An Ode to the “Volunteer”: University of Jyväskylä's Internationalization Success... Or Is It?

This piece offers a personal and critical perspective on JYU's approach to internationalization, specifically focusing on the experiences of students like me from the Global South. Drawing on my own journey first as a doctoral researcher and now as a Postdoc at JYU, I argue that the dismissive "volunteer" label undermines international students' contributions while perpetuating exclusionary power dynamics. I examine the impact of linguistic barriers, systemic challenges, and the lingering colonial mindset embedded within JYU's policies. I intend to point out the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Crucially, this reflection comes from a place of respect for JYU. I aim to spark a transformative institutional dialogue about redefining internationalization, focusing on genuine inclusivity, and recognizing international students as equal partners.

Author: Rauha Salam-Salmaoui, Department of Language and Communication Studies, JYU, Finland

A flicker of frustration, mingled with unease, passed between me and my fellow JYU doctoral researcher. Her course (which I had also previously attended), ironically on cultural sensitivity, inclusivity in internationalization, laid bare the university's disconnect. When she asked how JYU integrates students like me – from the Global South, from Pakistan where quality education is a struggle and "internationalization" nascent – the instructor deflected. Apparently, JYU “officials” see us as mere "volunteers". This label stung. It's laughably out of touch with my reality. Finland wasn't my dream; offers from Cardiff, Sweden, and Denmark were on the table. My choice wasn't driven by a yearning to be here, but by the unwavering support of my supervisor and harsh financial limitations. I could cover either basic living or tuition. Sacrificing Cardiff was heartbreaking, but the choice was clear.

To label students like myself as "volunteers" is not just a dismissive inaccuracy, but a microaggression that diminishes the immense struggles many of us from the Global South face in our pursuit of higher education abroad (Chennamsetti, 2020; Akanwa, 2015). We navigate a labyrinth of limited financial resources, often cumbersome visa processes, and an entirely unfamiliar academic landscape – a stark contrast to the supposed privilege implied by the term "volunteer." Our choices are not whimsical acts of volunteerism, but calculated maneuvers within a system that rarely considers the unique challenges of our backgrounds (Dryden & Dovchin, 2022). This flippant term also carries the weight of personal experience, one riddled with loneliness and the constant struggle to navigate a new academic and social landscape. Research by Girmay & Singh (2019) and Hunley (2010), paints a stark picture of the psychological challenges faced by students like myself from the Global South studying in the Global North. Loneliness, a pervasive feeling, manifests in personal, social, and cultural dimensions. These challenges, as Hunley (2010) highlights, can have a significant impact on our well-being and academic functioning, leading to lower levels of engagement and even mental and physical health issues, something that I have personally experienced first-hand. JYU's official’s casual use of "volunteer" thus disregards these documented struggles.

Moreover, the callous dismissal of international students from the Global South as "volunteers" by JYU “authorities” resonates deeply with a personal experience that exposes the underlying racism embedded in this statement. My journey to JYU wasn't paved with gratitude for a supposed opportunity bestowed upon me by a benevolent Western institution. It was a struggle fueled by ambition and a thirst for knowledge, a struggle that many students of color face in predominantly white universities (Pewewardy & Frey, 2002). The "volunteer" label reinforces a "color-blind" ideology (Lewis et al., 2000) that ignores the very real challenges faced by students like myself. JYU's casual use of this term undermines my qualifications and achievements, positioning me as an outsider instead of a valued member of the academic community. Thus, JYU's current stance seems to fall short in this regard. It echoes a troubling colonial past where Western institutions held the power, doling out opportunities to be received with gratitude (Zacheus et al., 2019; Saarinen, 2012). While Finland may pride itself on its cultural diversity, studies by Rastas (2005) reveal the reality of racialized categorizations faced by young people, including international students. The label of "volunteer" thus tossed at international students from the Global South by JYU “officials” is a constant reminder of the persistent colonial legacies shaping our experiences here. The emotional and cognitive dissonance we face isn't an abstract concept – it's the daily struggle to assert our identities and value in an environment that positions us as less than full participants. Fanon's (1986) words on the internalized effects of colonization cut deep because they expose the subtle harm of this "volunteer" label. It suggests our presence is merely optional, downplaying the effort, sacrifice, and ambition that led us here. Fanon’s work reminds us that these seemingly innocuous words are not neutral, but carry the weight of colonial history, contributing to a subconscious sense of inferiority. Similarly, Spivak's (2010) concern about silencing the subaltern voice echoes through the halls of JYU. The "volunteer" narrative strips us of agency, implying we aren't entitled to a voice in shaping this environment. Spivak’s insights force us to confront the uncomfortable question: if we are mere "volunteers," then who holds the space for our unique perspectives to be heard and respected?

