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. Jenna Mittelmeier, a lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester. With JIS, She is the Section Editor for Research-in-Context. Her research focuses on the internatioalization of higher education, particularly the experiences of international students and how it reflects broader issues of power, privilege, and ethics in classrooms. 

She is also the lead editor of the upcoming book from Routledge titled Research with International Students: Critical Conceptual and Methodological Considerations,  alongside other editors Dr. Sylvie Lomer and Dr. Kalyani Unkule. In this episode, Dr. Mittelmeier will share some considerations and reflections for researching international students and how to think and write about research from an editorial perspective.

Now let’s dive into our conversation!

Asuka Ichikawa: All right. Welcome, Dr. Mittelmeier. Thank you for being here. Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Thanks for having me. Looking forward to this. Asuka Ichikawa: Right, um, so before we get into our conversation about research, I was wondering if you could share your journey in becoming a scholar. Dr.

Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, of course. So I grew up in a really small town in Kansas, in the United States. And I think I actually never really envisioned myself becoming a scholar or thought that was even an option for me really. Growing up, I actually wanted to be a fiction writer. So when it came time to go to university, I, um, you know, got really worried about the job market and convinced myself that writing fiction was too uncertain or impractical. So I decided instead to become a primary school teacher, because I think my love of reading and writing was really rooted in a love of learning and education. So I thought that maybe doing an education degree seemed like the next best thing. Um, but working with children, while I really enjoyed it and I found them a lot of fun. It just didn't sit right with me somehow. And after I finished my degree, I decided instead to take a job working in student services in higher education. And I think it was there, that you know, I started to learn more about how higher education works and learned about how research, about higher education is a subfield kind of in its own right. So it inspired me to do a master's degree in international studies, focusing on international higher education, which then led to a Ph.D. Because I found research so interesting and just wanted to keep going with it. And I think that, you know, I've always had, a love of being a student. And so staying in that atmosphere of being on a higher education campus just felt really right. And I think I feel at home within this space.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much for sharing that story. It's especially really intriguing to hear how you began with your passion to become a fiction writer and then went into the love of learning and to where you are now. And, uh, with regards to your interest, particularly around international students, could you maybe speak more about how that sort of became more acute in your journey?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah. I think it mostly grew from my experiences in university. I grew up in a fairly small town in Kansas where there wasn't a lot of diversity or immigration. And most of the people that I knew were fairly culturally similar to myself. So when I went to university, it was really the first time that I interacted with such a broad range of people from different backgrounds. I also took a part-time job on campus, kind of by accident because it sounded fun and I needed the money, which, uh, was what they called the conversation partner for international students, where they could meet me in a coffee shop to practice their, informal spoken English. So for several years, I just got paid to talk to people from all over the world, which was so eyeopening and really made me reflect kind of on my own assumptions and biases. That stemmed from kind of a space where I grew up. So that then led me to work in an international student support services office. After I completed my degree where I helped develop what they called, international student orientation and global social programming on campus. So I suppose my interest, kind of came from feeling really lucky to have learned from being around international students and to have had, a really transformative experience through those interactions. But at the same time, I recognize that not everyone had that positive, transformative experience that I had. Um, that was something I saw as a student in terms of, social divisions between groups of students on campus, but also as a staff member, in terms of, you know, trying to encourage home students to engage with internationalization or hearing from some international students about experiences of being stereotyped or unfairly treated by their peers. So I think I just initially, wanted to understand more about those issues and where they came from, which then set me on the path of starting to conduct research about internationalization in higher education.

