International students' families face barriers to attending graduation

Tonje Sekse, an international student from Norway, celebrates graduation with her parents on April 30, 2016. Many international students said their families face barriers when attempting to come to the United States for their commencement ceremony, including time, language and visa considerations. Photo by Tonje Sekse.

Tonje Sekse, an international student from Norway, celebrates graduation with her parents on April 30, 2016. Many international students said their families face barriers when attempting to come to the United States for their commencement ceremony, including time, language and visa considerations. Photo by Tonje Sekse.

Imagine stepping off a plane in a foreign country without any knowledge of the language and culture. 

As soon as you arrive, someone begins asking you questions you are unable to understand. 

You feel lost and confused. 

This is the situation Kun Xie, a senior aviation management major and international student at Westminster College, said his parents will face when attending his graduation on May 13 after traveling thousands of miles to attend his commencement ceremony. Neither speaks English. 

“I’m excited and nervous at the same time," Xie said. "I feel so lucky that my parents were able to come to America and they will see me in my cap and gown and get my diploma. Of course, that’s if they can make it through their last step.” 

Though Xie said he is excited, he is also worried. 

“I’m quite nervous because the customs are a little sensitive right now," Xie said. "My parents do not know how to speak any English, and I’m afraid that they won’t be able to explain to the customs the reason why they are here. I wrote a letter for them to give to the customs explaining the reason why they are here and I have prepared all the documents that they possibly need.” 

International students said their parents are also worried about entering the United States to attend commencement. 

“Parents may be nervous about traveling to the United States when they don’t speak English," said Alison Vasquez, the director of international student services and study abroad at Westminster. "Just to get on an airplane, managing moving through emigration and customs at a U.S. airport [and] getting to the correct gate for their connecting flight can be scary and make people nervous.” 

Mia Yang, an international student from China who graduated in 2016, said the barriers her family experienced when traveling the United States were stressful and nerve-racking. 

“I had to go down to LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] to go pick up [my mom], so I drove all the way from Salt Lake to Los Angeles. It took me over 10 hours,” Yang said. “I went to the airport and picked her up because she doesn’t speak English. She had issues when she was going through the customs. She was not able to explain anything in English—that was a big struggle, but luckily the customs let her through.” 

Vasquez said language isn't the only barrier. 

"Cost, obviously, is a big challenge," she said. "Most parents are paying airline tickets that are over $1,000. That can be really challenging if two parents are coming, or even other family members. During graduation season, it’s expensive to travel to United States because it’s starting to be summer time and airfare can be more expensive.” 

The international students said their families also have to find time in their busy schedules to make it to graduation. 

“In my case, cost is not a problem [and] time is.” said Haodi Xu, an international student from China. “My parents are very busy. Their schedule is so packed that they can’t make it.” 

Yang said only her mom was able to move her schedule around to come to America for graduation because of the amount of time involved with such a trip. 

“My dad works for the Chinese government and because of his job, it is difficult for him to get a visa to come to America,” Yang said, “I was extremely happy that my mom was able to make it to America and attend my commencement ceremony. It would be better if my dad could make it as well, but I understand.” 

Once parents determine they want to come, can afford to come and can take the time to come to graduation, Vasquez said they then have to apply for a visa, which can be an extensive process and may deter some from entering the country. 

“Parents of students often have to travel long distances to U.S. embassy or consulates to apply," Vasquez said. "[They have to] appear in person for an interview, provide correct documentation so that they can receive the tourist visa, and students often have to prepare their parents extensively for this interview.” 

The international students said the process is often long and draining for them and their families. 

“I had to ask for invitation letters and my official transcript so that my parents can prove that I am a legit student in a legit American college,” Xie said. “They had to show the embassy how much money we own [and] how many properties we have. It took a long time. Luckily, they were able to prove that they are qualified to travel to America.” 

Though many international students' families face barriers with entry to the United States, some parents don't come because they simply don’t understand how important the commencement ceremony is to many Americans. 

“My uncle, who lives in America, told my mom that graduation is a really big deal in America,” Yang said. ”And somehow my mom booked the ticket and she came. It made me really happy.” Many of the international students said the uncertainty of whether their families will attend commencement can feel isolating. 

“International students get really lonely during this time of the year," Yang said. "Everyone else has family and friends that are come and cheer them up, but most of us don’t have anybody because it’s a long way to travel." 

However, not all international students said they are bothered their families won't make it. 

“It doesn’t bother me that they are not coming because I think I am very independent, and they don’t have to be here," Xu said. "Graduation is not that big of a deal.” 

Overall, the parents who have attended commencement ceremonies said they were happy to be part of it. 

“It’s always very exciting if the parents come," Vasquez said. "Maybe they came at the very beginning when the student started at Westminster—maybe not. This may be the first time that they come to visit Westminster, so I think it’s very exciting for parents to come to meet the friends of their child, or meet the professor that their child always talked about, so they finally get to see what life has been like their child for the last four years at Westminster, and usually they are very proud.”