Additionally, the "volunteer" label JYU “officials” fling at international students feels like a cruel joke in light of the language barriers we face. English, a language inherited from a colonial past, already presents a complex situation for someone from Pakistan (and other Global South countries). Yet, JYU throws another hurdle onto this obstacle course – some of the doctoral courses are conducted solely in Finnish. This isn't some minor inconvenience – it's a glaring exclusion that exposes the university's commitment to true internationalization. My journey to JYU wasn't some casual volunteer assignment. Yet, the existence of some of the Finnish-only doctoral courses creates a suffocating sense of alienation. It's a constant reminder that I'm not seen as an equal partner, but as an outsider perpetually struggling to keep up in a system that prioritizes Finnish fluency over intellectual exchange. This linguistic hurdle mirrors the lingering effects of colonialism explored by Bhabha (2004) and Spivak (2010). JYU's reliance on Finnish in these courses, however unintentional, reinforces a neo-colonial dynamic. It creates a situation where my voice, my research, and my ability to contribute meaningfully are rendered voiceless unless I achieve fluency in Finnish. This expectation of linguistic assimilation is again a slap in the face – are we invited to "volunteer" our knowledge, or surrender our linguistic identities at the altar of Finnish fluency? JYU's current approach to doctoral course languages makes me feel like an outsider looking in. My years of dedicated study brought me here with the expectation of contributing to a vibrant international community, not of being relegated to the sidelines as a "volunteer" expected to conform in order to fully participate. Yet, these courses paint a different picture – one where my voice and perspectives are only valid if filtered through Finnish fluency thereby making me feel that my perspective is somehow less valuable. This isn't just a personal frustration – it exposes a critical flaw in JYU's internationalization strategy. Mustonen (2021) identifies how structural biases within Finnish education prioritize specific language skills, creating a disadvantage for multilingual students. It reinforces a hierarchy within the educational space, where certain languages are seen as more valuable than others and positions us as "volunteers" who must prove our worth through assimilation. JYU's language policy, in practice, feels contradictory, creating a system that marginalizes those who don't seamlessly fit the Finnish linguistic mould, thus reinforcing the "volunteer" label. JYU's current approach forces a cruel choice upon us "volunteers": prioritize Finnish fluency, potentially at the expense of our own heritage language, or risk academic marginalization. True internationalization shouldn't be about conformity; it should be about fostering a vibrant exchange where diverse perspectives, regardless of the language they are expressed in, are valued.

In a nutshell, my story is just one example, but it reflects a larger issues. Internationalization thrives on a two-way exchange of knowledge and perspectives, not a one-sided narrative of benevolence. The dismissive "volunteer" label cast upon international students at JYU exposes a troubling disconnect – it absolves the university of responsibility for creating a truly inclusive environment. This label conveniently places the burden of adaptation squarely on our shoulders, as if the challenges faced by students from the Global South are solely our responsibility to solve. This, as mentioned above, reinforces a troubling "color-blind" perspective (Lewis et al., 2000), where the university positions itself as a passive gatekeeper, expecting us to fit a pre-determined mould instead of acknowledging the unique struggles we face. The "volunteer" label is more than just inaccurate, it's a symptom of JYU's approach to internationalization, one stuck in a colonial past where Western institutions held the power to bestow "opportunities". This label makes my struggles (and people like me) seem trivial – my late nights grappling with textbooks, the gnawing sense of isolation, the feeling of perpetually playing catch-up. It implies that any challenges I face are my problem to solve. The university washes its hands of the systemic barriers, conveniently overlooking the lack of inclusive support structures that would actually empower students like myself. Further, this label perpetuates the false idea that the "volunteer" is here on a whim, not out of ambition and a deep yearning to contribute to the academic community. Thus, JYU's internationalization efforts feel performative when held up against the realities faced by students like myself. The "volunteer" label reinforces this disconnect.

JYU's approach to internationalization, by mislabelling students from the Global South as "volunteers," significantly undercuts the essence of true international educational exchange. This characterization not only trivializes the challenges we confront but also fails to acknowledge our substantial contributions to the academic milieu. We are not mere recipients of Western academic benevolence; we are scholars and researchers endowed with invaluable perspectives, meriting full recognition, support, and a meaningful voice within our educational spheres. Persisting with this superficial stance, JYU perpetuates an exclusionary power dynamic, sidelining us rather than welcoming us as equal partners in the knowledge quest. Further, the label "volunteer" unveils deep-seated biases, demanding a thorough re-evaluation of the university's policies and practices toward a genuine embrace of internationalization. This entails dismantling structures that marginalize, creating inclusive spaces that honour the linguistic and cultural diversity of all students, and transitioning from imposing unilateral integration duties onto international students to fostering a bilateral engagement that actively confronts systemic participation barriers. Moreover, this critique, deeply personal and emerging from the sting of being labelled a 'volunteer,' arises from a place of respect for JYU. It seeks to initiate a constructive dialogue aimed at realigning the JYU’s internationalization ethos. Particularly crucial is the administrative level's role in rethinking and correcting policies that inadvertently foster exclusion. True internationalization at JYU requires moving beyond reductive labels and asymmetric expectations, championing a genuinely inclusive academic environment that recognizes and values international students from the Global South not as "volunteers" but as vital members of the global academic discourse.


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