Asuka Ichikawa: Wonderful. It's really great to hear how your current research perspective stems from your practice And by the way, I really hope that if you're interested, to write the novel that you like, um, if that's still in your, uh, drawers of things you like to do. Uh, Regarding regarding, um, your own sort of migratory journey, from the U.S. to the UK for doctoral studies. I'm wondering, how did that personal experience of migration change your perspectives around international students?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah. I think it's made such a difference in my perspective, on the topic out and part of the reason, not the only reason, but part of the reason why I wanted to do my Ph.D. abroad was because I wanted that life experience of going through being an international student, if I was to focus my research on their experiences. And I think there's aspects of that experience that I would never have been able to understand if I hadn't lived through it. Things like, you know, the frustration with the visa system or the embarrassment of using the wrong words or making cultural gaps, that kind of, you know, the feeling of uncertainties of starting over and rebuilding a new life on a new social circle for yourself. I think these are things that. Maybe feel easy to imagine, but until you've lived through them, it's hard to really empathize with it authentically. And, the way that moving abroad is simultaneously so much joy and so much sadness at times. So, I kept putting myself in the shoes of all international students and, I'm very cognizant of the kind of relative privileges that I've had in my own journey. I do feel like I have a much stronger sense of empathy from my own migration history that kind of shapes my approach to my research.

Asuka Ichikawa: Empathy is such a keyword. I'm wondering in your journey in becoming a scholar, how did you sustain your career across the countries in terms of building, like you mentioned new networks from scratch, um, keeping, the connections you have at home, and how was that like?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Um, what a good question. I mean, I think it's been such a challenge because most of my career as a scholar, during my Ph.D. and after my Ph.D. has been in the UK. So I feel like oftentimes people ask me questions about working practices in the United States. And I really just don't know. Um, because most of my experiences have been here.So it's been kind of a process of trying to reconnect and rebuild, connections with back home. Um, and that sense of, being ingrained within the UK system, but also realizing that there's so much work in this area that's being done in the U.S. And it's a weird feeling of being slightly distant, but also still an insider that I think you have to balance a little bit.

Asuka Ichikawa: I hope this doesn't sound too cliche, but once there is some kind of academic culture shock, when you went to the UK for your doctoral studies, or...

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Um, yeah, well, I think there's almost that sense of culture shock just from entering into an academic world when you don't have an academic background. So I find it kind of hard to, disentangle the experience of moving to the UK with the experience of becoming an academic, because both of them had a transition kind of in their own way. I think there are a lot of differences in terms of, you know, the way the system is, is set up, the way that language is used, I'm trying to navigate British English when I'm used to American English is quite an interesting journey. Um, but I think, yeah, it certainly has been a transition, but it's hard to say how much of that is a cultural transition and how much of that is just a transition into learning how to be an academic.

Asuka Ichikawa: Definitely. That is so true in the way that both of them are really intertwined in the process. Moving on to conceptualizing research in higher education, if you could sort of imagine five years ahead. Could you tell us about how research in international higher education may evolve over time?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, so I think in recent years I've taken a real interest in kind of the ways that research with international students has developed over time. And I really do feel that we're at a crossroads right now. So a lot of the earlier work about international students. Um, and I think I'm probably even guilty of this myself, but it came from a really, deficit perspective through assumptions that they lack particular academic skills that are necessary for success.

So I think a lot of research you know, has been really framed around lens of integration and acculturation, trying to fix international students or help them fit in with their host institution, rather than seeing how higher education institutions can also change and develop. But I think there's a kind of growing recognition that that's a really problematic position that dehumanizes international students and fields to celebrate, or even recognize their multiple diversities.

But I think I see a new trend in this area of research now where research with international students starts from a more critical position. So reflecting on the ways that research and practice have perhaps stereotyped or othered or homogenized international students, and by seeing issues as systemic problems rather than individual deficiencies.

I think that also kind of lends itself to a greater range of topics being explored. So things like intersectionalities of international students' identities or how issues like symbolic violence or epistemic injustice might underpin those experiences. I also think that we are starting to define research with international students as a subfield and its own rights, kind of recognizing that this is an interdisciplinary topic that isn't fully situated in one single field. So that as researchers, we need to be equipped to see different disciplinary perspectives and, learn from concepts and theories in other fields.

