EP4: On Researching International Students with Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier

There is a story behind every scholar. 

Welcome to Global Scholar Stories, a podcast by the Journal of International Students. We share the personal stories of scholars behind their research in international education.

This episode is part of our Season 1, where we explore how we can develop our relationship with writing. I hope you could get some inspiration from our guests who will share how they became authentic and strong writers in the field of international education. 

Our guest for this episode is Dr. Lisa Unangst, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Ohio University and incoming Assistant Professor of Higher Education Leadership at SUNY Empire State College.

For JIS, she is the Section Editor for the Book Reviews, and she is the Director of the Millennium Scholars Mentorship Program for STAR Scholars Network. She is also an associate editor of Higher Education Research and Development

Her previous roles include postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) at the Ghent University in Belgium, various student advising and alumni affairs roles at higher education institutions in the U.S. and a consultant role at the Internationalization Lab at the American Council on Education. 

Her research interests include higher education access and experience among displaced learners and comparative and cross-national constructions of “diversity” in higher education. 

Now let’s dive into our conversation! 

 

Asuka Ichikawa: All right. So welcome to the show, Dr. Unangst. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Thank you so much. I've been, so looking forward to this,

Asuka Ichikawa: Could I begin by asking about your journey in becoming a scholar, especially around, choosing the field in international higher education.

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Um, I think without going too far back, I would maybe go back to. When I was an undergraduate. So as an undergrad, uh, I was studying, um, cultural studies. I studied American studies and German studies, and, um, I had the opportunity to go to Germany, um, to study, in Hamburg for the year. And I think that over the course of that program I realized that I was interested in pursuing graduate training. But that I didn't feel like my research interests were exactly aligned with the graduate programs that I was familiar with, that my professors in American Studies and German Studies were recommending to me.

I also felt like because I had a fair number of student loans at the time that I needed to be really careful about how I was going to pursue that and probably earn a bit of money before I went back to school. So I had the opportunity to take a series of jobs, in international higher education both at public and private higher education institutions and also, at a private company and across those jobs, I worked in student services and alumni services. I worked to develop mentorship programs, matching students and alumni, conducted informational sessions about work, study research abroad and, other activities.

And I think over the course of that work, I realized that I was interested in questions, related to educational pathways into higher education and also student experience once enrolled. Having that background in cultural studies, I also knew that I was interested in taking a comparative approach.

So eventually I found out about the opportunity to pursue a master's degree with tuition remission. At my, employer, Harvard and I got my master's degree in international education policy. My idea was to test out a possible dissertation topic. So in that program, I was looking at how migrant background students were accessing education in Germany and the United States.

And, I applied to a handful of PhD programs, looking to pursue that question. Over the course of my PhD, which I did at, Boston College, at the Center for International Higher Education. I narrowed that focus, right? As many of us have to once we are in our PhD, I narrowed it to be thinking about, the German context and actually decided to, essentially problematize the way that, we understand, the intersection of legal recognition, student pathways and student success.

So I considered public German universities and support structures in place for migrant and refugee students, in the German setting. And I think, you know, through that experience, right, as a research assistant and a teaching fellow alongside my studies and my writing, I realized that I really would love to stay, in the field. But also had in mind, this might continue to be a side activity. If I wound up, being in a staff job moving forward. I was really lucky to be in a position to do what became, a virtual post-doc with Ghent University and specifically the Center for Higher Education Governance, Ghent, which Professor Huisman directs.

And then after a year, there, uh, moved to a Visiting Assistant Professor role at Ohio University. I think those experiences helped me to certainly broaden who I was as a researcher. And I think gained so much experience as a teacher, right. That, I think everyone who's been teaching over the course of the past two years has been defacto in hybrid and online settings and it calls for us to, I think, consider our teaching practice and our mentorship practice and in new ways, um, sometimes challenging ways, but really I think, the new role that I'll be taking on is going to be in a primarily online environment. And I think that there are so many exciting avenues for students to explore as they consider engaging with content in an online setting. So, yeah, that's how I describe it.

