A Culture of Camaraderie

International Students Find Support and Success in Early Childhood Education Program

Photo of a college-aged woman standing next to a college-aged man both looking at the camera smiling.

The doctorate program in early childhood education offered international students Boyun Kim (left) and Afeez Abdulrasak (right) a diverse group of peers they could not only learn with, but learn from. (Photo Credit: James Silvestri)

icon of a calendarMarch 29, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Diana Karditsas

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For international students Afeez Abdulrasak and Boyun Kim, the study of early childhood development has always been a passion. Abdulrasak received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood education from the University of Lagos in Nigeria. Kim received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood education from Sahmyook University in Seoul, Korea. When it came time to pursue their Ph.D.s, Oakland University offered a unique program they could not find elsewhere.   

Both Abdulrasak and Kim are now in their second semester of the early childhood education Ph.D. program at OU. The program operates on a cohort model, with a heavy emphasis on seminar courses that promote interaction and camaraderie. This year’s cohort consists of students from Saudi Arabia, India, Nigeria, South Korea and Michigan. Cohort students share insights, feedback and perspectives in an environment that encourages support.  

Abdulrasak opined that the cohort works well together because of the diversity within it.

“We are curious to learn from each other,” he said. “Contextualizing our experiences and environments makes it quite interesting. I want to hear the Indian perspective, the Saudi perspective, etc. Academically we have a way of integrating our cultural perspective into what we are learning and that binds us together.”

Kim agreed that having so many different perspectives within the program has contributed to its success.

“Almost all of our classmates are from different countries — I was really shocked,” she said. “It is really interesting. We can discuss not one country or two, but four or five countries. This is our advantage to be able to talk about different cultures and learn how early childhood education policies are applied in different countries. I was also imagining everyone would be better than me at English. It’s really great that we can share our concerns about using English.”

Not only did Abdulrasak and Kim find the early childhood education Ph.D. program at OU, but they also found a mentor in Dr. Tomoko Wakabayashi. Wakabayashi is an associate professor of education in the Department of Human Development and Child Studies. From placing international students in graduate assistant roles to driving them herself to places because they don’t have transportation, Wakabayashi strives to help those who can’t work due to visa issues and need support to stay in the Ph.D. program. 

“Studying in the United States is quite expensive and I didn’t have the financial strength,” Abdulrasak said. “Dr. Tomoko went the extra mile.”

Wakabayashi partnered with the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce to obtain a scholarship for Abdulrasak. Damany Head, chair of the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce “saw in Afeez something positive for Pontiac’s children,” according to Wakabayashi. In addition to being a graduate assistant in OU’s Department of Human Development and Child Studies, Abdulrasak is now the first international graduate assistant for the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Kim appreciates Wakabayashi’s precise planning and preparation for the classroom.

“I admire that I can learn a lot from her,” she said. “I enjoy studying with her. She has a lot of experience in my research interests.”

Likewise, Abdulrasak said he was grateful for the mentorship and support that Wakabayashi has provided him.

“ [Dr. Wakabayashi] has given me holistic development in terms of helping me emotionally, helping me environmentally, helping me academically and even far ahead of my needs,” he said. “Everyone talks about how Michigan is cold. In Nigeria, we don’t have this kind of weather. Prior to winter, Dr. Tomoko already prepared me. She connected me to a person who helped me get a winter kit.”

Wakabayashi credited the larger Pontiac community with helping the international students adjust to life in Michigan.

Pastor McDonald at the Prospect Missionary Baptist Church went out of his way to get a whole winter wardrobe for Afeez,” she said. “Pontiac has a way of coming together for us. They are an amazing community of warm and caring people.”

Wakabayashi is proud of the students who have had to overcome hurdles to be in the Ph.D. program. She is also very pleased with how well the cohort works together because “the students enjoy the cohort [and] they are really in it, doing things together.”  

After graduating with his Ph.D., Abdulrasak plans to work in education.

“I would like to be an academic,” he said. “I would also like to work for the United Nations in UNICEF with children of minority groups to achieve the goal of education for all.”

Kim also plans to pursue a career in early childhood education, “teaching students to become teachers.”

“I will have a great influence to make the world better,” she said.

To learn more about the Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education visit oakland.edu/hdcs/early-childhood-education/phd.

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