So, I can see that research on this topic is starting to think about how internationalization intersects with other interdisciplinary issues like decolonization or sustainability or knowledge diplomacy among many other things. So I hope that over the next five years we see more branching outs and more collaboration across different disciplinary fields to really understand these complex issues that underpin and intersect with the experiences of international students.

Asuka Ichikawa: Definitely I'm nodding really hard because it's a very hopeful conversation to hear how things are evolving from both individual and systemic levels and, how we can bring our interdisciplinary experiences, into expanding the field, hopefully. And so thank you so much for that.

What are some of the critical questions we should keep in mind when researching about international students?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, that's a really good question. So I think that a major problem with research with international students is the prevalence of, what I would call a deficit narrative. And I think that shows up in a few different ways. So I think there's often assumptions that international students lack a particular skill or are limited in their academic knowledge, especially compared to home students.

So we see so much research about international students and perceived problems with things like criticality or references or writing or language. And I think that I would argue that's a really problematic starting point for positioning a piece of research. I think a deficit narrative also shows up when, the focus is only on challenges that are faced by international students without seeing the kind of wider or well-rounded understandings of their experiences that might be positive or meaningful or transformative, or even just neutral.

And then I think that deficit narratives also show up through homogenizing international students by assuming that they have some kind of shared identity, even though they're an extremely diverse group, and not seeing their individual and intersectional diversities. So I think these issues then lead us to thinking about perceived problems as kind of students' own deficiencies, rather than systemic problems. Kind of shifting the blame to individual students rather than to systems. So, I mean, one example might be, um, international students' experiences with academic writing, which there's been a lot of research about, a deficit perspective might kind of assume that international students lack language skills or that they're less competent writers. So might draw conclusions that, you know, more work is needed to integrate international students or to help them catch up. And I think that I really want to challenge that kind of approach and ask us to consider questions instead about whether our pedagogies and assessments are actually considerate of students with different linguistic backgrounds. So have universities built in explicit support for developing writing skills and where do those normative values of what is a good essay actually come from? Why is that the standards who made that assessment of quality? And is it fair? 

So I think critical questions and critical considerations for me, kind of start by shifting blame away from individuals and more towards systems. Thinking about how curricula or pedagogies or, whatever we might be researching have perhaps excluded international students or failed to be interculturally inclusive or transformative. And I think it's also about seeing international students as complex nuanced individuals with intersectional experiences and kind of framing those experiences as multifaceted and as spaces where they have agency and are not inherently or wholly negative by default.

Asuka Ichikawa: I am really loving each word in your response. I really appreciate how you're very mindful of the heterogeneity among international students. And I'm also hearing how, as researchers, we need to cultivate in cultural competencies ourselves, uh, to see international students and work with international students. So thank you for that.

Since we talked broadly about research, I'd like to dive into the research in context section of our journal, which is the section that you're the editor of. Compared to the typical sort of research articles, this section looks unique in that it seems to be more reflective and conceptual. So for anyone who may be new into this section, could you tell us what this section is about?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, definitely. Um, so I'm, I think the first research and context editor for the journal, and I do still kind of see it as a work in progress in terms of finding its footing in its vision. But the way that I see the section is that it's a space for writing shorter articles of around 2000 words, that focus on critical issues that affect research or practice.

In particular, what I hope for this section is that authors can identify problems in the subfield and provoke discussion on how they might be solved. That's kind of purposefully vague so that it can capture a wide range of things, but it might include, for example, reconceptualizing concepts that have been fuzzy or taken for granted in the field. So kind of pushing us to see a concept from a new perspective or in a new light. 

