At the beginning of every semester, roughly 10 percent of Yale undergraduates board planes that take them across oceans, continents and national borders to reach the United States. Coping with the initial jet lag and culture shock, Yale’s international students face many challenges that their domestic peers do not. For an even smaller portion of this population — those who journey back to Yale after withdrawing and spending an entire year in a different country — their international status brings yet another challenge: cultural barriers in the reinstatement process.
Wenbin Gao ’19, who hails from Qingdao, China, was reinstated earlier this semester. He decided to withdraw from Yale last April after speaking with his psychiatrist at Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling Department. Since Gao missed the deadline for a leave of absence, University policies regarding withdrawal and reinstatement required him to be away for at least one full term, not including the spring semester during which he withdrew. From April 2015 to January 2016, Gao was back home in Qingdao, where he was able to rest and recover. When he felt ready to return, he decided to apply for reinstatement. But Gao did not expect the amount of time and energy that the reinstatement process required or the numerous obstacles he faced as a result of unique cultural differences.
In particular, he said, China did not have sophisticated mental health facilities, and academic requirements for reinstatement were hard to fulfill abroad.
“[The reinstatement process] is very frustrating. I do not complain because I realize all these tedious procedures are necessary. I do realize why [the administration] is doing this,” Gao said. “Still, Yale should be more culturally aware of withdrawn students who live abroad. These cultural differences are something that students and the administration have to work on together.”
As part of his reinstatement application, Gao had to take two courses for credit and provide two letters of recommendation — including one from a psychiatrist — to indicate that he was ready to return. Fulfilling the academic requirement was “difficult,” Gao said, since academic institutions in China are not easily accessible and it took Gao many attempts to persuade the local university in Qingdao to grant him student status. Even then, because the academic calendar in China does not align with the American one, Gao missed the initial deadline to enroll in his local university by the time the necessary application materials reached him.
Beyond the differences between the Chinese and American academic systems, Gao also questioned the requirement of taking classes, especially for those who have withdrawn for mental health reasons. He said he is not sure if he understands the rationale behind this requirement since it seems to be yet another burden for students suffering from mental illnesses.
Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker told the News in a February interview, however, that the requirement of two course credits “is not an obstacle but rather an avenue to returning to Yale with the best chance of success.”
Another international student who was reinstated this spring and who asked to remain anonymous said students have no option but to fulfill the requirements, onerous though they may be.
“Reinstatement is a game, and your ultimate goal is to be reinstated,” the student said.
Physician and sociology professor Nicholas Christakis — who is also master of Gao’s residential college, Silliman — said he can think of arguments both for and against the coursework requirement, but he believes it is important for the University to have an open conversation about the necessity of these two academic credits.
The University should accommodate the special circumstances of international students seeking reinstatement, Christakis added. One of the loudest student complaints with the reinstatement process has been that it is not tailored to individual students’ needs.
“Often [international students] return home to countries with very different systems. There are all kinds of ways in which satisfying the coursework requirement can be especially demanding for international students,” he said. “My feeling is that there is flexibility in the system. I do think deans and masters and other bodies on campus have the ability to customize the reinstatement process.”
Pamela George, chair of the Committee on Reinstatement and assistant dean of academic affairs, did not return multiple requests for comment.
In addition to the academic requirement, Gao said, he also needed to seek treatment at a mental health institution and demonstrate that he was mentally stable. But in China, individuals with anxiety problems or mild depression do not visit mental health hospitals, he said, as these hospitals function more like asylums for people with aggressive symptoms. Gao was ultimately able to fulfill the medical treatment requirement because his father is acquainted with a psychiatrist in Qingdao who was willing to give him treatment for his specific conditions. Nevertheless, Gao said, this type of treatment for patients with mild symptoms like his was “unconventional” in China.
Christakis said he knows there are many parts of the world where mental health infrastructure is wanting, though he added that he imagines the administration can find a way to address these issues.
Gao was notified of his successful reinstatement on Dec. 18. Even then the challenges of being an international student were not over: He had less than a month to apply for a visa to return to the United States this spring. Gao said he received his visa only a few days before his flight was scheduled to depart.
Despite these myriad challenges, international students who have withdrawn in the past emphasized that because there is no guarantee of reinstatement, they often hesitate to request special accommodations for their international status.
“If you’re in my position, do you want to explain the situation to the administration? If you’re already away, you’re really anxious about coming back,” Gao said. “Subtleties can’t be easily communicated via email or even phone.”