Asuka Ichikawa: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that, Lisa. I resonated with how you've layered professional experience and academic degrees, I'm not sure if this is going to be a right metaphor, but it's kind of like a lasagna. And I'm curious to know among many roles that you've done, in terms of being in policy, post-doc, perhaps you could have also had opportunities in government roles, what navigated you to think, becoming a faculty is something that you wanted to do. And how did your previous experiences, in non-academic fields too how did you um, find your strengths in having this interdisciplinary background?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Thank you so much. I would love to hear your response to that as well, um, so yeah, you know, I have worked, as I mentioned, for public and private higher education institutions for a private company that's in educational services for nonprofits, and for government agencies. And, I think that. I really did enjoy aspects of all of those experiences.

I think the single biggest takeaway from me was that being in academia affords us the incredible privilege of in many cases, being able to ask the questions we want to ask and ultimately as I think about interrogating systems and histories of inequitable student support, that is the most important thing from my perspective. Being able to ask the questions, that resonate with what I know of a particular setting resonates with the work that I'm reading coming out of whether it's a participatory action research project or, autoethnography, any of the work that's being done, having the flexibility to be able to shift our own professional trajectories, according to new information, all with a critical orientation towards creating change, to me that's the most efficient.

Asuka Ichikawa: That's like the quote of the day for me,

Now that we talked, about, your journey as a scholar, let's dive into the theme of season one, which is on academic writing.

Could you share about how you have been, evolving as a writer across time and space, and also virtually given the pandemic context?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Sure. You know, I actually always enjoyed writing from my, from my earliest memories. Right. Being in school and having small assignments to work on, I always enjoyed it. I think at the time, you know, they might've involved more sketches or, uh, stickers, maybe than they do now. Um, but you know, in terms of my evolution as a writer, I think that I've tried to connect my reading practice and my writing practice one intentionally over time. I've gotten more comfortable with, for example, citing folks who are not in higher education at all, uh, might not be researchers at all, might be novelists, um, might be filmmakers. I think as a writer in graduate school, one thing that was helpful to me, because I find that I'm inspired as a writer by thinking about questions and thinking about how I like to explore questions was keeping a running log of questions that interested me, that I might've found through, conversations with folks on campus or off, presentations that I might've seen at conferences and maybe it wasn't even the focus of the particular presentation, but it was just a question that occurred to me, based on the conversation that was happening.

I think you know, trying to go back to that list of questions at least once a week, I have found really helpful in both, generating writing projects, but also sort of keeping myself aligned with my core research interests, my core conceptual frameworks. And I think that in the same way, looking back at the work that I have done previously, whether that's, you know, in some cases, term papers, in some cases pieces that were published or conference presentations that I gave, I think that's helpful because, usually in our writing, we're including a section that might reflect areas for future research or implications for policy and practice. We don't always have the opportunity to answer those questions. Right? Because of word limits or other capacity issues. And sometimes we let those fade away a bit and revisiting some of the questions that we ourselves have posed, responding and sort of in an iterative way to ourselves as researchers I think can be helpful as we approach new writing projects.

Asuka Ichikawa: I really loved hearing how you're letting your curiosity and questioning lead this writing process. And, you've mentioned, how you're intentionally connecting your reading and writing processes and, chiming into that, many people say reading is the key to becoming writers ourselves. And, could you share your perspective on this, personally and professionally?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Sure. Well, I absolutely agree. I think that they are linked. Although I would sound a note of caution perhaps that I think sometimes, perhaps particularly when we're full-time students and just having to read so much for the classes that were enrolled in, we can fall into this. I think it might be a trap of I have to read everything, right? And I think it's important to guard against that because our time is precious and time away from a word document or a piece of paper allows us to bring our whole selves to the next word document and the next piece of paper. So what I have tried to do over time is to, use tools that are available to narrow down the pool of articles, that I might be wanting to read in full.

So I use Mendeley. The recommendations offered by Mendeley. I use Google Scholar alerts. I use browsing and I think, you know, from those sources, I'm able to gather the journal articles and the book chapters that are, most closely aligned with the work that I do. I also have conscious of signing up for as many newsletters as I can. These would be newsletters of centers around the world that are focused on questions related to, how displaced groups, access and experience higher education. How we can think about education, policy, iteration and implementation. And you know, when I get those newsletters in my inbox, I don't necessarily read every single word. Skimming the newsletters to see, is there a new report? Is there a call for grants that I might not even apply for, right? But to get a sense of what these groups are doing, I think helps inform, again, what is happening outside of academia? What's happening in the policy sphere? The civil society sphere, which then drives, lit reviews, collaborations, et cetera.

