School of Journalism graduate student Ha M. Ta saw an opportunity to create a website that showcased international students and their perspectives, so she spearheaded an actionable plan. As an international student herself, she was very aware of the issues and challenges that come with being in a new place, often thousands of miles from home. With the help and support from her professors and peers, she recently founded The Global Observer, a hub of resources and communication for international students to connect and learn from each other. We caught up with Ha to talk more about the website and what it means international students and the School of Journalism. Read more below!
- What is the Global Observer and how did it come to be?
The Global Observer is an online magazine written by and for the international student community at Northeastern University, in Boston. The hope is that this will expand in the future to support international students throughout the U.S.
When I came to Northeastern University in 2018, I was among a group of international students in the Journalism department. We naturally gravitated towards each other as we began figuring out how to live and study in the U.S. Our conversations soon revealed that we worried about the same problems. One of these challenges is navigating the complicated visa processes for international students to work full-time or part-time in the U.S. during or after our program. Naturally, people want to stay a few years to get experience and apply what they learned in school into the real world. We discussed former students who succeeded or failed to get an H-1B sponsor, or who secured a sponsor but lost the lottery process to see how else we could prepare.
We asked ourselves: what can we do during our study to better our chances, what can we prepare, do we need to seek a lawyer’s advice, and most importantly where do we start learning about this process besides looking at those information-dense law firm websites?
Northeastern University has the third largest international student population in the U.S., after New York University and the University of Southern California, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education. At the time of our enrollment, there was not a publication available on campus that was dedicated specifically to this population and to the relevant issues they face.
I do want to point out that Northeastern does have an office dedicated to servicing its international student’s community – the Office of Global Services, which provides extensive assistance and resources for international students. Although, they do not have a network of informal and intimate outreach that a student publication can offer. A clear example would be that most international students have to be in contact with the OGS before they came to the U.S. but most students I know and worked with, could hardly recall its name or remember it is there when they need help.
International students, I would argue, are one of the more vulnerable groups of students on campus. They are often subjects of fraud targeting their visa status or bank account, many struggles with adapting to the language and cultural differences, and are subjected to homesickness while having to worry incessantly about complicated visa rules and processes.
With all of this in mind and with the relentless support from our faculty advisor, Professor Matt Carroll, who always has his door open to any student who wants to sit down for a chat over his extensive tea collection, about ten of us Journalism graduate students set out to build the Global Observer in 2018. In 2019, we welcomed a new batch of international Journalism students—graduate and undergraduate—to our team of writers. We welcome new writers, regardless of major, who care about the issues we want to expose and hope to grow this team in the future.
- When did the site get started and how many people contribute to the site?
The Global Observer went live in November 2019. The site was an effort by more than 10 international students working together beginning in the Fall of 2018 until now, to discuss and build the content for the website. A lot of the work involved trying to get funding to create and maintain the site and the School of Journalism has been very generous in supporting and funding us in our early stages. Professor Dan Zedek, former creative director at the Boston Globe offered great insights for our logo and site design and Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism, advises some of our more political opinion pieces such as one from Szu Yu Chen, from Taiwan, who wrote about her mixed feelings toward the China –Taiwan relationship. Our faculty advisor, Professor Carroll, formerly of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight team provides guidance and final edits for all our articles.
In addition to our main gobserver.net site, we also have a GitHub page where our interactive, data-driven projects live. I decided to build the site because interactives help us present some of the more complicated subjects such as visas to students in a more fun and engaging way, which hopefully will motivate them to start learning more about the subject. Another reason is that, within the Journalism department, we have seen an increasing interest from people that want to expand their skills into coding and designing for interactive visualizations, and I think having a platform for students to experience that is needed.
One example project I did on our GitHub page is a quiz that test readers’ knowledge of some of the basic questions related to the H-1B visa, the most popular work visa for international students who want to work in the U.S. In another project, we let users input the three most important factors when they choose a neighborhood to live to find out their most ideal neighborhood in Boston.
- What kinds of stories can you find on your site?
We try to tell stories about living in the U.S. that resonate with international students, and the hassles that they have to deal with every day that are not necessarily seen by their fellow students. Our writers have written about their experience dealing with visa scams, overcoming homesickness, adapting to the new culture and style of living, making friends, exploring the city’s food scene to find tastes close to home, simple recipes for homemade meals, and discussions about some of the frustrations inside Boston’s city life—such as riding the T. We are also developing content dedicated to getting students familiarized with student visas. These articles will not be aimed to provide legal advice or federal regulatory information about but rather to get students interested in starting to learn about them and prepare as early as they can.
One of our writers, Yunjia Hou, wrote about her journey facing and overcoming her first year in Boston. Hou is my classmate and is one of the most cheerful people I know, and she is eager to chat and make friends with students in her classes. So a lot of people, including myself, were surprised to read her account of what she went through since arriving in the U.S., confiding her struggles catching up with classes, losing motivation to come to class, fretting coming home to an empty, lonely room and crying a lot.
One reader who is not an international student told us after reading the story that if they had known, they would’ve been much more proactive in inviting her and other international students to hang out. This is the type of response we hope to continue to receive as we build our magazine. It shows that in our little way, we bridge an understanding between students.
There was lots of excitement from students, faculty members, and the Office of Global Services to support our growth. I’ve seen more new faces in our bi-weekly meeting at Holmes Hall coming to learn more about the magazine and express their interest in writing for it. People think it fills a real need!
- What is the ultimate goal of your site?
We want to provide international students with a platform not only to share the exciting side of being an international student but also tell the struggles that we go through to succeed, whether it is language, making friends, missing home or being scammed. Our goal is to become a destination where local students can come and understand more of our perspective, what we think of the U.S., what we like, what we don’t like, or maybe even to answer some questions they may have about us like “What do we do in our free time?” “What issues do we care about?” “Why are we often so ‘quiet’?” “Are we all mega-rich?” or a question I personally get a few times “Do you even drink or ever get mad?”
I think when we consider someone “foreign,” “mysterious” or “hard to understand” it can be difficult to engage with them or have compassion for them. So one of our goals, too, is to help U.S. students better understand us. Our obvious target audience is international students in the U.S., but we would also like our audience to include U.S. students who are interested in learning what we think about the country and about them, about our experience studying here, and the differences we observe. And I think, hopefully, through discussing and understanding our differences, we can see that we are actually fundamentally not different at all.
- Do you plan on keeping up with the site post-grad?
Of course. We have just gotten the magazine off the ground but we need a lot of effort still to promote the site, attract new writers and refine our content. As a founding editor, I see myself responsible for keeping up and making sure the magazine grows in the direction we set it out to be and support the people that we set it out to support.
- What sets your site apart from other associated websites?
Before our launch, Northeastern didn’t have a publication dedicated to its community of international students that are also run by international students. We hope that the magazine offers a platform where international students express perspectives and bring forth issues they think are important yet not necessarily appreciated or appropriate for other publications. And ultimately, we hope they will feel comfortable, safe and trusting to do so on our platform.