International graduate students look forward to joining RIT campus community

New graduate students Gina Abellana Crucio, Yushuang Liang, and Krutika Parvatikar.

RIT’s annual celebration of graduate research begins this week with an online platform that reflects the new normal during COVID-19. The virtual symposium also expands the content to an audience of international graduate students who started their programs from their home countries.

New graduate students Gina Abellana Crucio, Yushuang Liang, and Krutika Parvatikar are among the nearly 180 master’s and Ph.D. students who chose the remote start option this fall with hopes of coming to Rochester for the spring semester, beginning Jan. 25.

When, last spring, COVID-19 curtailed travel and introduced a host of challenges for international students—from traveling to the United States to obtaining student visas and navigating immigration regulations—RIT offered new international students an alternative. Undergraduate students could spend the fall semester at one of RIT’s global campuses or study online, and graduate students could begin their program remotely.

“We usually have a significant number of new graduate students—usually more than 500—join us from abroad every year, and we realized that these students may not be able to get here, and we offered the remote start option,” said Diane Ellison, senior associate vice president in Graduate and Part-Time Enrollment Services. “In many cases faculty had to put together a series of new courses and combine some of their classes, so they have master’s and Ph.D. students taking classes remotely that were not available before. Faculty did a lot of work.”

The remote option enabled Crucio, a Fulbright scholar from Cebu, Philippines, to start her MS in human resource development from Saunders College of Business while continuing to work full time as one of the directors of the Civil Service Commission, the central human resource agency of the Philippine government. She is enrolled in four courses, three asynchronous, one synchronous. Crucio’s classes are relevant to her work and thought provoking. “Diversity in the Global Workplace overhauled my way of thinking,” she said.

Crucio points to a support system that includes her family and colleagues, as well as her RIT academic adviser, Fulbright community, and RIT’s international Peer Adviser Leaders system that have helped her succeed this semester. Still, she is eager to meet her professors and classmates in person and to experience campus life in the spring as a cultural exchange student. After her graduation in August 2021, she will return to the Philippines.

“I am enjoying my full online experience,” Crucio said. “The MyCourses platform and other messaging apps have been effective and have allowed me to interact with classmates from around the world in real time. I can converse and interact with my teammates in the United States, Saudi Arabia, India, and Ghana, as if we were all physically sitting together at one table.”

Yet, time zones, Internet connectivity, and software firewalls can create obstacles for students studying at a distance. Networking and simple social interaction present other challenges.

Liang lives in Leshan, a small city in the middle of Sichuan Province, China, and is pursuing her MFA in visual communication design. She is hoping to resolve a few remaining hurdles to studying at RIT during the spring semester. She is thankful for the continuous learning the remote start option has provided her, but she misses the in-person experience. “I just want to talk to teachers and classmates face-to-face and walk around on campus.”

The feeling of social isolation that comes with studying remotely during a pandemic can make students feel disconnected and unmotivated. Forming connections with faculty and peers is an important part of graduate education. Resources available to students include the International Peer Adviser Leaders program through International Student Services, the Graduate Student Advisory Club, and the Doctoral Student Association.

Parvatikar lives in Mumbai, India, and is pursuing a master’s degree in data science. She regularly takes advantage of her professors’ office hours and looks forward to the virtual coffee hours held twice monthly with the program directors of data science and software engineering

Parvatikar and Liang were drawn to RIT for its strong co-op program. Liang hopes the university’s emphasis on careers and practical experience helps her find work in interactive design.

“I plan to work in America for a while after graduating,” Liang said. “I want to become a designer who could make an impact on society.”

Students want to study at RIT, and they want to get work experience in the United States, Ellison said. Immigration regulations allow students who study on campus for two consecutive semesters to participate in co-op. International students also can do optional practical training after they graduate, enabling them to work full time for a year or more with a student visa, she said.

“To me these students have shown incredible resilience and flexibility and are open minded and willing to take some risks,” Ellison said. “We’re trying to figure out the best option to keep them connected and help them continue their education plans.”

To this end, RIT is looking to success coaching to help the remote start students excel and to learn from the students’ experiences. RIT contracted with the organization Inside Track and paired students with a coach.

Parvatikar, at first, had mixed feelings about choosing the remote start option because she had never tried online learning. She felt reassured after watching RIT webinars, and communicating with admissions counsellors and the RIT Remote Start team. Parvatikar appreciates having the support of a success coach for the next 12 months to help her with her goals and career plans.

“I personally think that to recognize the challenges of the online semester and come up with solutions to support and encourage students by assigning a student success coach with 1:1 coaching and support during the remainder of the academic year was a crackerjack idea.”

Parvatikar is eager to join RIT’s campus community in the spring. She plans to get involved in the graduate culture and the next Graduate Education Week and Showcase, a signature event. While on campus Parvatikar will continue building a professional network that she has started online, and she will continue to meet with her success coach. The coaches will provide feedback to Ellison’s team in Enrollment Services.

“We want to understand the experiences of these remote learners who are abroad, not just how are they doing in the classroom, but how are they experiencing RIT, how are they engaging in our community remotely,” Ellison said. “We want to know, what things are we doing well, and what challenges the students are facing. We can learn and gain new information from them that will help us meet the needs of others going forward, finding ways to combine remote learning and in person, on campus learning.”

The motivation goes beyond improving the process in the spring semester. Ellison thinks the global pandemic accelerated the shift that had already begun to reshape higher education.

“The world is changing,” Ellison said. “We can’t assume as a higher education institution that all of our international students are going to want to spend their full degree time in the United States the way that they have in the past. There are different opportunities to access learning and ways to do things online and remotely and to be effective. We need to get ahead of the game.”

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