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Interview with Katie Koo, Ph.D. from the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA) on International Students, Student Mental Health, and Student Affairs

About Katie Koo, Ph.D.: Katie Koo is Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA). Dr. Koo’s research on educational equity focuses on the issues facing international students of color, with a particular focus on how students’ experiences with acculturative stress and racism impact their mental health. Dr. Koo’s work has appeared in leading education journals, including the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Journal of International Students, and Journal of College Student Development. She is also co-editor of the new collection International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story.

In addition to her work as a researcher, Dr. Koo is Chair of the Association for the Study for Higher Education’s (ASHE) International Scholars Workshop. She also is Vice Chair of the ASHE’s Council on International Higher Education, past Faculty-in-Residence for ACPA-College Student Educators International’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development, and a Global Faculty Fellow at Korea University. Dr. Koo’s research has also been supported by a number of grants, including a NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) Transition and Retention Knowledge Community Research Grant and an ACPA Emerging Scholars Grant.

Prior to joining the faculty at UGA, Dr. Koo was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Higher Education at Texas A&M University-Commerce and in the Department of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University. She also worked as a student affairs professional in contexts including university counseling. Dr. Koo earned her Ph.D. in Student Affairs from the University of Maryland. She has an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from New York University, an M.A. in Counseling from Michigan State University, and a B.A. in Psychology from Duksung Women’s University.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in educational equity in higher education, particularly as it pertains to the educational experiences and mental wellness of international students and students of color?

[Dr. Katie Koo] I am currently an Associate Professor in the student affairs program at the University of Georgia. My program is housed in the counseling department. It is a cohort-based program where we educate future student affairs professionals who will work within the university setting.

My professional and academic background is a mix of student affairs, counseling, and mental health. My Ph.D. is in Student Affairs, I have two Master’s degrees in Counseling and Counseling Psychology, and I did my undergraduate degree in Psychology. I also used to be a mental health counselor before becoming a full-time faculty member.

My interest in mental health scholarship was critical. Working as a counselor, I naturally became interested in human behavior and psychological perspectives on student well-being. I became especially interested in young adults and their development. I knew I wanted to practice at a university counseling center, so I got my Ph.D. in Student Affairs, which focused on the college student experience.

My particular interest in the mental health of international students and students of color comes from my personal experiences as a former international student of color. I was born and raised in Korea. I came to the United States to pursue graduate degrees in counseling, so I was an international student many years ago. There are a lot of difficulties and challenges, as you may imagine. There is the language barrier. Specifically, because of the nature of counseling, I had to learn to catch a lot of the invisible emotional and cultural background to understand the psychology of my clients.

At certain points, I felt like it was not really possible for me to complete my degree. I also noticed that it was not just me, but this was also true for many international students. They struggle, and they experience a lot of challenges and difficulties that domestic students do not have to go through. These personal experiences were a very important origin of my research. I wanted to speak up. I wanted to share the stories that I had heard. That is how I began my scholarly work on this topic.

[] A major focus of your research has been examining the mental health of underrepresented students in higher education, especially international students and students of color. Would you tell us how you think about equity in your work and how your research understands mental health and equity as interlinked? How, for example, do the discriminatory experiences and institutional barriers faced by students of color and international students impact their mental health, and, on the other hand, how does mental health mediate students’ educational experiences and academic success?

[Dr. Katie Koo] In some ways, I think the vocabulary of educational equity is very U.S.-centric. I was never really exposed to the word equity when I was in Korea. Equity was a new concept for me as an international student, and I think I am still learning about it.

I have seen, though, that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work tends not to look at international students. There are certain populations that DEI work focuses its attention on–for example, Black, Latino/a/x, or LGBTQ+ populations, as well as women and sometimes Indigenous students or students with disabilities. I do not see a lot of DEI work talking about international students. I think this creates an important gap in this work. There is a real lack of understanding about the challenges faced by international students. I thought I should do something to let other researchers know that equity is an important concern for international students.

