Power imbalances a world away from home

UVic international graduate students speak on unethical treatment from supervisors and a lack of support from the university

Graphic by Austin Clay Willis, Design Director.

Uncomfortable power dynamics, manipulation, and a lack of support: for many international graduate students at UVic, this is their reality when it comes to their relationship with their supervisor.

“It is threats,” said Hamed Assadi, an Iranian student about to graduate with a master’s degree in Engineering, of how he feels his supervisor handles the renewal of his graduate funding — something that students like Assadi depend on each term. “But that’s how it works.”

“Your supervisor is sort of like your parent when you’re in a graduate program.”

In the graduate program, supervisors are the professors who work closely with a graduate student to mentor and guide them through their studies over the course of their degree. Supervisors are determined by the specific area of study a student is looking to pursue.  Depending on the program, it’s typical for a supervisor to have anywhere between one and 30 graduate students at a time.

Mohammad Ghasemi, a former graduate student from Iran who convocated this summer, knows the importance of a strong relationship between a graduate student and their supervisor.

“I wouldn’t be able to graduate … if it wasn’t because of my great supervisor,” said Ghasemi. “Your supervisor is sort of like your parent when you’re in a graduate program — everything revolves around that person.”

 

Impact of power dynamics

The Graduate Student Society (GSS) Director of Student Affairs, an international student who wished to have their name withheld because their supervisor is unaware of their role at the GSS, said that they’ve both witnessed and personally experienced the toll a bad supervisor can have on a student.

Just a few days before Christmas, the Director’s funding was cut by their supervisor because the Director didn’t have any publications during their first year in the program. To appease their supervisor, they spent their holiday break doing research and working in the lab.

When a student is accepted into UVic’s graduate studies program, they are approved funding for a specific number of semesters. Lucky students like Ghasemi have funding approved for the entirety of their degree right away.

But others, like Assadi and the Director of Student Affairs, are approved for only a year or less, meaning their supervisor has the power to renew (or in some cases, not renew) their funding each term.

In some cases, Ghasemi said that “supervisors would use their fragile immigration and financial status as a method to force [international students] to do more work.”

“After each semester, if you didn’t do well … he will just cut you off,” said Assadi of his supervisor.

International graduate students rely on funding for tuition and other living expenses, and due to higher fees, differently-structured funding opportunities, and more limited options for support, Assadi said they depend on their supervisors in a way their Canadian counterparts don’t.  

“Yes, they think they are bosses and we are their employees, and they are not 100 per cent wrong,” the Director of Student Affairs said. “[The person] who has the money and can control it is the boss — no one [can] deny it.”

However, the power dynamics in some of these situations go far beyond that of a boss-employee relationship. In some cases, Ghasemi said that “supervisors would use their fragile immigration and financial status as a method to force [international students] to do more work.”

The impression some supervisors give their international graduate students, the Director of Student Affairs said, is that engaging in activities outside of their research, both on and off campus, would be a big mistake.

“[These supervisors think] students are soldiers and have been made to study and research,” said the Director.

 

The financial burden

When Ghasemi was a student, he lived paycheck to paycheck off of funding he received monthly. While financial problems are not unique to international students, these students come to UVic on the promise — either officially with full funding or implicitly through funding renewal — that they will have funding to complete their studies.

“Their supervisor promises funding at the beginning of the program, but after a few months the supervisor starts to use it to put pressure on students,” the Director of Student Affairs said. “After the first year of the program, [the supervisor] will usually stop funding students because they didn’t publish a paper, even though this was never a condition that [they talked] about at the beginning.”

Without funding, many international graduate students can be left with no choice but to leave UVic in the middle of their program to go back to their home country, which Ghasemi said can feel like they’ve wasted months or years of their life.

“For an international student, specifically those originally from a third world country like myself … there is nothing more terrifying than being left without funding,” said Ghasemi. “I’m not sure if this is legal or not, but it totally is unethical.”

While financial problems are not unique to international students, these students come to UVic on the promise — either officially with full funding or implicitly through funding renewal — that they will have funding to complete their studies.

