students of NY,” where you’ll be able to find all the work I’ve done with this community.