The Importance of International Graduate Students to MSU Sociology

October 11, 2020 - Dr. Aaron McCright, Professor of Sociology

At the dawn of the 21st Century, we know more than ever that our work lives, labor markets, and seemingly local economies are integrated into a global economic system.  As the leading state university and land-grant institution in Michigan, we must do all we can to provide our undergraduate and graduate students with challenging and effective learning experiences so that—whether they immediate enter labor markets and continue on with advanced training upon receipt of their degrees—we help them achieve success in fulfilling and impactful careers within the global economy.

 The great majority of our undergraduate students come from Michigan (and the Great Lakes region more broadly).  Many of them have never left the region—let alone the country—to directly experience other people’s societies, cultures, and communities firsthand.  Such limited experiences put them at a disadvantage in being able to successfully navigate any number of social, cultural, and economic situations they will encounter later in life.  For many students, their interaction with scholars, graduate students, and undergraduate students from other countries around the world during their time at MSU is their primary—and perhaps sole—experience through which to learn firsthand about other peoples outside of their own local communities.

Having rewarding interactions (if not sustained relationships) with international scholars, graduate students, and undergraduate students on campus can help all US undergraduate and graduate students learn more about the world, see the humanity in those different from themselves, and be better ambassadors for (the best of) American values and culture.

In the Department of Sociology, we may not have too many international undergraduate majors.  But, we have long had a sizable number of international doctoral students, going back to the launch of our program in the mid-1920s.  (Indeed, MSU’s first Sociology PhD recipient was Cato Young (Yang Kaidao), a Chinese scholar who earned his PhD in 1927 and later had an illustrious career at a few prestigious Chinese universities.)  Over the decades, a good number of international graduate students earned their PhDs from MSU Sociology and proceeded to play key roles in founding sociology departments and professional associations in countries in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.  Each of these instances have helped to elevate the reputation of MSU (and of MSU Sociology) around the world.  Just as many of our international PhD recipients have remained in the US, taking faculty positions at leading universities and colleges around the nation.  Their professional accomplishments further strengthen the reputation of MSU Sociology as a high-quality academic program.

While our international graduate students matriculate through our program, they serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs) in many of our undergraduate courses and as Research Assistants (RAs) for a number of our faculty members’ research projects that are typically supported by funding from federal agencies or private foundations.  Our international graduate students regularly are among our department’s most dedicated, highly skilled, dependable, and accomplished employees.  This is evident from: (a) formal (TA or RA) evaluations completed by their immediate supervisors; (b) formal evaluations completed by students enrolled in courses for which they serve as TAs or instructors of record; (c) output generated from their RA work (e.g., conference presentations, scientific publications, etc.); and (d) awards and honors within and beyond MSU.

Since serving as Associate Chair and then Chair of the Department of Sociology, I have seen firsthand a multitude of teaching and research performance data on all of our graduate students.  I can say with much confidence that our international graduate students are among our best sociologists-in-training on metrics ranging from their own coursework, their pedagogical performance (as TAs and course instructors), their research productivity and impact (via scientific publications and contributions to scholarship), their time-to-degree, and their subsequent academic placement.

Since its founding in 1924, MSU’s Department of Sociology has had a sustained and notable international reach in our courses, research, and graduate student and faculty recruitment.

This international focus is a signature feature of our department, and we have long thrived by bringing international students and scholars to campus and sending our own citizens throughout the world.  To be sure, our undergraduate and graduate programs, our research performance, and our overall objective metrics and reputation compared to departments in peer institutions would be substantially weakened with any unwarranted limitation to the free flow of scholarly labor across borders.