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Destination: A New Way of Seeing

International students elevate English study at the U, and vice versa
March 7, 2017

Grad student Shavera Seneviratne on coast in Sri Lanka

Grad student Shavera Seneviratne on coast in Sri Lanka
Graduate student Shavera Seneviratne at a favorite place in Sri Lanka

Why move halfway across the world to study English literature? The international students in our doctoral program offer a variety of reasons, but chief among them is to get the best education available. “The United States is the place where the most up-to-date studies are being conducted,” notes Sungjin Shin, who is from Seoul, “and also where the most influential books and articles are published.”

“Our international students are one
of our greatest assets. They bring
with them intellectual perspectives
and life experiences that enrich our
discussions.” - John Watkins,
Director of Graduate Studies

In some cases, it’s not just content, but format. “The educational system here is radically different from what we have in Iran,” reports Saeide Mirzaei, who has an MFA from the University of Alabama. “Going to grad school here allows me to be an independent and critical thinker. It allows me to go beyond the rote learning system in Iran.”

As the study of literature written in English has gone global, so has the English department’s roster of graduate students. Since 1990, a number of students have hailed from South Korea, Russia, and Eastern Europe; more recent years have also seen students from China, Iran, India, Jamaica, Malawi, and South Africa, among others.

“Our international students are one of our greatest assets,” says Department of English Director of Graduate Studies John Watkins. “They bring with them intellectual perspectives and life experiences that enrich our seminar discussions, challenge long-held assumptions, and encourage us to reexamine the theories and methodologies on which our discipline rests.”

Minnesota strengths attract

Grad student Saeide Mirzaei
PhD student Saeide Mirzaei

Many students come to Minnesota because of the department’s—and the University’s—strengths in certain areas: Asian American studies, postcolonial literature and critical theory, Medieval, Early Modern, and 18th- and 19th-century literature. “The English department here has an excellent faculty, and I really wanted to get to work with them,” Mirzaei recalls of applying.

Another attraction is the opportunity to receive instructor training and teach: “a substantial advantage, especially if you’ve never taught before,” says Abhay Doshi, who earned his BA at the University of Mumbai and his MA at the University of York in England.

“I was also drawn to the emphasis on taking classes from different departments during coursework,” Doshi continues.

Indeed, the Department of English’s encouragement of interdisciplinary studies is a rarity in other countries. A native of Sri Lanka, Shavera Seneviratne double majored in English and Theatre Arts at Minnesota’s Carleton College. “Continuing my study of theatre and performance via the Theatre Arts department at the University of Minnesota has been a joy,” she says, “and one that I may not have pursued if we were not required to take at least two classes from outside the department.

“Being able to draw connections between these two disciplines has been instrumental in deciding on and navigating a primary area of study for my dissertation.”

Grad student Sungjin Shin
PhD student Sungjin Shin

The presence here of scholars from around the world both drew these students and remains one of their great pleasures. “I liked the fact that there were already a number of international students on the graduate student list,” Shin remembers.

“When I visited the English department, what was immediately clear was that the student community was incredibly warm and welcoming,” Seneviratne says. “Now, three years into the program, I cannot stress the value of a close-knit graduate student community enough.”

Doshi concurs: “Hackneyed as it sounds, international study gives you the chance to meet some wonderful people from different places.”

And then there's the weather

There are road bumps, the students agree. Among them: obtaining an apartment and internet connection without a credit history or Social Security number; missing the friends and family that expensive airfare (and, lately, visa worries) put out of reach for years; not being allowed to supplement teaching income with off-campus work; coping with language difficulties and cultural misunderstandings.

Not to mention the climate. “Fortunately, the weather in late August and September and even October is usually excellent,” Doshi observes, “which gives you plenty of time to settle in.”

A sucker punch, as it were. “On some days—like the entirety of winter!—I strongly question why I choose to be so far away from consistent 80-degree weather,” Seneviratne admits.

PhD student Yuan Ding
PhD student Yuan Ding learned to rock climb here

“That said, this distance has also had some important effects,” she goes on. “Being an international student has made me acutely aware of my identity as a Sri Lankan. Being in environments where I was the only representative of my country has shaped the way I position and see myself--an aspect that has definitely played into the kinds of topics and ideas that I am academically pursuing. The need to question systems of colonial power and to explore the implementation and perpetuation of Western traditions in my home feels timely, now more than ever.”

Inspiredand inspiring

For Yuan Ding, who earned her BA and MA at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the time here has simply been transformative. “During my nearly five years in the Twin Cities, I moved five times, met my partner, turned 30, learned how to rock climb, and acquired a driver’s license,” she describes. “At the University of Minnesota, I get to meet and learn from amazing scholars whose works inspire me daily. And I’m doing work that I find significant.”

Raised the daughter and granddaughter of professors, Ding always knew she wanted to follow that path. “I’m proud of myself for acquiring the expertise in English literature that qualifies me to teach native speakers of English,” she says, “something most of my family and friends back home can only dream of.”

At the same time, these international scholars enrich our undergraduate learning and graduate seminars with their cultural knowledge and bi(or tri-)lingual proficiency. "Above all, they expose the limits of America’s linguistic complacency," concludes Professor Watkins. "You really cannot know English until you have experienced it from the perspective of another language.”