Asuka Ichikawa: These are all great, thank you so much because I was really going to ask, how do you navigate this sheer volume of readings to do, and so thank you so much for your tips around using technology. And trying the skimming process. I also really appreciated how you mentioned the time away from your computers can be valuable for us to recover and keep our motivation. So thank you so much for that.

Going to your role, as a section editor for the Journal of International Students, for the book review, for those who may be new to this, could you kindly share an introduction?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Sure. So, the Journal of International Students has long published book reviews, and book reviews published in JIS, are not only features of just about every new edition of the journal, which actually isn't the case for all journals, right? Not all journals publish book reviews. But we also tried to be, relatively straightforward with the format that we're looking for. So I think what we say is that we're looking for reviews, around 1000 words, that we're looking for reviews that might focus on yes books, right? New publications, but also, full-length reports, which again might be coming from think tanks, government entities, supernational organizations. And all of these publications might relate to really any area of the journal's aims and scope. So they don't all have to be exclusively focused on maybe a more traditional understanding of international student experience, but might refer to, as the aims and scope, outlines international students in secondary and tertiary education, as well as displaced, migrant and other immigrant student populations, moving beyond the student experience, right? I'm looking at questions around international faculty, teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers who of course are interfacing, with students and they're co-creating knowledge, in many different settings around the world. So in terms of logistics, that's how I would describe, what we're looking to publish in the book review section.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you for that. I'm also curious to know what are the values or visions that guide you in choosing and curating these books or other documents that you would like to have for not only JIS community, but for community of students and scholars in the field?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Thank you. Well, reflecting on the aims and scope of the journal, with of course aims and scope of any journal being, a living document. I think that the book review section has, moved to center the perspectives of women, people of color and communities from the Global South. Also focusing on underutilized theories and methodologies. In short, I think what we're looking to do in the book review section is, make sure that we're highlighting work that, could be coming from any sphere of international education, could be coming from, full-time researchers could be coming from practitioners, and perhaps offers a different perspective. And then what we're seeing, in other book review sections, right. That might be focused on, for example, books being published by the top five academic publishers. I think, you know, we're trying to, reflect on a variety of publications so that we can think about this core mission of, developing cross-national collaborations in support of student equity and student success globally.

Asuka Ichikawa: Wonderful. I've heard that some people say, a book review is the most sort of accessible entry point to academic publication, especially for graduate students or those who may be new to this. Could I hear your thoughts on this?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Sure. You know, this is a question, that I think comes up a lot. I talk with my students about this and I remember asking questions about this when I was starting my master's and then my PhD program. Yeah. You know, I think, book reviews are a great place to sort of, both practice, a particular kind of writing, right? A book review is a particular kind of writing, just like a full-length journal article or a memo, as a particular kind of writing.

So it's great to flex our writing skills in different ways. I also think it's nice to have a relatively short product that we can turn in and see in print and add to our CV, regardless of what we're hoping to do after that piece is finished. And I think it's an opportunity to engage in conversation. Not only with the authors of the report or the book in question, but also our colleagues. Right? So some of our book reviewers, do include a few references to other works, that they see as relevant, or in dialogue with the work that's being reviewed. And I think that opens up, some interesting questions for readers of JIS, who might like to pursue a bit of additional reading or maybe are inspired to do their own lit review. Thinking about the questions raised, I will say that, you know, I think, it's important for people to feel like as they consider book reviews, that they're engaged with the publication they're reviewing. Right. So I would say don't write a book review just because you want to write a book review, write a book review, if you feel passionate about a particular publication, which might have been on a suggested publications list, right? Or it might be something that you're already familiar with.

And don't be afraid to, think about proposing new formats, right? So maybe, maybe you've been in conversation with a colleague, about a particular publication that you think is especially, provocative. And you'd like to, have a dialogue, in a book review section, right? So you each sort of write a short review and you're in conversation with each other through those reviews on the same piece. So, I think there are lots of ways to think creatively about book reviews. And I do think it can be a great entry point for researchers, practitioners, anyone engaged with international education.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much. Um, especially your point on being engaged with it, because it is true that the authors of these books are, um, I hope this doesn't come off strange but alive. I mean, you can be in conversation with the authors and sometimes we forget that.

