Non-traditional International Students in American Universities

Afrin's Family Photo for Blog

Photo provided by Afrin Zeenat

The evocation of a university campus almost always conjures up an image of vivacious young girls and boys in their prime, going to classes, taking notes, and participating in much camaraderie and bonhomie. In most countries of the world, at least, this would be the scene on college campuses. Although non-traditional students are common in graduate studies around the world, undergraduate studies, invariably, comprises fresh high school graduates. That is not the case in America. Non-Traditional students form a sizable chunk of the student body in university campuses across America, both in undergraduate and graduate programs. Lifting the bar on age makes education accessible to those who may have missed the opportunity to acquire college education in their prime for numerous reasons. This is an opportunity denied to many people in the rest of the world, which is why most non-traditional international students on American university campuses are graduate students. Since graduate education in America is possibly among the most rigorous education systems in the world, coping and succeeding at a high level can pose some problems for non-traditional international graduate students who are accompanied by their families. Balancing the demands of graduate school and a graduate assistantship for some can make responsibilities daunting tasks in themselves, let alone the added responsibility of a family. And to top it all, living on a graduate student’s stipend in the world’s consumer heaven requires its own balancing act. The trick is to stay on task and remember at all times the main reason for being here: to earn a graduate degree.

In the course of this journey, which can be long and arduous, one needs to stay focused. The most important decision I took, even before arriving at the University of Arkansas campus, was to pledge that I would not lose focus, that I would limit my social interactions, that I would not get too engrossed in my teaching responsibilities (my professors constantly reminded some of us against it), and that whenever possible I would find time to slowly but steadily work towards accomplishing the requirements of the program I was enrolled in. I was attending graduate school as a non-traditional international student. My 4-year-old daughter accompanied me to Fayetteville when I arrived to earn a PhD as a graduate teaching assistant. From the very first semester, I kept reminding myself that my case was different from the other graduate students: I had left an economically secure mid-career position as a university teacher to pursue my dream of a PhD in an American university. Not only would I have to live on a budget, I would have to curb my own and my child’s (it was heartbreaking to tell her repeatedly that I could not afford to buy the expensive toys she would look at wistfully on our short trips to Walmart) impulse to buy stuff because there were other necessary expenses to meet.

Notwithstanding the material pinings, the existential angst one undergoes during the course of study brings its own anxieties and pitfalls. Although all graduate students encounter this persistent self-questioning and self-doubt regarding the worth of willfully pursuing a course of study that might not yield much in terms of worldly benefits, these become even more compounded in non-traditional students; even more so, in non-traditional international students, who often leave their spouses and families behind and for lack of sufficient funds, are not able to visit them or get the opportunity to travel home more frequently, sometimes for years, even in cases of family tragedies. A strong determination and resolve serve well in these moments. To lose focus and waver is easy, to display unflinching determination is the challenge. Let’s meet the challenge!

Afrin Zeenat is wrapping up her PhD. in English. Her dissertation focuses on the portrayal of orphans in nineteenth-century American literature through the intersections of race, class, and gender… Read full bio. Comment below!