It might also, include reflections on new or underused, theoretical frameworks, across research fields that can help push the subfield into new directions. It might be critiques of existing research or practice that the author feels stereotypes, international students with some suggestions for how they can be made more ethical or more fair. I think I'm particularly keen for the section to showcase voices and perspectives that are currently underrepresented or taken for granted within our subfield. So the key purpose of this section is really to push forward research and practice with international students from a critical perspective and to prompt readers, to think, or, debate, the status quo of how we approach this topic or topics within this topic.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much for the overview. Regarding your section there's a question from one of our audience from Marisa Lally at Boston College, and she asks since the articles are not empirical, what should authors do to ensure the rigor of their articles for this section?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, thanks for that question. So I think it's a really good one. So thank you for asking it. Um, so typically I would say this section is intended to be conceptual or theoretical, just because 2000 words is just not enough space to do a full, empirical study justice. But, um, I think that definitely doesn't mean that it lacks quality and these papers do still go through the same peer-review process as full papers do for the journal.

I think for me, a high-quality submission for the research and context section is one that is conceptually grounded in terms of, inclusion of references, definitions of key terms and links, or even critiques of existing theoretical frameworks. I think a good submission also has a clear sense of problematization. So identifying something specific, that you either wish to critique or that you feel is underutilized or ignored in current research or practice. So there's a question about, specifically, what is it that you want to push the field to consider or reconsider.

Papers should also reflect on implications globally. So even if the practice is local, keeping in mind that JIS has a global readership. And so, papers should have wider interest and connect to a global conversation. And I think finally, I would advise authors to end their pieces with reflection questions, or suggestions for practice. So thinking about what can readers take away to make their own practice or general practices across our subfield better or more ethical or what questions they should consider to open up the dialogue on this particular issue further.

Asuka Ichikawa: On the JIS website, it says it's strongly encouraged that future authors are encouraged to reach out to you to talk about potential topics and concepts. And I'm wondering if you could, share any tips about how future authors could prepare for such conversations with you.

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, definitely. So I think if anyone's considering submitting to the section, I really would invite, just sending an informal email to me, just to talk about what topic you're thinking about submitting, and maybe just a little brief abstract of it. That way I can help with whether the section is a good fit for your proposed topic and make sure you're not wasting your time through a submission that maybe isn't a good fit for the vision of the section. I can't read full papers. We'll save that for the peer-review process. But I do really look forward to dialogue and communication. So, don't feel that, I don't have time or don't care. I really do. And welcome any conversation from potential authors.

Asuka Ichikawa: So along with your other roles, you are the lead editor of the upcoming handbook from Routledge, titled research with international students, critical conceptual and methodological considerations. And as one of the student co-authors in the book, I really wanted to thank you and the team of editors for, including the voices of current international students. And it's been really fascinating working and meeting with other international students around the world. And, I was wondering if you could tell us more about how this book project came about and how this book aims to be a resource for students and scholars, researching in the field.

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah. So I'm editing the book alongside my colleagues, Sylvie Lomer and Kalyani Unkule. And it's intended to come out in late 2023 or early 2024. The book has 27 chapters, so it's a bit of a large undertaking. There's authors writing the chapters from all around the world, about different topics specifically related to conducting research with international students as participants. So thinking about, critical considerations for conceptualizing research topics and designing research methodologies. I am so excited for the book, because it's something I wanted to write ever since I was a Ph.D. researcher, because I felt when I was new to the subfield, that there wasn't a lot of guidance that focus specifically on research designs and approaches. So there was no kind of go-to guides about methodological considerations, about conducting research with international students in higher education settings. Even though there are thousands of research papers published on the topic.

It kind of initially started in my head as a research, kind of journal article idea. But I kept over the years adding more and more points that I wanted to raise into this article until the point that it was impossible to fit it into the space of one submission. And I felt, you know, actually it would be a better book. And it would be better to have more global voices included and represented within it, including the voices of international students. Like the chapter that you're writing. I've kind of talked already about how I think there are a lot of challenges in this subfield in regards to the kind of pervasive deficit narratives about international students and the fact that a lot of research has focused kind of vaguely on undefined experiences without being critically or conceptually-grounded necessarily. So what we hope for this book is, to help to find this research area as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield and at the same time to challenge researchers at all levels, whether you're a new researcher or an old hat in the field, to think more critically about research designs in ways that can be made more ethical and reflective.

