Goh traces family footsteps, international student history at Nebraska U
May 9, 2022 | By Scott Schrage
In early January 1994, following a series of flights from Malaysia, Ni Ni “Annie” Lim arrived in Lincoln to marrow-chilling temperatures, eye-blearing gusts and a university in mourning.
Just days prior, the Husker football team had lost its first and only game of the season, an 18-16 Orange Bowl defeat to Florida State. With it went the chance to win Tom Osborne’s first national title and the program’s first since 1971.
In December 1995, fresh from earning her bachelor’s in business administration, Annie prepared to leave a university on the verge of festivity. Just days later, Husker football would claim its second straight national title, eighty-sixing any lingering ghosts of gridirons past by obliterating Florida 62-24.
Before returning to Malaysia, though, Annie made the fateful decision of accepting a dare from a fellow Malaysian she’d met during her time as a Husker: My brother back home is old. As far as I know, he doesn’t have anyone. I dare you to go meet this guy.
That guy? Hock Aun Goh — future father of Jun Yi Goh, now a double-major in history and global studies who, on May 14, will officially join his mother and two uncles as University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumni.
“In a way, without UNL, I wouldn’t be here,” the second-generation Husker said before cracking a smile and letting out a laugh.
Goh grew up in suburbs of the fourth-largest city in Malaysia, George Town, which was colonized by the British East India Company, occupied by the Japanese during World War II, then reclaimed by the British before gaining independence in 1957. Even as a child raised 9,000 miles from Lincoln, Goh was familiar with the Husker brand.
“One of the first few things I can remember about the United States as a country was that in the United States, there’s this state called Nebraska, and this state plays good football,” he said.
But many Malaysians looking to attend college, Goh said, wind up doing so in the United Kingdom and Australia. Goh had cast his eyes on the former, especially given his interest in the history of colonialism. That was until Annie, an administrator in higher education, received an email saying that her son was eligible for a scholarship to Nebraska. And so, with his mother at his side, Goh hopped a plane for the Cornhusker State in August 2018.
The weather was much warmer than Annie had first encountered in 1994. The football team was much worse. But the same host family that had taken her in 24 years earlier — one of many then participating in the now-defunct Lincoln Friends of Foreign Students — was again there to pick up her and her son at the airport.
“I stayed over at their place for the first few days,” Goh recalled. “Basically, I had someone to rely on if there was anything I needed help with in my first year here. It was huge.
“I’m still in contact with them. We still talk, and I try to visit them as often as I can.”
Despite the support, Goh said he spent most of his first semester “pretty much sequestered in my dorm” — Selleck Hall, where his mother had once stayed. A student club that met every Friday to play board games was among the few reasons he found to go out. A random weekend morning in October did give him another: the chance to experience snow for the first time.
“I was in my pajamas,” he said. “I actually ran outside, in shorts, just to touch it before coming back in, just because I’d never seen snow, never touched snow.
“I went to the courtyard area in Selleck with the sand volleyball pit. I made a small snowman, made snowballs, just to see what it was about.”
Over time, familiarity and common interests began to erode his shell. In spring 2019, Goh traveled to New York City as part of a Husker contingent participating in a National Model UN conference. His junior year, he joined the Malaysian Student Association, helping keep the group together and active during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. He interned with Programs in English as a Second Language and spent two semesters with the university’s International Welcome Team, picking students up from the airport, checking them into housing — anything to help smooth a transition whose potholes he knew well.
Then came a stint with the International Student and Scholar Office, where he coordinated Friday-night events — eating out, going to a ballgame, seeing a movie — that often drew several dozen students looking to acclimate and find friends.
He wasn’t exactly slacking in the classroom, either. Goh was one of 82 Husker undergrads recently announced as a Chancellor’s Scholar, having earned a 4.0 GPA in every semester.
“I cannot say enough good things about Jun. He has been a pleasure to work with since the day he stepped on campus,” said Ann Tschetter, Goh’s adviser and associate professor of practice in history. “Jun came to my office during his first week, introduced himself and gave me a small gift from his country.”
While working toward his degree in global studies, Goh picked up a fifth language — Japanese — to go alongside Malay, English, Mandarin and Hokkien. And he credited the global studies curriculum with expanding the scope of his view on history. But his first love was also his first major.
“I have a passion for history,” he said. “I aspire to tell stories that have not been told or have been buried.”
So when Tschetter encouraged her advisee to write an undergraduate thesis, Goh chose a story that he was as qualified as anyone to tell and as dedicated as anyone to uncovering: the history of the international undergraduate experience at Nebraska from 1948 to the present.
His 44-page, 163-citation thesis traces the evolution of the university administration’s infrastructure, policies and supports for international students — along with how students themselves, and their surrounding community, have filled vacuums left by the administration. Goh tracked the origins of Nebraska’s international students across decades: an influx of Nigerian students from the 1960s through 1980s; the surge of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian undergrads from the 1990s onward; a recent uptick in Rwandan students. As a lens into the presence and prominence of those international contingents, he consulted records of the nationality-specific Recognized Student Organizations that came to supplant the “big-tent” organizations that preceded it.
“It’s very difficult to say that this (one) person’s experience represents the ’60s or represents the ’70s, because everyone has a different experience,” he said. “The closest thing I could do is to trace the changes through organizations. The logic is that organizations stay alive because people care, and if people care, that’s (indicative of) what they feel about themselves.”
Goh’s thesis also identifies three interrelated challenges facing international undergrads of both yesteryear and today: housing, financial instability and discrimination. Before and after the passage of 1968’s Fair Housing Act, international students have encountered discriminatory practices from landlords and some Greek houses. The 1949 devaluation of the British pound, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the Great Recession of 2008 disproportionately affected international students, particularly the many subject to deportation for falling behind on bills. Overt and covert racism has persisted, spiking after 9/11 and amid the recent rise of xenophobic rhetoric nationwide.
“When it comes to problems, some things have changed,” Goh said. “It has definitely improved. People here are now more knowledgeable. Discrimination is not as overt now, but there are still cases.”
For all the months he spent poring over documents in the UNL Library Archives and Special Collections, through decades-old clips from the Daily Nebraskan and the Lincoln Journal Star, Goh said the thesis is not a definitive history of Nebraska’s international students.
“But I like to see it as a start of some sort of conversation, or maybe a launching point for other research into international students on campus,” he said. “One thing I know for sure: This is the only document where you can get a one-stop source of international student history on campus. The information that I use is all public; I just pieced it together in a coherent way.”
The experience has also prepared him to write another thesis — this time, while working toward a master’s degree in history that he’ll pursue at Nebraska.
I have really come to believe that Nebraska is the good life.
And he said he’ll continue “drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid” as he roots for Husker football to add a few more memories to the bank he first began filling as a child in Malaysia. His favorite as a student? A 56-7 win over Northwestern — a day the Huskers transformed back into the Big Red Machine that once rumbled to two titles as his mother was laying a 9,000-mile, scarlet-and-cream path that her son would come to follow.
“I just care a lot about Husker sports,” he said. “It’s a very Nebraska thing to do, I guess.”
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