International Solidarity Working Group Stories

Member Stories

Read our stories below. Want to get involved in the working group? Please write to intl-workgroup(at)uaw4121(dot)org and we’ll get right back to you!


Department: Computer Science and Engineering
From: Kathmandu, Nepal

As a PhD student transferring to UW, I was looking forward to the many improvements in my grad student life here – better health insurance, reduced mandatory fees, increased stipend, and free public transit to name a few. I quickly found out that many of the things that made UW such a great choice for me were direct consequences of union contract negotiations. 

In fact, the union is constantly fighting to maintain and expand these hard-fought victories year after year. I joined the union because it had already greatly improved my life at UW, and I wanted to do my part as a member to ensure the same for all fellow ASEs. Having come from an institution without a union, I greatly appreciate the solidarity and community I have as a member of UAW-4121. 

This is especially important to me as an international student. Over the years, the union, and particularly the International Student Workgroup, has actively taken up many issues affecting international students at UW and across the US. I appreciate all that the union does for me, and am excited to pay it forward as a member and organizer.

Marina Dütsch

Department: Earth and Space Sciences
From: Winterhur, Switzerland

When I came to UW to work as a postdoc, a big problem for me was finding health insurance. Because I was paid directly by an external funding source I was not eligible for UW benefits, which meant that I had to find (and pay for) health insurance on my own. This was harder than expected. The plans on the Washington State Health Care exchange did not fulfill the requirements of my visa, and the health insurance companies designed for international scholars offered only poor health coverage, were expensive, and discriminated against women. 

UW did not provide any guidance and gave me the impression that I was the only postdoc in this situation. When I heard that postdocs were organizing to form a union, I joined them, resolving to protect future paid direct postdocs from getting into the same stressful situation. The most important thing I gained from the union was the knowledge that I am not alone. There are other postdocs who have had similar negative experiences, and there are postdocs who have not had negative experiences, but stand in solidarity with those who have. We are working together not only to improve health coverage, but also to prevent harassment and discrimination, alleviate economic insecurity, and protect international scholars at UW.

Anzela Niraula

Department: Department of Medicine and the Division of Metabolism, Nutrition, and Endocrinology
From: Kathmandu, Nepal

The UW community is comprised of people from varied backgrounds across the United States and the world. In the STEM field, of which I am a part, good science cannot take place in isolation. Diversity of ideas is paramount to better science and to furthering our understanding of the world. As an international postdoctoral scholar, I am fortunate to be a recipient of and contributor to the diverse UW community. However, due to the time-restrictive nature of the visas, life of an international postdoc is precarious. Because our status as a postdoc is directly tied to our visa status, we are less likely to voice our concerns in the workplace due to fear of retaliation, and thus more likely to succumb to adverse working conditions, such as, wage discrepancy, harassment and discrimination, etc. Having a postdoc union here at UW provides us a support network where we can share our experiences, with hopes of improving the working conditions for ourselves and our peers. As a part of the postdoc union, I want to help create a safe and fair working environment for international postdocs.

Nayon Park

Department: Chemistry
From: Sejong, South Korea

Finding out during the orientation week that we had a union of academic student employees (ASEs) was pretty cool, but little did I know then the profound and manifold implications this had at our workplace and livelihood. As I would soon learn during bargaining that spring in 2018, there were many issues that surrounded and put pressure on the lives of ASEs. Too many of us were rent burdened, some voiced that they didn’t feel adequately supported regarding workplace harassment, and no one wanted to accept the contract that called for extra fees and 0% wage increase for the next three years. I started to get more involved by attending more open sessions of bargaining and bringing back the information to my department. It has been an incredibly empowering experience for me while learning of structural issues that exist in academia, to put forward actionable plans with peers to make and demand the changes we need.

Soohyung Hur

Department: Geography
From: South Korea

I am an international student from South Korea. I came to the U.S. to pursue undergraduate education at Dartmouth College where I discovered my love for Human Geography. I have decided to continue this passion at the UW Department of Geography, from which I just earned an MA degree and am continuing my PhD in.

