A Taiwanese psychologist’s advice for struggling international students

psychological barriers
International students face plenty of cultural and psychological barriers -- this psychologist wants to help students overcome this. Source: Vivi Hua

Vivi Hua grew up in a family that emphasised traditional Chinese values: to be as rich, smart and accomplished as possible. There was a lot of pressure and psychological barriers — her upbringing in Taiwan would later drive her to choose the “the best school and “the best college,” instead of her passion.

She ended up enrolling in a sociology programme. That’s when she saw she enjoyed the hands-on components of learning and discovered that psychology would be a better fit instead.

Hua would then go on to become a research assistant at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, where she conducted studies and worked alongside the Chief of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Department.

“After gaining clinical experience, I was able to then apply for a psychology degree at a graduate school,” she said. “I enrolled at Yeshiva University, a pretty well-known Jewish one in the metropolitan area of New York.”

Today, she’s using the degree to help those facing the same pressures and psychological barriers she did. We caught up with her to learn more about her journey from international student to altruistic psychologist below:

Were your psychological barriers the main reason you wanted to pursue a degree in this field?

I started off with my undergraduate degree in sociology at National Taiwan University. At the time, there was a heavy focus on going to the best school and then the best college. So, it wasn’t very clear to me what my interest was exactly.

During my undergraduate studies (closer to graduation), I saw myself as a more hands-on person who enjoyed connecting with people on a deep level. Sociology is very theoretical so I started taking psychology classes and it felt a much better fit.

As it was highly competitive in the US to apply for direct doctoral programmes in clinical psychology and rare for the acceptance of students from non-English speaking countries, I decided to obtain some clinical and research experience first to build my credentials. This led me to work as a research assistant at Taipei Veterans General Hospital.

After gaining clinical experience, I was able to then apply for a psychology degree at a graduate school. I enrolled at Yeshiva University — a pretty well-known Jewish one in the metropolitan area of New York.

psychological barriers

“Hanging out with friends in Central Park, NYC, when I was an international student ,” Hua says. Source: Vivi Hua

What made you decide to study at Yeshiva University and the US?

It was mostly the programme I got into which was a direct doctoral track that was credentialed and certified by the American Psychological Association. As for the US, at the time (not sure about now), for many people it was will still the go-to place to study clinical psychology.

The country has a very good therapeutical and psychological provision system.

Visiting New York State Capitol on Lobby Day as a fellow in the Leadership Institute of New York State Psychological Association. Source: Vivi Hua

Walk us through the process of getting your psychology license in New York. 

It’s more about finishing your training programme as you need to complete your practicums, pre-doctoral internship, and postdoctoral training. The requirement for psychology licensure in New York State is at least 3,500 supervised clinical hours in total.

Meeting the licensing requirements means there are a certain number of supervision hours to fulfil. For international students, the main difference would be to find an employer for a work visa, which can be a pretty challenging task. 

How did you help international students in the US overcome cultural and psychological barriers? What are some of the common misconceptions?

With 10 years of practice as an established psychologist, I provide therapy and coaching to help individuals overcome psychological barriers. I often encounter international students who come to me at a breaking point — in an extreme state of depression, about to hurt themselves or have suicidal thoughts. 

All this comes from worrying about failing their classes and being kicked out of school as a result of poor adjustment in school and in social life in the US. Adding to their cultural adjustment stress is their visa status. If they fail school, they need to leave the country. There’s a lot of psychological struggle behind this.

Such students don’t usually contact me directly. It’s usually their friends, parents or school psychologist who do. The challenges they face build up and starts from the moment they step foot in school.

Psychological barriers stem from culture shock international students face (especially ones from Asia) and being afraid to speak up. In Asia, students are expected to listen out of respect for their teachers.

What’s your advice for foreign students on how to settle down in a school in the US and overcome cultural and psychological barriers?

I tell my students to prepare questions ahead of time, so they can practice raising their hands and ask questions in class. It’s also helpful to make friends with peers from a similar cultural background and peers who are local Americans. in order to keep up with the pace of the class and their peers. Another thing I encourage is them to raise their hands and ask questions to.

It’s a common situation for my students to experience their first time away from home and their families. Not only do they have to deal with learning how to be independent, pay bills, do chores, but this is also all on top of their academic responsibilities. 

Along with cultural and language adjustments, students deal with emerging adulthood challenges that lead to psychological barriers. My advice to them would be to seek validation in their experience and take the time to develop new skill sets. 

I also tell them to get out of their comfort zone and express themselves more in public. It’s important to develop good relationships with peers and professors to create the ultimate support system and hone networking skills too.

psychological barriers

Poster presentation at the Asian American Psychological Association Annual Conference . Source: Vivi Hua

What about yourself? What would be your advice to yourself if you could go back in time?

I would have liked someone like me to reach out to back then. Now, American schools offer mentoring systems to provide a hands-on experience of what to expect in school. 

It really benefits the students working with a professional who’s walked a path of similar struggles.

What is more important to you: work satisfaction, salary, social life, or a work/life balance? Why?

In my training as a psychologist, I’ve had to go through personal therapy. So, coming from a very traditional Asian family, that accomplishment and salary were the external pressures portrayed as important. 

Gradually, I became more connected with myself in personal needs and desires and I think there’s much more to life than those external factors. When I went to the best college in Taiwan, I wasn’t that happy. 

If nothing is ever enough and your goal is to only focus on the external milestones, how will you ever find balance? I encourage students to take on a more balanced approach to different and important areas of their lives.