Campus / Community / COVID-19 / News / May 23, 2020

“I’m the elephant in the room”: senior shares experience as international student

Nadeem on his first day on campus, with his current roommate. (Photo courtesy of Shayan Nadeem)

Senior Shayan Nadeem had almost everything lined up for after graduation. The Galesburg School District had an opening for a fifth grade teacher he planned to apply for and he was even ready to stay in the same apartment.

“I would say that I had all of my path lined up, I was hoping to stay in the same apartment where I am right now a year from now (…)” Nadeem said. “And then the virus happened and now it’s similar to everyone else where no one knows what they’re doing. Now I don’t even know what I’m going to do after June. Where am I gonna be living? Will I have to move out? Where will I move all my stuff? Will I even get a job? Will I even get to stay in the U.S.?”

The political climate has made things especially difficult with increased nationalism and the emerging economic crisis.

“Right now, the political climate towards immigrants and towards international students is different, it’s targeted towards us,” Nadeem said. “Americans come first, American jobs, American students, and whatever.”

Nadeem’s experience at Knox has been constantly shaped by his identity as an international student from Pakistan.

International students have found themselves in a precarious situation as countries have implemented border lockdowns, preventing some of them from returning home. Others may find themselves trapped in their home countries in the fall, a situation Knox is already trying to plan for.

“Domestic students can go home, they can go to their relatives and this and that, we have nowhere to go,” Nadeem said. “We’re basically quarantined on campus with no jobs, no employment, and all that.”

Adding difficulty for those in the U.S. right now is that many international students did not receive stimulus checks and have lost their on campus jobs, which may be the only jobs they can legally work. Applying for after college jobs has added cultural and visa difficulties for international students as well.

“We can’t go home, we’re stuck here,” Nadeem said. “Who’s supposed to take care of us?”

The last time Nadeem worked at his job in the library was over Spring Break. He said afterwards he reached out to various departments and offices on campus to see if he could find another job but had no luck. He lives off campus and used his campus job to pay rent.

“”I think projects still need to be done on campus, work still needs to be done on campus, whether that be taking the trash out or cutting the grass or digging out weeds, I think that even if it was employing one person per department or two students per department, there could still be plans being made,” he said.

International students who are graduating, like Nadeem, face additional pressures from no longer being students, complicating their visa status. Nadeem said his main worry for after school is not job applications but the immigration paperwork to stay after graduation.


Community ties

Over his four years at Knox, Nadeem has forged strong ties with Galesburg, especially through his involvement with Mocha with Muslims and volunteering and student teaching in District 205. Now he does not want to leave.

“No one wants to stay in (a city) necessarily as small as Galesburg, they want to go experience the city life, be in a big place, live downtown in a city where they can experience the rush, the fast life,” he said. “But that was sort of different for me.”

He said that while sometimes he feels other international students are hesitant to go off campus or to certain parts of Galesburg, he was never afraid of the town. He knew he would stick out though.

“Being where I’m from, looking different and on top of that having this mustache on my face, I stand out, I’m the elephant in the room,” he said.

As he started looking for after Knox jobs, he said the furthest away he looked was Peoria.

“I really, really liked the sense of community that Galesburg and Knox had, and I slowly started seeing myself being a part of that community,” he said.

Nadeem is an active member of the Muslim community at Knox, participating in Islamic Club (of which he was president one year) and starting the Mocha with Muslims event. He found that the religious aspects were not as mysterious to people as the cultural ones, and the stereotypes around them.

After hosting successful Mocha with Muslims events at Knox, he was invited to bring the event to a fifth grade classroom at Steele Elementary School. This obviously took some changes from the format used with college students. They ended up holding four of the events at the school, and have since also done the event or talked about it at the Peoria annual teachers conference in 2019 and at cities and churches around the Galesburg area.

Besides Islamic Club and playing soccer his freshman year, Nadeem has also been involved in AAINA, Blessings in a Backpack and organizes pick-up soccer games with friends. He has even been able to continue this term for students who are on campus, and despite his coming graduation, he hopes someone else takes over organizing them next year.


An educator’s education

He started at Knox as an economics major, became interested in education after taking a couple classes. It is a field where he did not see many other Pakistani people in U.S..

He felt he had an easy time in the 100 and 200 level courses, but then the 300 level courses introduced him to the bigger picture problems of education. And, of course, there was also the practicum and student teaching to worry about.

