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The Graduate International Student Team will support Annenberg international students.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

The Annenberg School for Communication has created a task force to support its international students following student concerns regarding visa statuses and COVID-19 travel restrictions.

International students called on administration for more support at a town hall meeting with Annenberg Dean John Jackson last spring after the pandemic amplified concerns about visas, traveling abroad, and the unstable job market. Jackson responded by assembling a team of four Annenberg staff and five Annenberg student consultants to make up the Graduate International Student Team.

GIST aims to be a centralized resource for Annenberg international students while complementing the resources provided by the International Student and Scholar Services at Penn, GIST members said.

“One of the number things GIST does is it creates a soft landing and a friendly and supportive environment with people who actually understand that international students do have a really challenging time getting to grips with being in the U.S.,” said second-year Annenberg Ph.D. student and GIST student consultant Sophie Maddocks.

Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies Joanne Murray wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that Annenberg currently has 22 international Ph.D students hailing from thirteen different countries. Annenberg is a five-year doctoral program in Communication with a total of 75 students, she wrote.

GIST plans to host informational workshops on Oct. 23 about available work authorization programs that allow students with a F-1 visa to work in the U.S. during or after their program of study. Work authorization programs for F-1 students include curricular practical training and optional practical training, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Third-year Annenberg Ph.D. student and GIST student consultant Florence Madenga said while the pandemic has magnified international students' challenges, Annenberg international students needed a support system like GIST even before the pandemic.

When Madenga first arrived at Annenberg from Zimbabwe, she recalled not knowing she needed a social security number. Without a social security number, she was not able to access her Ph.D. stipend for one month. She added that her orientation program did not inform her of what paperwork she needed as an international student.

“I decided to join GIST, because like any task force, I think when you’re saying that you're trying to approach the issues that a certain student population is facing, you need to include those students," Madenga said. "It can’t just be administration running things. I think it’s really important to have students giving feedback.”

GIST created an email listserv this summer with Annenberg international students and GIST members to centralize communication amongst international students and with the task force, said fifth-year Annenberg Ph.D student and GIST student consultant Celeste Wagner. She added that students have been actively using the listserv to ask questions.

Madenga said that GIST has also created an international alumni database for current students looking to make connections and explore different career paths. 

“I think even just knowing who the [Annenberg international] alumni are is comforting to me, because once I get on the job market, I want to hear those experiences and know who to contact," she said.

GIST has also compiled a list of information for Annenberg international students with topics ranging from available off-campus housing, visa status, to home sickness, Wagner said. She hopes these resources will be integrated into orientation materials for future Annenberg students.   

“We’ve created this list with the goal that it is available to all of us, so once you move forward in the program, you know as an international student there are certain things you need to know related to work issues, visa issues, and immigration that are already on a list, so it’s easier to know what to ask and where to go," Wagner said.

Maddocks said it can be difficult for Annenberg international students to find places of support when first arriving at Penn, particularly problematic when students have to complete visa and tax-related paperwork that can be overwhelming.

She and the other GIST student consultants said they are confident GIST will help Annenberg international students overcome these challenges. 

“In general, international students need support from our campus, community and the whole country, especially during such a difficult term of high xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitude,” second-year Ph.D student and GIST student consultant Shengchun Huang wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “GIST has started under this situation to take care of Annenberg international students.”