Advocating for International Student Wellbeing and Career Development in the Pandemic

By Arame Mbodj, Elif Balin, Ellen Zold Goldman, and Un Yeong Park

We have all felt how 2020 was a year of uncertainty and turbulence. The pandemic and socio-political climate continues to affect how international students navigate academic opportunities in the United States. As members of the NCDA International Student Services Committee (ISSC), we recently released a statement expressing the need for support in the career development community. It is imperative to showcase solidarity and awareness of actions affecting international students, such as governmental policies that were promulgated to prevent international students from benefiting from the same quality of education and opportunities given to domestic students (NAFSA, n.d.). We raise our voices for advocacy to support international students who face additional unexpected challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Challenges Are International Students Facing?

International students make a commitment to their studies and are eager to receive career development in the U.S. despite a lack of institutional transparency about career outcomes (Choudaha & Schulmann, 2014; NCDA-ISSC, 2020). International students struggle with limited and at times costly work authorization options during and after their studies and reduced employer interest due to immigration policy barriers to hiring on student visas (Balin et al., 2016). Despite the barriers, international students maintain a high level of commitment (sometimes higher than American students) to engaging in career development, trusting that work options will become available. The attempts by the U.S. government to restrict the eligibility of international students to fully participate in legal and educationally-based work options, combined with the anxiety caused by frequent proposed changes to further restrict employment eligibility, constitutes a breach of trust (Quinton, 2020; NAFSA, n.d.). It is felt by both international students and those who work with and care about them. While the latest government court cases, which targeted international students and institutions of higher education, did not prevail, including those aimed at Optional Practical Training (OPT; S. Anderson, 2020a) the government signaled its interest in implementing additional changes (Fischer, 2020; Redden 2020). Moreover, when international student talent is lost, the U.S. and the world will not be able to benefit from international students' contributions to the economy, science, business, and the arts (S. Anderson, 2020b). International students contribute to innovation across all industries and fields, as 62% of world leaders have received higher education in the U.S. and 23% of billion-dollar start-up companies in the U.S. were founded or co-founded by an international student (S. Anderson, 2018; Higher Education Policy Institute, 2019).

International students report feeling targeted and fear being unable to return to the U.S. to complete their studies. An article by PEW featured an international student’s recommendation: “Go to countries that actually want you there...and (do) not make you feel like a burden to them” (Quinton, 2020, last sentence). While many students report anxiety caused by COVID-19 (G. Anderson, 2020), international students also report stress from fear due to visa uncertainties and the impact on their mental health as the result of targeted racists comments (Jennewein, 2020; Yu, 2020). When students remain in their home country instead of physically attending a university in the United States, they miss out on support, such as from the university mental health centers. Perhaps this is why Forbes reported that for Fall 2020, new enrollment of international students physically in the United State declined by 72% (S. Anderson, 2020c).

Further complicating their challenges, international students are dealing with

  • U.S. consulates and travel bans
  • the uncertainty in the visa interview process
  • unstable internet in some locations overseas
  • taking online classes at odd hours due to differences in time zones, impacting their life balance (Loo, 2020).

International Students Need Support From Career Development Professionals

As career development professionals, we have identified the underrecognized intersectionality of international student identities, contexts, and experiences of marginalization. While the new administration may bring positive change, only time will tell what the new landscape will bring. International students remain cautiously hopeful, even while feeling stressed by the impacts discussed here. Thus, as career development practitioners, we need to increase our understanding of diversity and vulnerability among international students while also acknowledging the critical impact of policies which lack adequate protections.

As career counselors and other career development practitioners, we need to increase our knowledge and skills related to the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling and Advocacy Competencies. For example, the counselor should be able to

  • identify the social, political, economic, and cultural factors that affect the student
  • identify potential allies for confronting the barriers, including those within the university, as
  • well as those who have cultural expertise relevant to the student's issue
  • provide and interpret data as well as share research and expertise to show the urgency for change.


Additionally, we need to take tangible actions to integrate culturally relevant risk assessment, crisis management, and holistic and wellness-oriented career counseling. By helping international students to increase hope with action, engagement, planning, self-advocacy, and empowerment interventions, they can develop career adaptability and resilience.

Furthermore, we encourage practitioners to demand and develop systems involving on-the-job training, mentorship, and peer support to hold each other accountable to meet the emerging needs of our most vulnerable and underserved international students, undocumented/unDACAmented, and students of color. If we want to reach these goals, we recommend aiming to engage in collective advocacy work to secure support from institutions and professional organizations. Only through collective, community-based, and focused advocacy, can we sustain our own wellbeing, motivation, and efforts to make the necessary changes in our systems of service for today’s students who need us more than ever.

Photo By Alex Motoc On Unsplash
You are encouraged to revisit the ISSC statement for a list of strategies and resources to take action now. NCDA aims to support the training and advocacy efforts, through the following resources:

  • the International Student Services Committee (ISSC)
  • the Social Justice and COVID-19 resources webpages
  • advocacy efforts of the Government Relations committee, and its D.C. based advocacy group (see the Advocacy tab on the NCDA website)
  • the new NCDA publication: Gaining Cultural Competence in Career Counseling, 2nd edition (Evans & Sejuit, 2021).

Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.