By taking their paid position with the GSS — in secret, because they were sure their supervisor would disapprove — the Director was able to maintain the finances necessary to stay in their program.

Like Ghasemi said, though, some students choose to leave UVic and end their research to return to their home countries, due to what they feel is a lack of respect and support in the Graduate Studies Department.

As the Director of Student Affairs for the Graduate Studies department, the Director has served as the confidante of many graduate students who’ve had negative experiences with their supervisors. One student told the Director, “My supervisor doesn’t treat any of his students with respect … he never asks us to do anything, he orders us to do it.”

Two international graduate students who were friends with the Director left right before they were supposed to graduate. Another student was depressed for months, and told the Director that they felt that their supervisor didn’t care about students.

“[My supervisor] several times told me or one of our group members in our group meeting that ‘You are wasting my time, you are wasting my money,’” said the Director of Student Affairs. “If we talk to our supervisor [and] ask for advice, the answer will always be … you can’t ask me these questions, ’cause this is your job to figure things out.”

 

Why students choose silence

Submitting a complaint about a supervisor or even switching to a new one isn’t something that’s done lightly. The small number of students each supervisor has and the personal nature of each relationship makes it hard to maintain a student’s confidentiality if a complaint is brought forward to their supervisor.

Although none of the students directly involved wanted to report or formally speak to the Martlet about their experiences, Ghasemi and the Director of Student Affairs, as well as Cristina Pinar, a PhD candidate from Spain, all said they have heard of allegations about supervisors sexually harassing and assaulting graduate students, most of whom are international.

There are many reasons why these students might prefer not to report, including cultural backgrounds and beliefs, concern for the impact it may have on their academic status and personal relationships, or not wanting to risk further unsafe situations.

Confidentiality is also a concern — according to section 11.2 of UVic’s Sexualized Violence Prevention and Response Policy, if someone submits a disclosure or report to the university, UVic may be required to disclose information they receive if there is imminent risk of harm to the university community or if it involves workplace harassment.

All of this, of course, is further complicated by the everyday issues international students face.

“When international students find themselves in bad relationships with their supervisors, their visa always plays a role in their decision,” said Pinar. “Especially if they don’t want to go back to their country of origin.”

If a domestic student has to drop out of graduate school, they can apply again the following year after working and even stay locally with little concern. But international students have a lot more to lose — like their visa — if they’re no longer enrolled in university.

“You have to be [an] international student to fully understand how this feels to cut your tie from your family and move to another country just to move forwards, and [then] end up with failure and returning to the first point.”

“Canadians will never be treated with [the same] disrespect [that] foreigners are [treated with], because professors know that anyone with a bit of dignity will just quit and go somewhere else if treated badly,” said the Director of Student Affairs. “Professors take advantage of this, even if they never admit it out loud. They know that once we get here there is nowhere else we can go, and that after coming to Canada we have already invested so much money and energy that we won’t want to leave.”

International graduate students simply don’t have the same financial, social, and emotional support systems. Sometimes, they have to wait a year or two before they’re even able to find the time and money for a visit home.

“You have to be [an] international student to fully understand how this feels to cut your tie from your family and move to another country just to move forwards, and [then] end up with failure and returning to the first point,” said the GSS Director of Student Affairs. “We all came here with a specific goal and [have worked] hard to get to that point. It is not fair to [be treated] badly.”

Assadi has never confronted his supervisor about any of the problems he’s experienced, or considered submitting a complaint, as he doesn’t want to risk damaging their relationship.

“Whatever he says, I say ‘That’s okay, no problem,’” said Assadi, including when his supervisor declined to let him take a few weeks off in the summer to visit his family.

Another reason some students don’t speak up about their situation is because they feel they know there’s an end date — once they graduate, they won’t have to deal with these issues. If they were to complain to the university, they would potentially have to continue to suffer consequences long after graduation.

“Even if you complain and they do [take] it seriously, and they actually fire that person from the institution, that still can hurt your career or your path of education,” said Ghasemi. “Where you go and what you do [after graduation] really depends on [what] opportunities that supervisor can provide for you.”

