Reimagining the Agency of International Students of Color During Global Pandemic and (Neo)Racism




agency, (neo)racism, transnational, COVID-19 pandemic, international graduate students of color, , United States


The global imaginary contributes to the perpetuation of neo-colonial and neo-liberal mentalities, which reinforce the political, cultural, and social dominance over international students. Through an exploration guided by interrelated theories of agency and transnational social fields, this study employs a narrative inquiry methodology with a constructivist research approach to comprehend and investigate the agency of international graduate students of Color amidst transnational mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic within a four-year public research institution in the United States. The research findings demonstrate that specific contexts and spaces shape the agency of international graduate students and (trans)form their present and future. This article reveals four distinct forms of agency: agency as negotiation in uncertainties, agency as resistance to forms of (neo)racism, agency for personal growth and (trans)formation, and agency within transnational futures.

Author Biography

Minghui Hou, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

MINGHUI HOU, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her research focuses on international and comparative higher education, student mobility, racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and student development. Email:


Adom, D., Yeboah, A., & Ankrah, A. K. (2016). Constructivism philosophical paradigm: Implication for research, teaching and learning. Global Journal of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, 4(10), 1-9.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149. DOI:

Bilecen, B. (2020). Commentary: COVID-19 pandemic and higher education: International mobility and students’ social protection. International Migration, 58(4), 263-266. DOI:

Bruhn-Zass, E. (2021). Virtual internationalization to support comprehensive internationalization in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 1-20. DOI:

Cantwell, B. (2015). Are international students cash cows? Examining the relationship between new international undergraduate enrollments and institutional revenue at public colleges and universities in the US. Journal of International Students, 5(4), 512–525. DOI:

Chen, J. A., Zhang, E., & Liu, C. H. (2020). Potential impact of COVID-19–related racial discrimination on the health of Asian Americans. American Journal of Public Health, 110(11), 1624-1627. DOI:

Chen, Y., Li, R., & Hagedorn, L. S. (2019). Undergraduate international student enrollment forecasting model: An application of time series analysis. Journal of International Students, 9(1), 242–261. DOI:

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. Jossey-Bass.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational researcher, 19(5), 2-14. DOI:

DeJaeghere, J. G., McCleary, K. S., & Josić, J. (2016). Education and youth agency: Qualitative case studies in global contexts. Springer. DOI:

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2018). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (5th ed.). Sage.

Deuel, R. P. (2022). International education as an ethical practice: cultivating a care of the self. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-16. DOI:

Duff, P. A. (2015). Transnationalism, multilingualism, and identity. Annual review of applied linguistics, 35, 57-80. DOI:

Edwards, A. (2005). Relational agency: Learning to be a resourceful practitioner. International journal of educational research, 43(3), 168-182. DOI:

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency?. American journal of sociology, 103(4), 962-1023. DOI:

England, K. V. L (1994). Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. The Professional Geographer, 46(1), 80–89. DOI:

Fischer, H., & Whatley, M. (2020). COVID-19 impact research brief: international students at community colleges. NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Fouron, G., & Schiller, N. G. (2001). All in the family: gender, transnational migration, and the nation‐state. Identities Global Studies in Culture and Power, 7(4), 539-582. DOI:

Glass, C. R., Heng, T. T., & Hou, M. (2022). Intersections of identity and status in international students’ perceptions of culturally engaging campus environments. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 89, 19-29. DOI:

Glass, C. R., & Lee, J. J. (2018). When internationalization funding feels tight: Satisfaction with funding and campus internationalization strategies. Journal of Studies in International Education, 22(4), 302–316. doi:10.1177/1028315318773146 DOI:

Heng, T. T. (2019). Understanding the heterogeneity of international students’ experiences: A case study of Chinese international students in US universities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(5), 607-623. DOI:

Hopwood, N. (2010). A sociocultural view of doctoral students' relationships and agency. Studies in Continuing Education, 32(2), 103-117. DOI:

Hou, M. (2023). AsianCrit lens on Chinese international student multi-dimensional transitions and experiences in the US. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning. DOI:

Hou, M., Cruz, N., Glass, C. R., & Lee, S. (2020). Transnational postgraduates: navigating academic trajectories in the globalized university. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 30(3), 306-324. DOI:

Hou, M., & Jam, A. (2020). International Education equity for doctoral students: Duoethnographic reflections from China and Cameroon. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 759. doi:10.28945/4673 DOI:

Hou, M., & Wang, L. (2021). International students’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic in a neoracism context. NAFSA, 5, 24-35.

