International Students & Spouses: Photo Stories to Make a Change

Photovoice participants group shot

How can we make the MSU community more inclusive for international students and spouses? This was the main question that School of Social Work doctoral students Dasha Shamrova and Cristy Cummings, along with undergraduate researchers Rachel Schwartz and Christina Callton, set out to answer by giving cameras to 18 international students and spouses from 13 countries. Photovoice, a participatory qualitative research methodology, was used to empower the participants as they shared their adaptation experiences, stories of struggle and resilience, and dreams for the MSU community. Participants met several times to discuss their photos, creating shared narratives and powerful adaptation stories.

Photovoice participant

As one of the participants commented “It felt like finally being able to break my heart free and watch many other people share very similar feelings and experiences, and it made me feel in peace, because I was finally not alone anymore. It was incredible to have my eyes opened to such different points of view that in the end all lead to the same direction, to the same feelings. I think together we all had the chance see how strong we are, but also saw that we want to be seen as part of the MSU community.”

The participants’ stories and pictures were compiled in a traveling exhibit, which has been shown both on campus and in the wider community. The exhibit was launched at Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and has also been presented to community stakeholders, including the Global Festival, a Linking All Types of Teachers to International Cross-Cultural Education, (LATTICE) monthly session on immigration, a Community Volunteers for International Programs (CVIP) board meeting, a Volunteer English Tutoring Program (VETP) meeting, and a brown bag presentation at the School of Social Work. In addition, the MSU library is hosting this project as a temporary exhibit until the end of May.

Photovoice participant

Qualitative analysis of the project data, including transcripts and photographs, was presented in a poster presentation at the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) 2017 annual meetings. A manuscript is in development, with the intent to illustrate the complex relationship between community resources and adaptation outcomes for this population.

If you are interested in seeing the pictures and reading the stories of participants, or getting more information, please email Ms. Cummings ( or Ms. Shamrova ( Based on the participant's experiences of supportive places for their adaptation, a community map was created and can be provided using one of the above emails. This project was supervised by Dr. Deborah Johnson, Professor in Human Development and Family Studies, and was sponsored by the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives through a Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant.