Tricia Shalka on experiences of international college students

Dr. Tricia Shalka is an assistant professor in the Warner School’s higher education program at University of Rochester. Dr. Shalka’s primary research investigates the impacts of traumatic experience(s) on college students, particularly in terms of developmental outcomes.  Her most recent work in this area explores the intersection of identity development and trauma in college students.  She also maintains a secondary research interest in the internationalization of higher education with a particular emphasis on the experiences of international students in American colleges and universities.


Chronicle (C): Can you tell us a little about your background and the research you are currently working on?

Tricia Shalka (TS): I’m an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education & Human Development in the higher education program.  Prior to returning for my PhD and becoming a professor, I worked for several years in various functional areas of higher education administration including residential life, fraternity and sorority life, development and alumni relations, and institutional assessment.  My time working as a practitioner in the field has very much shaped the way I approach my work as both a researcher and teacher and allows me to be more intentional in thinking about how to contribute to the cycle of research-to-practce-to-research.  My research falls into two main categories including: 1) the experiences of college students who are navigating trauma, and 2) international college students’ leadership development.  Currently, I have a couple of major projects in the works in those areas.  I’m finishing data collection on a phenomenological study of college student trauma and about to begin data collection on a narrative study of Chinese undergraduate international students’ leadership development.


Experiences of International Students in American Colleges/Universities

C: Why did you choose to study international students specifically?

TS: While a masters student at the University of Maryland, I had the amazing privilege of being part of the Multi-Instiutional Study of Leadership’s (MSL) research team under the direction of Dr. Susan Komives, Dr. John Dugan, and Dr. Julie Owen.  I learned an indescribable amount from their mentorship, in addition to that project being my entry point to an evolving interest in college student leadership development.  The college student leadership development literature is ever growing, but something I came to realize was that a significant student population was being largely left out of the conversation – international students.  Given the fact that international students have been a growing population in U.S. higher education, I felt this was a significant gap that needed to be explored, especially since leadership development is an often reported desired outcome of U.S. higher education.

C: What have been the findings from working with international students so far?

TS: What some of my past work has emphasized is the important role of mentorship for international college students, particularly in terms of their leadership development.  First, when international students received strong mentorship around personal development and self awareness, they demonstrated leadership development capacities nearly at par with their domestic student peers (in fact, mentorship around personal development seemed much more important for international students than domestic students in terms of leadership development).  Second, the roles of specific mentors really matter for international students.  Specifically, leadership development was enhanced for international students when their most significant mentor at their university was either a faculty member or a student affairs administrator as opposed to another student (which interestingly, many international students did cite other students as their significant mentor).  What I take away from these findings is that mentorship really does matter for international students and we need to be more intentional on university campuses to help foster positive mentorship relationships for international students that we know can contribute to the outcomes (such as leadership development!) that we say are part of coming to study in the United States.

C: What have been some challenges you’ve encountered in your mentoring research?

TS: Previously, I have been investigating mentorship of international college students using data from the Multi-Instiutional Study of Leadership, which is a phenomenal international study of college student leadership development and a robust data set.  However, there are always limitations with pre-existing data, particularly in terms of wanting to follow up on responses and find out more.  My new project about Chinese international students’ leadership development is a qualitative study, so I look forward to using that format to follow up on some of those questions that I haven’t been able to answer previously using an existing quantitative data set.

Developmental Impacts of Traumatic Experiences on College Students

C: What brought your interest in understanding the connection between the experienced trauma faced by college students and their identity development?

TS: A lot of literature points to the reality that trauma is very prevalent in college student populations.  We also know from a lot of research about how childhood trauma can have developmental ripple effects across a lifetime.  However, we really know a whole lot less about how trauma that is experienced in early adulthood (i.e., when many people are in college) impacts many of the developmental outcomes, such as identity formation and development, that are critical during this time of life.  This area of my scholarship is close to my heart – I have felt very privileged to work with all of my incredible participants who have been so willing to share their experiences of both struggle and resilience.

C: What have been your findings on the identity development of college students who experienced trauma so far?

TS: My work has unearthed what I’ll call the “pre”, “post”, and “post-post” components of how college student trauma and identity intersect.  In terms of the “pre”, I’ve noted that the impacts of trauma on the self don’t really just begin with a traumatic event or experience.  Rather, orientating systems exist long before trauma might happen and frame how an individual will make sense of it in terms of their identity.  For example, social identities like gender may limit how an individual may process their trauma if they don’t want to appear “weak” or fall into negative stereotypes about their gender identity.  In terms of the “post”, there are a whole lot of developmental tasks that arise after trauma that college students have to process through and these are directly tied to making meaning of who they are in the world (i.e., their identities).  For example, for many college students experiencing trauma, their peers may not fully understand what they are going through.  This can have an isolating effect during a developmental time when relationships are really critical to identity development.  Finally, in terms of the “post-post”, as college student survivors navigate through these developmental tasks after trauma they are ultimately refining a sense of self along the way which results in two key features:  1) the trauma becomes part of the person’s sense of self, but not the full self, and 2) a trauma lens develops in which a person comes to understand themselves and the world around them through the prism of that traumatic experience(s) they have endured.

TS: Most of my work in this area has been qualitative, which lends itself well to the kinds of questions I have been asking about college student trauma.  Being able to interact with survivors of trauma in this way has been humbling and inspiring, because there is a whole lot of struggle in this world, but a whole lot of resilience too. As much as I value and hold sacred the possibility of being able to interact with survivors in this way in my research, this can simultaneously be some of the challenge of the work that I do.  Stories of trauma are some of the most difficult to hear and as much as I do to prepare myself for interviews and engage in good self-care along the way, these are difficult stories that impact me at a very human level.  Inevitably, there are stories that I hear that are hard to let go of and hard to not feel at a very deep level.  I do a lot of work to mitigate that effect – often it helps and sometimes it doesn’t and that’s ok.  What I am reminded of in the process is something that’s increasingly important to me in my work – there’s room for humanity in the research process.