That is when I became more interested in international students and the link between mental health and equity. Mental health is a very complicated aspect of equity because it is an invisible thing. It is not like you are bleeding or have broken a bone. Understanding mental health depends a lot on self-reported and self-perceived symptoms, and many life events and cycles impact our mental health without us even realizing it. When people experience inequities, it directly impacts their well-being. It can undermine their trust in the world. Very basic life needs are shaken by discrimination, microaggressions, or racist incidents, which has critical ramifications for mental health.

Institutional barriers and discrimination faced by students of color and international students directly impact their mental health. Each presents challenges for meeting basic needs like safety. When students do not trust their environment, it ruins their mental well-being. You cannot say, “Someone discriminated against me because of my race, but I’m still happy.” It just does not happen that way.

Mental health and academic success are also correlated. In my research, I have found GPA is directly related to depression. I wrote my dissertation on this, focusing on American students when compared to different racial groups. I found that GPA, academic performance, and hours of study are factors directly related to mental health. One does not come first, but they feed into each other.

If you are mentally healthy, your performance is better, and if your performance is better then you are more mentally healthy. When you are depressed, when you are anxious, when you are procrastinating out of anxiety, you cannot perform as well academically. Because, as we have discussed, inequity has a negative impact on mental health, equity, mental health, and academic performance are all connected.

[] Would you highlight some of the key factors your research identifies as mediating the psychological well-being of underrepresented students and some of the key strategies your work recommends for redressing these problems, perhaps touching on your publications, “Am I Welcome Here? Campus Climate and Psychological Well-Being Among Students of Color,” and, “The First Year of Acculturation: A Longitudinal Study on Acculturative Stress and Adjustments Among First-Year International College Students”?

[Dr. Katie Koo] Because I was interested in how equity and mental health are related, I wanted to see how students’ perceptions of campus climate impacted their mental health. That research led to the first article you mentioned, “Am I Welcome Here?” That study found that, for white students, campus climate was not an important factor. It was not a significant predictor of psychological well-being. But it was a significant predictor of mental health for Black, Latinx, and Asian students. I saw that equity really mattered only for the mental health of students of color.

This study is a longitudinal investigation; the data was collected from the same people over time. I reported that, for these students, perceived campus climate was significantly more negative during their senior year, while their mental health also deteriorated during their senior year compared to their freshman year. I wanted to ask what happened during those four years. Why do seniors have these negative experiences with campus climate and mental health?

I wanted to highlight that there should be something happening during those four years, because they had relatively positive experiences with campus climate and better mental health during their freshman year. Maybe they were just naïve because they had just arrived in the country and were fresh out of high school, or maybe they had limited experiences during their freshman year and were insulated from negative campus experiences. In any case, if campuses could do a better job promoting diversity and working to provide a healthier and more secure climate overall, then maybe their reporting during senior year would be different. It is important for the student affairs professionals, educators, and policymakers to intentionally provide better and more customized support for students in their senior years, with a focus on mental health and class climate.

Similarly, the second article, “The First Year of Acculturation,” is another longitudinal study. The results are different though. I found that international students’ acculturation and acculturative stress became more positive after their first year, which we could imagine because the data collection point was at the very beginning of their very first semester in the U.S., so they did not have much cultural exposure. They were new to the U.S. institution, and still missing their homes and their families. The second data collection happened at the end of the first year, so it had been two semesters. They were exposed to the U.S. culture, had somewhat adjusted to the culture and the U.S. academic system, and had more social contact. As their situation became more positive, it impacted their acculturative stress.

In this article, I tried to highlight that there is hope. After a year, the experiences of these students had dramatically improved, which also demonstrated the students’ resiliency. If the university can provide timely and more culturally sensitive support for international students, their acculturative stress will be better later.

[] You have published extensively about how the pandemic has affected international students, as in your paper, “‘It is Not My Fault’: Exploring Experiences and Perceptions of Racism Among International Students of Color During COVID-19.” Could you discuss how COVID-19 has exacerbated the racism faced by international students of color, and the broader ramifications COVID-19 has had for working to address educational equity among international students? Are there important ways you see practitioners, administrators, and educators working to address this problem?

[Dr. Katie Koo] I tried to speak for international students with this research. I heard many different things from international students I work with, and I had similar experiences as an international faculty member. Every individual in higher education was deeply impacted by COVID-19. It was a universal experience in many ways. But international students experienced these difficulties in a foreign country, which makes a huge difference. They were away from their homes and away from their primary support system. They did not have their families or close friends here.