Johnson, N., Veletsianos, G., & Seaman, J. (2020). US faculty and administrators' experiences and approaches in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online Learning, 24(2), 6-21. DOI:

Kim, J. H. (2015). Understanding narrative inquiry: The crafting and analysis of stories as research. Sage publications. DOI:

Koo, K. K., Yao, C. W., & Gong, H. J. (2021). “It is not my fault”: Exploring experiences and perceptions of racism among international students of color during COVID-19. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. DOI:

Kwon, S. (2022). Mask wearing and perceived discrimination associated with COVID-19 in the United States from March 2020 to May 2021: Three-Level longitudinal analyses. Health Education & Behavior, 10901981221076396.

Lee, J. J. (2020). Neo-racism and the criminalization of China. Journal of International Students, 10(4), 780-783. DOI:

Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher education, 53(3), 381-409. DOI:

Levitt, P., & Schiller, N. G. (2004). Conceptualizing simultaneity: a transnational social field perspective on society1. International migration review, 38(3), 1002-1039. DOI:

Ma, Y. (2020). Ambitious and anxious: How Chinese college students succeed and struggle in American higher education. Columbia University Press. DOI:

Ma, Y., & Zhan, N. (2020). To mask or not to mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic: How Chinese students in America experience and cope with stigma. Chinese Sociological Review, 1–26. DOI:

Martel, M. (2020a). COVID-19 effects on U.S. higher education campuses: Academic student mobility to and from China. Institute of International Education.

Martel, M. (2020b). COVID-19 effects on U.S. higher education campuses: From emergency response on planning for future student mobility. Institute of International Education.

Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. Jossey-Bass.

NAFSA (2020). ICE OPT enforcement actions.

Open Doors. (2021). Using data to open doors.

Rogers, K. (2020, March 10). Politicians’ use of‘Wuhan Virus’ starts a debate health experts wanted to avoid. The New York Times. wuhan-virus.html

Ross, L. N. (2023). What is social structural explanation? A causal account. Noûs. DOI:

Saldaña, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Sage.

Schulmann, P., & Trines, S. (2020). Perfect storm: The impact of the coronavirus crisis on international student mobility to the United States. World Education Trends News & Reviews. Mobility Trends.

Spears, A. (1999). Race and ideology: An introduction, in Spears, A. (eds.), Race and Ideology: Language, Symbolism, and Popular Culture. Detroit, MI: Wayne State Press, pp. 11–59.

Stein, S., & de Andreotti, V. O. (2016). Cash, competition, or charity: International students and the global imaginary. Higher Education, 72(2), 225–239. DOI:

Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge university press. DOI:

Sustarsic, M., & Zhang, J. (2022). Navigating Through Uncertainty in the Era of COVID-19: Experiences of International Graduate Students in the United States. Journal of International Students, 12(1), 61-80. DOI:

Tessler, H., Choi, M., & Kao, G. (2020). The anxiety of being Asian American: Hate crimes and negative biases during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45(4), 636–646. DOI:

Thorson, A. R., Doohan, E.-A. M., & Clatterbuck, L. Z. (2021). Living abroad during COVID-19: International students’ personal relationships, uncertainty, and management of health and legal concerns during a global pandemic. Journal of International Students, 12(3), 654–673. DOI:

Tran, L. T., & Vu, T. T. P. (2018). ‘Agency in mobility’: towards a conceptualization of international student agency in transnational mobility. Educational Review, 70(2), 167-187. DOI:

Whatley, M., & Castiello-Gutiérrez, S. (2021). Balancing finances, politics, and public health: international student enrollment and reopening plans at US higher education institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher Education, 1-22. DOI:

Wilczewski, M., Gorbaniuk, O., & Giuri, P. (2021). The psychological and academic effects of studying from the home and host country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 644096–644107. DOI:

Yao, C. W. (2018). “They don't care about you”: First-year Chinese international students' experiences with neo-racism and othering on a US campus. Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, 30(1), 87-101.

Yao, C. W., George Mwangi, C. A., & Malaney Brown, V. K. (2019). Exploring the intersection of transnationalism and critical race theory: A critical race analysis of international student experiences in the United States. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(1), 38–58. DOI:

Zhang, B., Bow, C. O., & Bow, J. M. (2020). The Intersection of racism and xenophobia on the rise amid COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study investigating experiences of Asian Chinese international students in America. Revista Argentina de Clínica Psicológica, 29(5), 1145-1156.



How to Cite

Hou, M. (2023). Reimagining the Agency of International Students of Color During Global Pandemic and (Neo)Racism . Journal of International Students, 14(3).