So throughout the book we will outline what we, as a community of authors feel is problematic about current research with international students, including issues of deficit, stereotyping, othering, or labeling. We also try to unpack some of the key concepts that maybe are taken for granted. So kind of re problematizing, what does mobilities mean? What are transitions? What is language? And then we'll shift in the second half of the book towards thinking about research designs. So how to develop more complex narratives through our methods and analyses, how to think about intersectional issues that impact upon international student experiences and how to writes about international students through more complex narratives.

I am so, so excited about this book and the opportunity to develop a reflection guide for researchers who are developing their own designs, working with international students. So, to anyone listening, please do, look out for it next year and consider giving it a read.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much for that it's almost like, sort of like a dream consortium of all these current scholars and students conversing about this topic. And so I'm really, really looking forward to the shaping of the book. And I'm so grateful that, um, other, international students Summer, Joyce, Yuqi, and Meena and I could be all part of it. So thank you again.

We've done a lot of thinking about research, which is, important because it translates into writing about research, I believe. For students and emerging scholars could you share any advice on how to write research articles in general?

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, I find it difficult to give distinct advice because I think, writing is and should be a really personal individual practice. For myself, I've found that my writing practice is really intertwined with my reading practice. And when I say that, I don't just mean reading academic research papers. But also through reading fiction or poetry or comics, broadening our perspectives to see writing as an art form that we participate in. I've always been a really avid reader. And I think that impacts on the way that I see or approach language or writing. I really do feel that you know, it's only through reading that you can develop your own voice in your writing and kind of discover who you want to be as a writer.

But if I had to narrow it down to maybe a more explicit piece of advice, I can't really advocate enough for having a really good organization system for your academic reading, which is a big mistake, that I've made in the past. So kind of starting early with developing an easy way to find and retrieve things that you've read.

I find that writing something like a literature review becomes so much easier that way. And over time, as well as you read more and you're able to retrieve things faster. So you get a sense for how articles flow and are organized. Through having greater familiarity, with how people before you have written them. And that's really difficult to rush. I think. Even though it's easy to feel a lot of, kind of pressure to publish, you really can't jump into publishing until you've had a chance to do a lot of reading.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much for that candid thoughts. On the pressure to publish, I also had a question regarding this publish or perish kind of notion when you're aiming for a career in academia. I was just wondering if you came across this term at what point in your career and how you've personally coped or navigated with this notion over the years.

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Um, yeah, I mean, the pressure to publish in academia can be a really heavy burden, especially when you're early in your career or you're precariously employed. I think when I was doing my Ph.D. or when I was on shorter-term postdoc or other academic contracts afterward, I really did feel this pressure to publish as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

As a result, you know, I would often work on side projects in my department where I would lend my data analysis skills or work as a research assistant, even on projects that weren't interesting to me. Just kind of hoping to get more publications. I think in hindsight, I probably focused on quantity over quality, meaning that on reflection. I'm not always pleased with the quality of the work that I did in some of my earlier papers or the way that they're theorized or framed don't necessarily align with kind of my vision of my scholarly work now. I also didn't really think much about developing a sense of expertise. So the topics in my earlier work were maybe a bit scattered and opportunistic, even some of my highest cited papers are ones that aren't really connected to my expertise and are things I only played maybe a smaller role in which is a source of frustration to me now, that I'm more mid-career and trying to cultivate, a clearer vision of my academic contribution.

