Belonging and Community for International Students


Belonging and Community for International Students

International Student Citizen Fellowship students share their projects
CLF students

he International Student Citizen Fellowship is celebrating its third successful year of student-led, community-focused projects. The fellowship, which started in 2021, encourages and enables international students, student-athletes, and transfer students to play a leading role in making UVA a place where their communities can thrive. “We provide students with a set of tools to carry out an original community building project which grows out of their experiences, interests, and values,” international student and scholar advisor Caren Freeman said.

Students learn four types of skills: contemplative practices, ethnographic methods, project management, and public speaking. These skills help fellows connect more deeply with themselves, take a closer look at the webs of people and structures which comprise the communities they care about, and translate their visions into positive action. that

Fellows’ projects cluster around a common set of themes each year. They generally do one of four things: 1. Solve a concrete problem 2. Ease new student transitions 3. Catalyze a conversation to inspire change 4. Create new spaces and vehicles for connection and belonging. Many projects outlast the year-long Fellowship. The Global P2P Mentorship Program which matches every incoming undergraduate international student with a peer mentor from their hometown or region, and the Graduate and Professional Students of Africa (GAPSA) which serves over 100 students, are just two examples. 

The fellowship is a collaboration between the International Student and Scholar Program, the Contemplative Sciences Center, and Athletics.

The applications for next academic year is now open and you can get the details here.

UVA Global spoke to two fellows about their projects:

Selene Zeng is a third-year student from Beijing, China. Zeng raised the provocative question of teaching subjects like American foreign policy at a global university without alienating students whose home countries are considered geopolitical rivals of the United States. 

How do you hope your project will help international students from countries considered geopolitical rivals of the United States?
Zeng: I hope my project empowers international students to feel validated in their passion for controversial or sensitive topics, especially when these issues are deeply personal. Our students must understand that this passion is not a mistake but a strength. The intersection between intellectual pursuit and personal identity is complex and vital. International students—constantly adapting to new perspectives in U.S. education—should remain critical of hidden biases in "global education." We aim to understand the world through diverse viewpoints, not a single curated source. In an ideal UVA community, students can engage with controversial topics intellectually without fear of stigma or distress regarding their political, religious, or national identities.

What are some of the challenges you identified in this project?
Zeng: It’s a sensitive topic. Many students hesitate to share their experiences because they think they are oversensitive, especially when their “version of truth” feels uncertain against authoritative and peer perspectives. This hesitation is pronounced in discussions about international conflicts and humanitarian crises, where narratives often implicitly divide into good and evil sides. Additionally, the grading system pressures students to conform to perspectives that come up more frequently in readings or that the Professor seems to identify with, causing them to feel conflicted between personal faith and academic success. Despite these obstacles, the strong willingness and compassion of everyone at UVA is simply heartwarming; the collective efforts of being critical and brave maintain UVA as a welcoming global institution!

Please share any recommendations that came out of this project for the faculty teaching these courses.
Zeng: 1. Introduce a professional disclaimer at the beginning of classroom discussions, similar to the honor statement: “The perspectives and theories presented in this course are shaped by individual viewpoints and may contain inherent biases. Students are encouraged to critically engage with the material and recognize that a single class does not encompass the entirety of any country's complexities or issues."
2.  Establish an anonymous and welcoming feedback platform for students to share their thoughts on the selection of information, classroom atmosphere, or biases in classrooms!

CLF presentation
Students present their final projects from the International Student Citizen Fellowship. Photo Credit: Ellen Daniels

Anu Karippal is a PhD candidate in Anthropology from Kerala, India. Karippal photographed spaces on Grounds where international students report feeling most at home. 

Tell us about some of the places you photographed for your project.
Karippal: All the students I spoke to had a difficult time when they started graduate school at UVA. They found this transition as a major event in their lives that needed a shift in perspective. One student felt that the ‘system’ of friendship building works differently in the US, where she had to put herself out there and participate in social events to make friends. But she found a sense of belonging in Clemons library. So that was one place I photographed.
Another place I photographed was the Magnolia tree across from Brooks Hall. This student I spoke to found a sense of home in nature and painting. She had a deep admiration for the beauty of this world. She opened my eyes too, when she said “There are plenty of things at UVa to enjoy – but we don’t see it. UVa is welcoming us and we should trust that. It is the ‘eyes’ that we see with, the mindful eye that matters”.

Does this project connect with your work as a PhD student? 
Karippal: In several ways, yes. I am a PhD student in Anthropology, and anthropology relies on long-term hanging out with a particular culture and attending to the local cultural world long enough to know the nuanced differences between a blink and a wink. Like the art of ethnography that strives to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, much of my project is also about how students attend to this new strange world of UVA when they enter as novices and how they find familiarity and a sense of belonging with time. 

How has this project helped you as an international student?
Karippal: Sharing stories is a healing social experience where we find threads of connection that bind us together. Through this project, I came to know so many wonderful people and get a peak into their rich and resilient lives. On one hand, it legitimized my feelings of isolation and self-questioning that I had in my first year at UVA. I thought about quitting in my first semester, but I feel at home and at ease now. On the other hand, I learned about many places at UVA and practices that give students a sense of belonging. Apart from the project, the fellowship was a great learning experience. We had several coaching sessions on public speaking that helped me a lot in my academic work. The culmination of the fellowship in a public presentation confirmed that anything is possible as long as one has strong willpower and an encouraging support system.