Anderson, G. (2020, October 15). A generation defined by the pandemic. Insider Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/15/students-continue-be-stressed-about-college-their-futures

Anderson, S. (2018, October 25). 55% of America’s billion-dollar startups have an immigration founder. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2018/10/25/55-of-americas-billion-dollar-startups-have-immigrant-founder/?sh=5321d2d648ee

Anderson, S. (2020a, May 4). Next Trump immigration target. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2020/05/04/next-trump-immigration-target-opt-for-international-students/?sh=6229ba5045f9

Anderson, S. (2020b, November 8). A Biden immigration policy: New hope for immigrants and businesses. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2020/11/08/a-biden-immigration-policy-new-hope-for-immigrants-and-businesses/?sh=65f14c878420

Anderson, S. (2020c, November 17). International student enrollment plummets: Biden could bring it back. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2020/11/17/international-student-enrollment-plummets-biden-could-bring-it-back/?sh=24567f121e7a

Balin, E., Anderson, N. M., Chudasama, S. Y., Kanagasingam, S. K., & Zhang, L. (2016). Working with international students in the US and beyond: A summary of survey research by NCDA International Student Services Committee. Journal of International Students, 6(4), 1053-1061.

Choudaha, R. & Schulmann, P. (2014). Bridging the Gap: Recruitment and Retention to Improve International Student Experience. NAFSA: Association of International Educators.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327078912_Bridging_the_Gap_Recruitment_and_Retention_to_Improve_International_Student_Experiences

Fischer, K. (2021, January 8). As MIT and Harvard sue, colleges scramble to respond to new federal policy on international students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/As-MITHarvard-Sue/249142?cid=wcontentlist_hp_latest&utm_campaign=latitude%28s%29&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Revue%20newsletter

Higher Education Policy Institute. (2019). The soft-power benefits of educating the world’s leaders. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Policy-Note-16-_-The-soft-power-benefits-of-educating-the-world%E2%80%99s-leaders-05_09_19-Screen.pdf

Jennewein, C. (2020, October 21). Asian American groups cite continuing COVID-related racism as election nears. https://timesofsandiego.com/politics/2020/10/21/asian-american-groups-cite-continuing-covid-related-racism-as-election-nears/

Loo, B. (2020, November 4). COVID-19 and fall 2020: Impacts on U.S. international higher education. https://wenr.wes.org/2020/11/covid-19-and-fall-2020-impacts-on-u-s-international-higher-education

NCDA-ISSC (2020, June 5). Promoting social justice for the career development of 
international students in a climate of uncertainty. Researchgate. https://www.researchgate.net/project/NCDA-International-Student-Services-Committee-ISSC-Research-Team/update/5ff756c33b21a200016773ed

NAFSA. (n.d.). Immigration executive actions under the Trump administration. https://www.nafsa.org/professional-resources/browse-by-interest/immigration-executive-actions-under-trump-administration

Quinton, S. (2020, September 14). Coronavirus, Trump chill international enrollment at U.S. Colleges. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/09/14/coronavirus-trump-chill-international-enrollment-at-us-colleges 

Redden, E. (2021, January 8). Major changes to student visa rules proposed. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/25/trump-administration-proposes-major-overhaul-student-visa-rules

Yu, A. (2020, April 21). Mental health impacts and support for international students in COVID-19. https://www.mhanational.org/blog/mental-health-impacts-and-support-international-students-covid-19


Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.


Un Yeong ParkUn Yeong Park is an Assistant Director at The Career Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been assisting international students in their career development for ten years since he came to the U.S. in 2009 with 17 years of professional experience from South Korea. He has been serving as a co-chair of the National Career Development Association’s International Students Services Committee. He can be reached at park351@illinois.edu




Ellen GoldmanEllen Zold Goldman is Associate Director at Career Design, Northeastern University, Boston, MA  She has a specialized focus on international students and related internal training to new career staff. In addition to Career Design, Ellen’s background includes teaching a Working in the U.S. course, advising international students, working with government-sponsored international students, study abroad, and supporting Home Country Co-op. Since 2014, Ellen has served as an active member on National Career Development Association’s International Student Services Committee. She can be reached at e.goldman@northeastern.edu



Elif BalinElif Balin is an assistant professor of counseling and program coordinator for the Career Counseling Specialization in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. She chaired the NCDA International Student Services Committee (ISSC) between 2013 and 2015 before co-leading the ISSC research and writing team until October 2020. As an active member, she currently works with the research/writing and social media teams of the committee to disseminate their recent research results through articles and other creative professional development resources. She can be reached at elifbalin@gmail.com


Arame MbodjArame Mbodj is an Assistant Director at Stanford University, BEAM Career Education. Arame is a first-generation immigrant who has a deep interest in helping others on their career journeys while integrating their identities. Dedicated to supporting international students, Arame has trained and supported other career development professionals to gain and incorporate intercultural competencies into their work. Arame is currently the co-chair of the National Career Development Association’s International Student Services Committee supporting the committee’s research & writing, resources, and social media teams. She can be reached at arame@standford.edu



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Paul Timmins   on Monday 03/01/2021 at 10:57 PM

Thank you to the ISSC for the advocacy you provide for international students. Great job!

Un Yeong Park   on Tuesday 03/02/2021 at 09:35 AM

Paul, thank you for the comment and your consistent support for ISS!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.