But it's hard to make those critiques without kind of recognizing the systemic issues with hiring practices and precarity and higher education and how I can only be more selective with my publications now because I have that privilege of stability. So it's a really hard balance. And it can feel impossible not to play the game to some extent, but I think I definitely learned the hard way and something that I've noticed, even when I've been part of hiring committees in my own department, that quantity isn't always better if you aren't developing a sense of expertise and a sense of contribution from your work or if it doesn't lend to your development. So I don't think I'm always the best person to ask this question, but I think if I were to go back in time and give myself some advice, I would say, you know, to take a deep breath and to really reflect on what publications are adding to my development and experience before trying to jump in them, just for the sake of having more on my CV.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much for deep and complex reflections around this phrase because, I think it's kind of concerning that there's this notion, especially for, graduate students, or any others who may be interested in academic career. Hopefully we can, write with our passion and also that'll shape our expertise, but um

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: It's such a hard balance, I think. And it wasn't until I was much deeper into my career that someone asked me, well, what is your expertise? And I thought, well, I don't know. I'm just trying to survive. Um, and you know, it's not until you get that space to take a deep breath and you stop being in that space of precarity that you can really afford to be picky. So it is such a difficult balance and one that's especially more difficult if you don't have a permanent job. And if you are still quite early in your career.

Asuka Ichikawa: Since most of the audience tuning into this podcast could be young or emerging scholars. Would you have any sort of tips around, how to, create enough time for self-care or other sort of moments. So we can refocus into our research or writing practices, or any sort of, habits or practices that, worked for you, or, have seen, that might help us find the time to rejuvenate or relax in those tumulous times.

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Yeah, it's such a good question. And I think it's so important to reflect on that ourselves. And I think it's something I wasn't very good at. I'm not that I'm still amazing at it, but I don't think I was very good at it. Especially earlier in my career. I was a bit of a workaholic and it wasn't really until the pandemic that it kind of dawned on me that, that wasn't a nice way to live. Um, and really kind of recentered my priorities in terms of making space of taking time off of taking a step away from your work. It is so important. And that's something with the Ph.D. colleagues that I work with. I'm always telling them, you know, make sure you're adding your holidays or your vacations into your timeline. Make sure you're taking the weekend off. I don't know if they always listen. Um, but, but I think, you know, it is, um, important to kind of carve out the space that you want to be your own and to think about how you can rest and unwind in a way that isn't tied directly to your research. I think, you know, as academics, we often feel pressured that it's not very academic of us to have hobbies, you know, to watch, to watch television, to read fiction, to go to the cinema. You know, these are things maybe we don't talk about enough, but being an academic is one part of our identity and we need to think about the other parts of our identity as well. I think.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much again for, reflecting on the intersectionality that we also hold as we go through a journey. So thank you so much. And I realize that we've come to the end of our hour, but, uh, if there's anything that you wanted to add or…

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: I mean, I think the only other thing I would add is just, the value of collaboration within this space. I think we have such a great community of people researching topics related to international students. And the vast majority of them are hugely friendly, and really lovely to work with. And so I think, especially for people who are doing a Ph.D. or early in their career or a post-doc, there's a lot of pressure to compete with one another and to focus on only your own work. But I think as I've gone through things, probably what I've learned most is that the most valuable things and the most enjoyable things are when we get a chance to collaborate and learn from one another. So I wish I as well, I could go back to kind of my, my younger self and, and tell her to take a deep breath and to enjoy the process. Um, but I guess that's easier to do with hindsight as well.

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much. I really truly agree that, entering this field has been great in terms of seeing the uplifting community to be part of. And I think that's a, such a huge strength, and so thank you for, shaping, that community as a researcher yourself. I really look forward to seeing how the research in context section evolves, but also your book and, your journey onwards. And so thank you so much for having the time to be on the show with us.

Dr. Jenna Mittelmeier: Of course. Thanks for having me. It's been lovely to talk with you today.


JIS is an open-access journal that empowers the voices of international students around the world. We would like to thank the generous institutional sponsorship of the American Council on Education, Old Dominion University, and the publication partnership with Emerson College. 

For updates on the new episodes, please visit our website or Twitter [at] jistudents. To share your feedback please write to us at globalscholarstories@gmail.com

This was Asuka Ichikawa. Thank you for tuning in. Until next time, please stay safe and well.