Being an international student always entails some level of uncertainty and precarity given our visa status. With that in mind, my decision to come to UW had much to do with my trust in the UW Geography Department to advocate for me as an ally in these moments. The recent threats to immigrants come at a crucial political moment – in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement continuing the long legacy of Black freedom fighters, the resurfacing of anti-Asian sentiments with COVID-19, and the public’s reckoning with a tenuous system unveiled in light of this outbreak. Always, but especially now, I am acutely aware of the structural vulnerabilities attached with my status to speak up on issues that demand urgency. I, as well as my fellow international students, have been struggling to confront our tangential agency while seeing friends and communities dear to us suffer from latest events. As members of the International Solidarity Working Group, we are coming together and making our voices stronger.

Sumyat Thu

Department: English
From: Burma

I’m from Burma and recently defended my dissertation for my PhD in English language and rhetoric. I’m in the process of applying and interviewing for jobs, and the recent Executive Order targeting international workers has caused me unnecessary stress, on top of the pandemic and issues of racial injustices. I was already stressed out to hear earlier in the year that my home country, Burma, was added to the list of countries for travel/immigration ban as a supposed “sanction.”

Actions to suspend and restrict visas not only make the lives of international workers like me unsafe and vulnerable but also hurt the U.S. economy. H1B visas are used to fill niche positions that are often not found in the existing American workforce. Especially in academic fields, international scholars and workers are much needed to help shape the university environments that supposedly cultivate intercultural learning, understanding and communication, and “world-class” education. We have many important contributions to make, and I look forward to making a stronger, safer UW for international scholars through the International Working Group.

Samantha Thompson

Department: Geography
From: Canada

I am an international student from Canada and I came to the United States to pursue my PhD at the University of Washington in the Department of Geography. As a feminist urban geographer, my research focuses on the intersections between care work and housing in cities. I chose UW for my doctoral studies because I trust the Department of Geography to support me as an international scholar and advocate for members of their departmental community.

There is significant precarity for international students, particularly around on-campus employment, mobility, and the increasing restrictions announced on non-immigrant visa programs. My positioning as a white woman necessitates leveraging this privilege in solidarity with my fellow international students, as well as my colleagues across campus leading organizing in support of racial justice, decolonization, migrant justice, queer justice, and gender equity. I am proud to be a member of the International Solidarity Working Group as our collective voices and labor make us all stronger in our fight for an equitable UW that is safe, fair, and just for everyone.

Levin Kim

Department: Information School
From: South Korea

My name is Levin, and this is my seventh year as a student/academic researcher in the U.S. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Information Science at UW on an F-1 visa. Being an international student in the U.S. has been an incredibly valuable journey for me, one where I was able to explore a diverse range of interests while taking a somewhat meandering path. When I came to the U.S. in 2013 as an art major, I never thought that I’d end up pursuing a PhD or an academic career, let alone in the field of information science.

However, the very infrastructures (e.g. visas) that enable my existence and growth as an international student also impose constantly shifting levels of precarity and surveillance. From the visa application process to the mandatory orientations and beyond, international students are endlessly reminded that we are ultimately responsible for navigating these complex systems in a compliant manner, even as they change with little to no warning. This can make for an isolating, anxiety-riddling experience when navigating big institutions, where it seems like no one can ever give you the full answer or the reassurances you seek. More importantly, these infrastructures operate at a larger level, in tandem with other structural forces exerting control over whose mobility, agency, bodies, and lives matter over others. I joined the ISWG to find solidarity in confronting these interconnected injustices in ways that go beyond the limits of my individual voice, and to find strength-in-community within and outside the international students at UW.
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Kaitlyn Boulding

Department: Classics
From: Canada

While researching PhD programs I was advised to apply to universities with strong graduate student unions. Little did I know how big a difference this would make in my academic career. I was not expecting the manifold attacks against international students that we have seen over the past four years. Nor did I anticipate the hostility towards immigration in general, or the chipping away at labor protections and workers rights. I was even more surprised by how supported I would feel to be a part of UAW 4121. I joined ISWG in the summer of 2020 because I felt isolated, anxious, and powerless to fight against the latest attacks against international students in the midst of a global pandemic. It feels really good to work in solidarity with other international students to expand the security and rights that all of us deserve as academic workers.

Much of my work as a PhD student in the department of Classics is a solitary pursuit, especially in 2020. I find participating in the ISWG has broadened my network beyond my small department and allowed me to participate in successful collective actions that make our university safer and more equitable for all.
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