“But then practicum shows up and that’s something that I feared the most. Being in a school with kids where I look different, I speak different, I speak with an accent, so how will I be taken in in a school community?” he said.

With student teaching, Nadeem had a lot to adapt to, as he had grown up in the British-style education system. He worked with Heather Hellenga, the fifth grade teacher at Steele he had worked with for Mocha with Muslims.

“She helped me become the educator I am today,” he said.

He also noted former professor Barry Swanson, who retired in 2018, and education professor Jennifer Foubert as important influences on his teaching. He has remained in touch with both even when away from campus.

“Jennifer Foubert, who has been of constant support with me and has been there for me whenever I needed someone to talk to or anything in that case, whether that be (about) where I come from, the struggles I have in the department, identity crisis being from a different culture or battling my own culture, upbringing and being a teacher,” he said.

During his time in the education department, he realized that much of the way education is taught can put international students at a disadvantage, such as being unfamiliar with popular American children’s books or cultural norms.

“I had to do double the work for assignments and I had to go out of my comfort zone to take part in conversations, and gain knowledge in certain topics and certain aspects”

Part of the disadvantage came from lacking exposure to topics which are sensitive in the U.S. but not widely discussed in the places the students are from, like American slavery or race relations. Nadeem has been working on an independent study with Foubert on these differences.


Ramadan during the pandemic

This term Nadeem has been talking with his parents pretty much every day, as it was something to do. He often stayed up late at night to call them, as there is a 10 hour time difference between Galesburg and his hometown. He has been up late most of this term anyways because he fasted for Ramadan, meaning he would only between sundown and sunrise. Ramadan is expected to end around Saturday, May 23.

This Ramadan has been very different because the Muslims who are still on campus cannot gather like they normally would to break their fast each night or for their morning meal. Nadeem is thankful that dining services have been offering meals Muslim students can pick up and reheat on their own, including for students who are off board.

Ramadan not being as social as other years has made it feel pretty different for Nadeem this year. Knox would host meals for students breaking their fast and open a kitchen for students to make their morning meals. He would also normally go to fast breaking parties, cooking parties and other gatherings.

“It would be a whole communal thing where I would see a lot more of my friends, I would not stay indoors most the time,” Nadeem said.


Adapting to Knox and America

Nadeem keeps a halal diet and so had some difficulty early in his freshman year finding enough to eat at Knox, especially meat. Since then he has worked with other Muslim students on campus to expand the offerings of halal food, including resources during Ramadan.

Another large change for him was coming to a culture where he is perceived as a minority.

“Although colorism is big where I’m from, racism isn’t,” he said.

Nadeem noted that he had never met a white person, black person or someone who spoke Spanish before coming to Knox.

“But coming here, being a minority, not seeing people who look the same and speak the same language, it brings you closer to your own culture and your own religion where as soon as you enter a room, you look for someone who is the same color as you,” he said.  “You look for someone who speaks the same language as you, even if you can’t find someone who’s the same culture, you look for someone who looks different.”

Now, he feels that he could go into most rooms at Knox and feel comfortable, not just with students but with the staff and faculty too.

“Everyone who is included in life at Knox gives you a feeling of home, and that’s not just on campus, even off campus,” Nadeem said.

Like many seniors, Nadeem is disappointed to miss his last Flunk Day. He also said he would miss the GQ Cup soccer tournament. The teams he has been on have one every year he has been at Knox.

He has also been to commencement every year he has been at Knox except this year, his own senior year. Last year he was elected college marshal and helped lead the graduating seniors during the ceremony.

“It got me thinking this will be me next year (…)” Nadeem said. “I’ve been a part of every graduation except mine.”

Connor Wood, Editor-in-Chief
Connor Wood is a senior with a double major in English Literature and Environmental Studies. He started as a volunteer writer and then staff writer his freshman year and was a news editor his sophomore and junior years. He has also worked as a communications intern for the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and as an intern with Unified News Group, both in the Madison, WI, suburbs.

Tags:  COVID-19 district 205 education studies Galesburg galesburg district 205 international students islamic club Mocha with Muslims Pakistan pandemic Shayan Nadeem Spring Term 2020 Steele Elementary

Bookmark and Share

Previous Post
TKS Off Campus Podcast Episode 5: Tina Hope
Next Post
Covid-19 in Rural America: Should we be worried?

You might also like


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.