The international student experience is unique and often misunderstood by others, including faculty. Because of this, the international student community at Barnard often feels misunderstood, misrepresented, and marginalized. Tasneem Ebrahim, a junior at Barnard, has decided to change that. She has been working alongside Professors Cecelia Lie-Spahn and Pam Cobrin, as well as Deans Wendy Garay and Giorgio DiMauro, to address the issues international students face at Barnard through their project “Working with the International Student Experience: Pedagogy and Belonging.” Tasneem and her team were granted the prestigious 2019 Barnard Inclusion Grant to fund the project.
Bwogger Peyton Ayers sat down with Tasneem to find out more about the project, her motivations, and her own experience as an international student.
Peyton: Introduce yourself! Major, school year, home town, anything else we should know.
Tasneem: I’m Tasneem Ebrahim, I’m a junior, and my major is cellular and molecular biology. My hometown? It depends honestly. I was born in Egypt, but I was raised in Bahrain. I’ve lived my whole life there and I still live there — I’m definitely a mixture of two cultures.
P: So you were recently awarded the Barnard Inclusion Grant. Congrats, first of all! So what does that mean for you exactly? What does the grant allow you to do?
T: The grant is for a broad range of projects, but for our specific project the grant allows us to fund the work I do. We’re trying to have a workshop, including panels, and the ultimate goal is to have faculty understand the international student experience in the classroom. Basically, the project the panel will have professors who were international students when they were undergrads and Barnard international students, including myself. So, faculty will attend the panels and the workshop, which will have an open discussion to figure out and explore the issues international students face. A lot of the time, international students feel invisible in the classroom in the sense that people don’t see us being international as an opportunity, it’s just like: “oh, interesting.” Everything is always taught from the American perspective.
P: What other problems do international students face at Barnard and Columbia?
T: We face so many problems outside of the classroom. I think one of the biggest problems I face as an international student is finding internships, job opportunities, and fellowships because so many of these things are restricted to US citizens and permanent residents. I don’t know of a resource where I can go to find international student opportunities, there is nowhere to go. I have to go through things on my own. It’s really frustrating because international students are not a small percentage — we make up over ten percent of Barnard, and still, I feel like we’re completely neglected in terms of these things. The fact that the international student office is the same office as the study abroad program, it’s all just lumped together, just goes to show how little attention is given to us individually. And also, there isn’t a lot of community building. I feel like I don’t know any international students; the last time I saw a community of international students was during orientation. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only international student, but there’s a lot of us, there just aren’t many initiatives that cater to us, whether it’s inside or outside the classroom.
P: Was there a specific instance that made you want to start this project?
T: The way it all started was in a class, actually. I was taking Writer’s Process class, which is the training course for becoming a Barnard Writing Fellow. There was a time in this course where we read and talked about international students and English as a second language, and from there that’s where it all started and we’ve been working on the project for over a year now.
P: Have you experienced any setbacks in this process?
T: I’ve been having trouble contacting other international students at Barnard. I don’t know that many personally in my circles, and it’s been hard to meet them. When I talk about my experience as an international student I don’t want to be the only person talking because my experience doesn’t apply to everyone. We were working with the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia, trying to have a focus group with international students just to hear about their experiences in the classroom, but not a lot of people attended these focus groups, which was a major setback.
P: You mentioned that you’re working with a few professors and deans, how has working with such an accomplished group of people shaped the experience of making this project come to light?
T: It’s been really rewarding because they care so much about their students and being inclusive in their classrooms. This topic really matters to them because they want to do better themselves, in their own classrooms, and they want their peers — the other faculty — to see the problems in the classroom and also, just, do better. A lot of the issues we’re looking at involve language and assumptions about language at Barnard, but even beyond that: pop culture references, the way courses are shaped, and the fact that professors don’t take into account international perspectives. Working with these professors in particular has been a very valuable experience for me because I feel like I’m working with people who really care.
P: So, what else are you involved with on campus — any extracurriculars or clubs?
T: Well, I’m a Writing Fellow — like I said, that’s how it all started, in the training course to become one. Even within the writing fellow position, I’m part of an initiative called the Science Fellows; we’re trying to change the science writing culture at Barnard to make it more visible. I also tutor and TA for various science classes, and I used to be — well I still am — involved with the Muslim Students Association. I also do research in an epigenetics lab!
P: What’s next for you? Any plans for the summer or post-grad life?
T: The ultimate goal for me is to pursue a PhD in the biological sciences and then to teach, I love teaching.
P: Well props to you, that’s amazing! Lastly, do you have any juicy fun facts or party tricks?
T: I make a really, really good chocolate skillet cookie, you know, like in a cast iron skillet. Everyone who eats it, just, swears by it. Trust me.
Image via Flickr