SoTL Foundations Reflections on International Graduate Students

by Galicia Blackman

In this post, Galicia Blackman shares some of her initial reflections from her final project for the SoTL Foundations Program for Graduate Students, which asks participants to develop a plan for SoTL inquiry.  

SoTL Foundations Program

SoTL Foundations Program (Badge of Completion)

Graduate school has its inherent trials, and studying away from home has an additional set of challenges. My foray into graduate research had anxieties that were not related to my status as an international student, but instead about moving away from my disciplinary interest. This is not my first time away from home for school, and I had a strong support system to acclimatize to life here at the University of Calgary, but even with all the domestic and academic support, I do feel the strains of adjusting to the norms of academia which differ from my expectations. I wonder about students who have to both make do without family support close by and adjust to language difficulties while also unpacking cultural academic norms.

As an international student coping with a range of differences from my foundational education experiences, I am curious about how international graduate students (IGS) move from adjusting, to coping, to eventually thriving. In my program experience, while coursework and relationships with several professors have been essential to my academic development, I have observed that much of my learning has occurred through the guidance provided by my supervisor. My interactions with graduate students from other faculties alerted me to the differences in faculty norms regarding supervisor-student relations. I would argue this is an important part of graduate student development. Much of my previous teaching in language, literature, and communication studies included the pedagogical practice of one-on-one conferencing with students about their essays or research projects. This use of talk in teaching language and literature frames my interest in the dialogic relationship in between IGS and their supervisors.

SoTL research can begin from a point of curiosity or an interest in a practical mystery about teaching and learning, and my disciplinary approaches in language and literary studies often begin with what could sound like a SoTL disposition: what’s really going on here?  

What kind of teaching goes on in the meetings IGS have with their supervisors? What is the nature of the learning which takes place within that relationship? How do IGS navigate the cultural nuances, sometimes even second-language nuances, as well as professional and personal nuances in order to maximize this critical relationship? How does the supervisor-student relationship help IGS develop the necessary skills for optimum performance and eventual success in graduate school? How does the relationship align with their graduate student life and career goals? What do international graduate students need from their supervisors to acclimatize to the nuances of higher education in an unfamiliar learning situation, and to thrive and graduate in a timely fashion? Is the supervisor-student relationship the most critical point of the graduate students learning in graduate school?

Currently the inquiry seems bigger than the traditional SoTL research project. I attribute this to my traditional approach in language and literary studies: beginning from a broad observed pattern and subsequently localizing it to the text under investigation. For this research to be conducted effectively, I would next need to streamline the research question to focus on the evidence of IGS learning in the interactions with their supervisors. I have also found it useful to frame my big questions in the intellectual context of literary studies and Chick’s reminder that, in looking at learning through the lenses of the arts and humanities, “we can and should ask big questions” such as “What do we reward and value in learners? In the university? What are we doing here?” (2015, p.1)

A preliminary consultation of similar studies (Agyirey-Kwakye & Abaidoo, 1995; Lechuga, 2011; Omar, Mahone, James, Ngobia, & FitzSimons, 2016; Trice, 2003) suggests that this is not a new area of research, but it is also not a major theme in educational research, perhaps because the IGS demographic is so diverse and difficult to generalize about. That is precisely why it is worth exploring in SoTL terms–especially context-driven, evidence-based terms.

This topic is not unique in its interest in learning outside of the formal four-walled classroom, but it is important in pointing to the multi-faceted nature of learning in higher education. It asks whether IGS are learning to simply fit an established graduate profile or to bring their unique perspectives to a truly global community. As an IGS myself, eager to succeed yet insistent on retaining my cultural heritage and identity in a competitive graduate school environment, I wonder about IGSs’ unstated learning experiences in their relationships with their supervisors.

Bernstein (2010, p. 4) states that “the goal of SoTL is to have every teacher treat every course as an opportunity to learn how to create better learning environments and generate richer educational experiences.” The goal of this SoTL inquiry would be to have every supervisor treat their interactions with IGS as an opportunity to create better learning environments and generate richer educational experiences.

Galicia Blackman is a graduate student in the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education
and a SoTL research assistant at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.



Agyirey-Kwakye, K., & Abaidoo, S. (1995). A study of the needs of international students at the University of Saskatchewan. Unpublished manuscript, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.

Bernstein, D. (2010). Finding your place in the scholarship of teaching and learningInternational Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4, 2.

Chick, N. L. (2015). Holding it up to the light: Looking at learning through the lenses of the arts and humanities. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 6, 2. doi:

Lechuga, V. M. (2011). Faculty-graduate student mentoring relationships: Mentors’ perceived roles and responsibilities. Higher Education, 62(6), 757-771. doi:

Omar, F., Mahone, J. P., Ngobia, J., & FitzSimons, J. (2016). Building rapport between international graduate students and their faculty advisors: Cross-cultural mentoring relationships at the University of Guelph. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of  Teaching and Learning. doi:

Trice, A. G. (2003). Faculty perceptions of graduate international students: The benefits and challenges. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(4), 379-403. doi:

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