During the earlier stages of COVID, the impact was huge because there was a lockdown and universities were under evacuation orders. The dormitory had to be evacuated. When that evacuation happened, domestic students in the U.S. were able to go home. For international students, it was not that simple. Some of their home countries banned traveling. There was a period where the Chinese government did not allow people to come back to China.

Some international students had to leave their dorms but had nowhere to go. They had to ask for temporary housing. There was no point-person helping them at that time, so they had to figure out how to survive by themselves during lockdown. Some people experienced difficulties securing safe housing and had to find housing with their friends. This is just one example.

Another key factor to the experiences of international students during COVID has to do with the racism they faced. 70 to 80 percent of international students come from Asian countries. COVID was directly related to anti-Asian hate crimes because of the origin of the COVID virus. If you remember, there were severe attacks on the Asian population at that time. Because many international students are Asian students, they experienced racism either directly or indirectly in seeing neighbors and friends go through those difficulties.

When you have this direct experience of racism, it is hard for you to trust the government, the host country, and the culture. It was really hard for Asian international students to endure during that time. There was COVID, there was racism, and, in addition to those difficulties, there were also immigration law and policy changes. In 2020, the U.S. Immigration Office changed their policy, so that any international students who were taking classes online had to leave the country. That panicked the whole international student community for a few days.

After multiple lawsuits from other institutions, the government changed the policy again. These frequent changes in policies and law made international students so anxious and uncertain about their futures. By that time, many international students decided to leave and not come back to pursue their degrees because they felt sick of this treatment as “foreigners.” Visa status was another thing that made their life difficult.

The racism faced by international students of color was exacerbated because of COVID, and this is still going on. You still see news reports about anti-Asian hate crimes, and I personally experienced some of them on-campus and off-campus. This has made me more invested in the equity issue.

Addressing these issues is challenging. Many practitioners, administrators, and educators are not international. They are mostly U.S. born and U.S. trained workers, so it is not very easy for them to fully understand what it is to experience racism, racial attacks, or changing immigration policies. I think genuine empathy will be really important to address this problem. That is a major complaint from international students. They always say, “My American faculty don’t understand what I’m going through because they’ve never experienced it.”

I know that there is no way that American-born faculty members can experience that because they are not foreigners, but it is still important to educate them about what international students are going through so they can approach these issues from a place of empathy. Institutional support for international students should look different from support for domestic students because the starting point is different and the services that they need are different. Culturally sensitive services and support are really the key.

[] In your work, you have emphasized the importance of the intersectional identities of international students. For example, you are co-editor of the volume, International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story, and co-author of “New Voices from Intersecting Identities among International Students Around the World: Transcending Single Stories of Leaving and Going.” Would you discuss what it means to look at identity as intersectional and how this both allows us to better understand the mental well-being of international students and challenges the oversimplification of international students’ experiences?

[Dr. Katie Koo] In this book, we thought about including multiple identities in our academic discussions of the mental health issue. We saw that we cannot really separate the intersectionality of identities when approaching mental health. For example, some people face mental health challenges related to their gender identity or their sexual identity. It is not sufficient to reduce our understanding of students’ mental health to their identities as students; there is always something related to their identity that is relevant to what they are dealing with.

For international students, their identities are doubly marginalized because, on top of having a certain cultural and racial identity, they are a student in a foreign country. You are under a temporary visa, you are perceived as a foreigner, you speak English as a second language. You are all of these things on top of being a woman, or being Asian, or Black, or Latinx, or LGBTQ+. Unlike domestic students who hold multiple identities, international students have multiple identities plus international status, which entails more challenges.

For example, one of the chapters that I wrote with my friend was about international students who are parents. If you are a domestic student, your own parents are typically nearby, so you can ask them for childcare services. If you do not have that kind of support, you are still more likely to be familiar with the childcare system in the country. For international student parents who do not have a support system here, they just have to figure out their own way. Sometimes they do not know the U.S. health system or are not familiar with the insurance system for newborn children, for example. Their identity makes their life a lot more difficult. Not many people notice how identities and perception of identities play out in these negative ways for international students, so that is something we really wanted to stress.

