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The purpose of this qualitative, phenomenological study was to explore the experiences of international graduate assistants at a public, four-year institution in the Southwestern U.S. This study concentrated on graduate-level (both master’s and PhD) international students who were at the time the research was conducted, employed within a graduate assistantship. The study was conducted in order to identify the essence of the phenomenon of being an international graduate assistant in the U.S. Explicitly, this study addressed how international graduate assistants simultaneously balanced the threefold experience of being an international student, pursuing a graduate-level degree, and working within a professional capacity as a graduate assistant.
Twelve total participants participated in this study, and data was collected through a singular interview with each one of the participants. The participants were asked to share their experiences with personal expectations, challenges, their assistantships, their relationships with their advisors and other faculty, and also their relationships with peers and dependents. The findings revealed that although international graduate assistants viewed their overall experiences positively, there were several important areas in which the participants had indicated a desire for more support.
The majority of international graduate assistants expressed a need for more initial information and assistance, particularly upon arrival in the U.S. Some participants felt cultural differences, such as having to adjust to a new academic system and a new work environment, created transition and adjustment challenges. The students also discussed the importance of their relationships with their advisors and peers, and how negative experiences or lack of interaction led to frustration and isolation. Finally, all of the participants emphasized the significance of graduate assistantships, which alleviated the financial burden of attending graduate school in the U.S., and also provided them with their only opportunity for relevant, professional career experience. The relevance of these findings suggest a greater need to study the unique experiences of international graduate assistants and how they can be supported more effectively.