So thank you for sharing. um, for future authors interested in this section, how would you suggest them to get started?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Sure. So we have a page on the Journal of International Students website. That lists different suggested titles and those titles are assigned, to future book reviewers. we also try to make sure that publications on that list have been published within the last two years.

 If folks aren't seeing a publication on that list that is particularly compelling to them, they should feel free to reach out either with a suggestion of a publication that they might like to review or to talk about a particular, thematic area, that they're interested in writing on. And we could brainstorm, possible publications for them. So, it really is meant to be an open dialogue, right? The selection and eventual publication of book reviews.

Asuka Ichikawa: Amazing. Thank you so much for the overview. And, regarding, advice around professional development I'm also aware that you have another hat or role for STAR Scholars Network, which is associated with JIS and you are the Director of this Millennium Scholars Mentorship Program. Could you also give us a synopsis of what this program is? How has it been running it? Who should consider being part of it?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Of course. Thank you. Well, this program had been in discussion, for a little while based on some conversations, that had been happening within the STAR Scholars Network and those conversations. So knowing that there are established mentorship programs that focus on international education, but tend to be bounded by national context or membership in a particular, membership organization, professional organization, we started thinking about, hmm, what might this look like if, we took away those requirements, right? And we thought more broadly about, what a mentorship program might look like that would advance upward academic mobility across borders to support new generations of practitioners, researchers. And we were very clear that indeed, that was the focus we wanted to have, anyone engaged in international education.

 So we didn't want there to be any particular requirements about being in a PhD program or, another type of advanced training opportunity. We wanted to think about sort of early-career international education folks, and then, mid-career international education folks and pairing them according to their area of research interest. So we've assembled a program that does create those matches. It's entirely free.

One other element that was important to us, to center in program creation, was that we wanted to make sure that the early career folks engaged with international education were folks who identified with a low income, lower middle income or an upper middle-income country, whether by birth, cultural heritage or current residents. Again, the idea here was that we wanted this to be a truly global program and we wanted to make sure that, we were making connections across national borders though, with this focus on a common thematic thread, connections that might not have been made in a different way.

We piloted the program, focused on three professional development opportunities last fall. So fall of 2021, we initially matched 33 mentor-mentee pairs, and we're looking to expand the program in the second iteration. Also having received feedback that people might like to expand it to six months. We're considering how we might expand it a bit further.

Asuka Ichikawa: Wonderful. Thank you so much. It's really fantastic that, this program is trying to dismantle any barriers that there may be for people to get into the field. I'm really looking forward to how the program evolves. And so, we'll make sure to put a link to our website so that people can learn more about it.

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Thanks so much, Asuka. We're excited to be thinking about how we can, help to publicize some of the new research that's been done by these mentor-mentee pairs. And also be thinking about how we can, continue to iterate, to help provide support for new research, whether it's within the pairs or across the program as a whole, how we can feature that, that thinking around what types of research questions should be posed, right? And how should that work be disseminated? So I think there are lots of, lots of larger questions at play. And if people are interested in, becoming involved in the program, either as participants or by helping to support it, would love to be talking with them in the weeks and months ahead.

Asuka Ichikawa: Amazing. Just for information. Is there like a particular time of year, that you're intending or planning to recruit more participants, whether you're, mentee or mentor? How should they keep an eye out on that?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Yes. We're going to start recruiting this summer. We are hoping to run a slightly longer program, for this upcoming year, that would be over the course of the 2022- 2023 academic year.

Asuka Ichikawa: fantastic. If folks would like to reach out to you, for mentorship or know more about your research, how can they get connected with you?

Dr. Lisa Unangst: Yeah, I would love to talk to people, whether it's to brainstorm ideas, chat about specific publication questions. I really mean that. So I'd love to have, uh, zoom coffee chats, anytime with people. They could reach out to me via LinkedIn, via research gate, where some of my work is, open access, right. It's available there. And then my email address, is going to be lisau[at]ohio.edu through the end of the summer. So that's a good place to reach me.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much Lisa. We went through so many questions and thank you so much again for your mentorship and sharing your experiences.