Post-graduation migration: non-binary for international students

Graduates determine “home” based on sense of belonging.

A new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) is shedding light on the post-graduation plans of international students: migration plans correlate with concepts of home.

Cary Wu, PhD candidate in the department of sociology, conducted the study when he realized there was little research done on where international students go after they graduate.

“Most studies care about how they adapt to society while they’re students,” says Wu.

According to Wu, it is important to find out where these highly educated students go once they graduate, as many countries are interested in attracting global talent and some countries would like students to return after their studies are completed.

Four concepts of home

Cary Wu, PhD candidate in UBC’s department of sociology. | Photo courtesy of Cary Wu

Wu’s study used a data set from UBC sociology professor Wendy Roth’s study. In Roth’s study, there was a question about where students will go after they graduate and Wu noticed a lot of the students talked about home when they were interviewed. Their perception of home determined where they would go after graduation.

“Some people have grown up traveling a lot and they may have a lot of places they can call home,” says Wu. “They may not have a strong sense of belonging to a particular place.”

After interviewing over 200 international students, Wu came to the conclusion that students had four ways of viewing the concept of home: as host, as ancestral, as cosmopolitan and as nebulous. Cosmopolitan means that they are open to either staying or returning home. Almost 57 per cent of students were considered nebulous, as they were open to moving to a new place or another place that they’ve already lived in.

“UBC is a diverse university and if you interview students from a smaller university they may not have this kind of migration experience,” says Wu.

Adaptation affects home perception

Wu explains that home perception is dynamic and may change over time, as evidenced by differences in responses by undergraduate students versus graduate students. Graduate students may have lived elsewhere for their undergraduate degree or the difference in perception may simply be due to age and adaptation to their new home depending on how long they have lived there. Wu says these perceptions also depend on whether the student’s experiences in their new home have been positive or negative.

Pinia Chandra, a third year computer science student from Indonesia, says that her interest in staying in Vancouver increased based on the connections she was building here.

“I think the most important part of where I live is the people. So I’ve narrowed it down to either here or back home,” says Chandra, who was not part of Wu’s study.

Originally from China, Wu became interested in sociology during his undergrad—he was also fascinated with the concept of migration and rapid city growth in China. Wu went to the University of Chicago for graduate studies and when he was considering where to do his PhD, he chose UBC in order to work with professor Rima Wilkes, who was working on research that he was interested in.

Wilkes has been researching at and teaching in UBC’s sociology department for 15 years. As Wu’s co-author and supervisor, Wilkes says that Wu’s study helped provide a window into the lives of international students and the challenges many of them faced.

“If they feel that it’s too hard or they don’t feel welcome, then they don’t want to say,” says Wilkes. “Language difficulties will also make it harder for them to stay.”

Other motivations to return home included social and family ties, as well as feelings of obligation. However, Wilkes says that further research will need to be conducted on cultural differences in perceptions of home. As for Wu himself, he may stay in Vancouver, but he is also open to moving elsewhere.

For more information on the study, please visit