There are other reasons why students might be hesitant to change supervisors.

These educators can have specialized areas of knowledge in their departments, meaning that there may be no other professor at UVic who is able to provide guidance on the students’ research.

So students must make the difficult decision of either changing the focus of their studies, finding a professor who can be their supervisor as a formality while they continue to pursue research essentially on their own, or transferring to another university.

“You’re not going to have the same guidance as you had before,” said Ghasemi. “That person who was guiding you through that program, the knowledge that that person had, the experience that that person had — you’re just gonna lose that.”

“[It] jeopardizes your entire education, career and immigration plan. Your whole plan for life is at risk.”

 

Searching for support

Pinar was one of the luckier students who was actually able to successfully change supervisors. After a year working in an adverse lab environment with a supervisor who would not guide students and would constantly assign side projects that made it difficult to focus on her dissertation, Pinar decided to report her situation and switch programs.

Unfortunately, some of the other students working with Pinar’s former supervisor weren’t able to follow her lead — another student she worked with ended up dropping out, and she says she has heard about many former students who did the same.

Although Pinar reported her situation to one of the Graduate Studies Associate Deans and was successful in switching supervisors, the Director of Student Affairs said that they know several people who also approached Associate Deans about similar issues and did not have as much success.

In terms of support options for international graduate students, UVic advised that they access confidential advice from the Ombudsperson, the office of Equity and Human Rights, or an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies.

“The Associate Dean was very sympathetic and kept saying [to the students] that this kind of behaviour is not what’s expected from a supervisor at UVic,” said the Director. “But [the Dean] also said she has no authority and can’t really intervene and change anything.”

When given the opportunity to address these allegations and speak to the procedure for addressing issues with supervisors and their relationships with international graduate students, UVic responded with a brief statement that they said is “not meant to be used to address any specific situation or circumstances.”

“It would be inappropriate for the university to comment on the specifics of an individual situation because of privacy legislation and confidentiality provisions,” read the statement from UVic Public Affairs. “To respect the privacy of those involved as well as the integrity of any process to resolve a concern or complaint, the university does not disclose information about what sort of activities might be under way to resolve a complaint.”

In terms of support options for international graduate students, UVic advised that they access confidential advice from the Ombudsperson, the office of Equity and Human Rights, or an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies.

 

Moving forward

In Pinar’s experience, graduate advisors — who are tasked with helping guide students within specific departments — play an important supportive role for students, but she feels they are not properly trained to deal with the scope of these situations. Going forward, she hopes to see more training programs and resources to help bridge this gap.

“I believe this is the most important issue that a graduate student is facing,” said the Director of Student Affairs, who studies in a faculty predominantly composed of international students. “This was my main and biggest motivation to run for this position in GSS.”

According to the Director, the GSS is fully aware of these stories and the bigger issue at hand. One of the GSS’s top priorities this year is to hire an advocate to professionally support students’ interests and issues at UVic in a separate capacity from the Ombudsperson. At the same time, the GSS wants to work with UVic to set up intervention procedures for extreme situations with supervisors.

There’s an inherent vulnerability that comes with being an international student. According to the Director of Student Affairs, without funding, without support, and without a system that can actively prevent and hold abusive or controlling supervisors accountable, UVic has shown that it does not truly value their international graduate students.

But most of all, the Director of Student Affairs feels that change will only come once UVic makes an active effort to ensure international graduate students are treated respectfully and implements proper support systems to bring balance to these power dynamics.

There’s an inherent vulnerability that comes with being an international student. According to the Director of Student Affairs, without funding, without support, and without a system that can actively prevent and hold abusive or controlling supervisors accountable, UVic has shown that it does not truly value their international graduate students.

“This is a concept for which all divisions of UVic need to have a deeper understanding,” said the Director. “If we are not important for the quality of education and community at UVic, and are only welcome here for the higher [fees] we pay and the government funding the university receives, then [UVic should] stop pretending and mentioning everywhere that [they] support diversity and [are] proud of having international students.”

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