[] You previously served as Faculty-in-Residence of the ACPA’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development, currently serve as Chair for the ASHE International Scholars Workshop, and are a Global Faculty Fellow at Korea University. Would you discuss your work in these positions and your investment in global education?

[Dr. Katie Koo] The ACPA’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development is where practitioners and scholars who work in international higher education gather. It is a professional society that is really focused on the internationalization of higher education. The Faculty-in-Residence position is meant to provide support and programs specifically focusing on scholarly work and research.

During my time there I intentionally tried to promote internationalization of higher education by creating multiple programs. I created frequent webinars for an international audience, where I would talk about my research and the research of other international scholars to raise more awareness about the issues affecting international students. I invited other international scholars to appear on these webinars as well. I really believe that when we have more sessions, workshops, and webinars on a certain topic, it becomes more powerful. That was my intention, and I tried to collaborate with current graduate students who are interested in international education in the process.

As you may imagine, when it comes to equity, not a lot of faculty or active researchers are doing work on international students. They focus on other populations with their DEI work. I try to be the person who connects my other colleagues and researchers to collaborate and to publish together on international students.

The ASHE International Scholars Workshop is an annual event. We invite international students and scholars from around the world and host a virtual, two-day workshop. We have six sessions, where we try to support international student scholars with the academic job search in the U.S. and discuss topics like how to network with other colleagues, what a successful road to graduation as an international graduate student in the U.S. system looks like, and how to navigate your research agenda as a scholar.

The workshop is very topic-focused, in this way, but it also brings together a whole community of international scholars. In addition to our virtual events, we have an in-person, international coffee hour at the ASHE Conference, which is a month after the virtual workshop. The workshop provides practical support, and then we provide a space and time to come together as people.

Korea University is a prestigious, private institution in Korea. It is an international campus that invites non-Korean international students from around the world. There, I teach a course for international students who come to Korea. Many U.S. and U.K. professors are invited to Korea University’s campus as Global Faculty Fellows, so I was able to meet other scholars around the world, and we all teach courses for international students from China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere. It was really a highlight of my career as a teacher, because I was able to be in my home country, but I was also working with international students. It was a huge privilege for me to work with those international students because that is the area I am most passionate about. With my resources and my research, I want to continue to support the international community.

[] Do you see fostering global scholarship and supporting international faculty as importantly related to advancing equity for international students?

[Dr. Katie Koo] Many international scholars work individually, but as we collaborate, we can promote visibility for this topic, and I believe that will impact equity. That is what I have tried to do with my work creating more collaborative programs across different societies. As Vice Chair of ASHE’s Council for International Higher Education, where I have also been an Executive Board member for several years, I try to collaborate with ACPA members in a cross-society collaborative program. The more resources, webinars, and virtual workshops we have on equity topics, the more I believe we can increase awareness on needs for the international student community.

[] Drawing on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, practitioners, or administrators working to advance educational equity?

[Dr. Katie Koo] First, I think you have to be patient to see the actual equity. It will happen, even if it looks like it is not happening right now. As a comparison, when you plan to publish something, it takes longer than you think. If you plan to publish one article on an equity issue, it will take maybe two years or more than that. You may want to give up during the process, but if you do not give up, after a few years it will happen. I think it is the same with educational equity.

I do not know how I can change campus climate through my research in just one day. But I think that if I publish consistently on this topic then, day-by-day, year-by-year, I may be able to build awareness. As research on international students, their experiences of racism, the impact of anti-Asian hate crimes on mental health, and other areas accumulates, we may begin to see real change, even if it takes 10 years or 15 years. Winning equity for international students takes time. I think we have to be patient.

I really hope that people doing DEI work at U.S. institutions try to include international students and scholars in their discussions. I feel that international scholars and students are excluded from this discourse, and I hope this is something that changes in the future. It takes a lot of labor and effort to work on educational equity, but if we do not give up and work collaboratively, I believe we can make real change.

Thank you, Dr. Koo, for sharing your insight on the relationship between equity and mental health and working to advance educational equity for international students!