Understanding International Students: Recommendations through Personal Narrative
- Author: Maimuna Zahra Fariha
- Editor: Elizabeth Harsma
- Date: July 28, 2023
This article is a personal narrative interwoven with data and research-based recommendations. This document is not meant to be comprehensive or prescriptive, but offers perspectives and ways you might incorporate these perspectives into your teaching.
Voices and Experiences of Me and others like me…
Who are international students? They are the students who leave their homes, family, and friends far far away and come to a host country in search of better education and opportunities. In majority of the cases, these students land in a new host country with a lot of hope, excitement, and enthusiasm; But along with the movement, comes culture shock, communication, social struggles, financial struggles, mental health struggles and many challenges that should by understood and addressed by the host institution as much as possible.
To write this article, a brief literature review was conducted to understand the struggles and challenges of international students. Along with the brief literature review, I will also be sharing my experiences and stories of incidents I have faced as an international student on campus both as a student and a teaching assistant.
There are over one million international students studying in the U.S. In the fiscal year 2012-2013, international students contributed $24.7 billion to the U.S. economy through tuition and other living expenses (Gautam, 2016). Özturgut and Murphy (2009) identify that international students play an essential role in assuring adequate numbers of courses are offered at institutions by serving in teacher’s assistant roles, a low pay role that domestic students may not work for. Özturgut and Murphy (2009) also report that “international alumni are also important sources of capital gifts. When they complete their studies and return to their home countries, they will not only contribute to their alma maters but to the entire goodwill toward the U.S.” The Institute of International Education (IIE, 2013) further provides data that the top ten countries from which these students come are:
- South Korea,
- Saudi Arabia,
- Mexico, and
The top five programs in which these students engage are:
- Business and Management,
- Math and Computer Science,
- Social Sciences, and
- Physical and Life Sciences.
Although this statistic is slightly backdated, recent data also shows, “SEVIS reports that as of January 2023 there are 1.08 million international students with active study visas in the US. This compares to a total of 1.14 million in January 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic (a -5.4% decrease overall) (ICEF, 2023). Overtime it can be observed that the number of international students is increasing. It is a positive rise that should be addressed, embraced, and acknowledged more as the number of international students continue to rise.
Some of the struggles international students face when they come to USA for the first time are:
- Being homesick,
- Double identities,
- Adaptation and cultural assimilation,
- Transportation and accommodation,
- Disconnection of international students with the American culture and community,
- Discrimination and bias, and
- Psychological adjustment and mental health.
It is crucial for the host institutions and local communities to understand that these students left their family, their country and came to an unknown place and are at their most vulnerable state. It is very mentally challenging for them. It is not easy for these young individuals who travel thousands of miles away from home, family, and friends to have a better education. Friendship family programs, diversity and student organizations should be established, funded and more active in schools and universities. The shifting to a new country, a new environment, dealing with a new language and new people can make them feel confused and lead a double life. Being an international student myself, I can positively say that I was homesick majority of the time especially when I first had to get used to cooking my own food and managing my own rent to live and also working out of campus as a student worker for the first time.
The article authored by Gautam (2016) has very wisely named and defined this issue as, “double identities.” When asking international students about their challenges, “Some of the participants raised the questions of identity. They either were dealing with the double identities, or multiple identities, they felt were created as the result of being international students. For majority of the students English is not their first language” (Gautam, 2016). Language is the key component to interact and communicate with the people around you, when you come, you must maintain speaking in a foreign language to adapt and learn. Whereas, when you are home or interacting with a person from your country you go back to being yourself and speaking in your language how you used to back home. English is my third language. I was born in Bangladesh. My mother is from Bangladesh, but my father is from Pakistan, which led me to know two three languages, Bengali, Urdu, and English. Definitely when I first came to Mankato, I felt like I was playing multiple identities in a day. I would speak on the phone and with people from my community in one language, I would go to class and on campus and speak in another language. Then I also had to talk to relatives in Pakistan in another language! It was very tiring in the beginning. Sometimes it was so overwhelming that I would confuse the voice, comfort, and language I would speak with people on campus in Bengali, and my family at home in English. Now I am used to it. Such changes lead international students to have a lifestyle and source of communication, a character switch on daily basis, and therefore this is the reason why managing dual identities are being mentioned. It is not easy! Gautam (2016) found many international students have problems related to their identities and notion of self, including a sense of having dual personalities. This may prevent international students from being stable and may keep them from venturing out of their comfort zone (Gautam, 2016).
Adaptation and cultural assimilation
International students automatically need to shift from their comfort zone, their culture, and their habits to adjust and adapt to the primary cultural and environment which can be a confusing and frustrating phase. This change can make them mentally and emotionally impacted. Students can have roommates, but they still feel lonely, sharing your space, being independent can be an overwhelming and emotional journey as well. Another example from Gautam’s article, a South Asian participant shared her dorm with other American friends. She informed the researchers that her roommate was from a big city (Gautam, 2016). It was a big contradiction from what she was accustomed to in her home. In her home she had her private restroom and private space. Sharing restrooms was quite a challenge for her, “I had my personal room, and my own attached place. Here if you need to go to the restroom, then you come out of bed, out of your room, and to the hallway. There are those cubicles for the restrooms,” she explained (Gautam, 2016). An African participant revealed that he feels lonely sometimes. He said: “I do not want to disturb others.” The South American participant who stayed alone in an apartment however took it differently saying: “I was very independent, so I never feel lonely. However, when I am so tired, I question myself, what I am doing here? Where am I? But I make good grades. I am back to work again.” (Gautam, 2016). This contradictory and complex feeling will only be felt by students and individuals who travelled abroad and experienced cultural differences. I also felt this as well, when you live abroad at one point, you seemed to be moving away from reality, things you were used to, you must change it and things you never did you would have to get used to that.
Transportation and accommodation
Another factor that was exposed in this article which is also crucial to understand was transportation. When English is a second language and becomes a challenge, it also become an issue to tackle or manage basic things such as transportation, as an example mentioned in the article, “The transportation was a unique challenge that was directly related to the city of this study. There was not a dependable public transportation system available, an issue that was echoed by several participants” (Gautam, 2016). The participants revealed that even though the university does have a transportation system, it does not adequately meet the needs of individual international students. They also highlighted the complications of getting a driver’s license and being accustomed to driving a car. Owning a car was a huge investment for them, which many of them felt they were unable to afford. “Oh, the transportation is the big issue. I stay close to Campus. I cannot go to Wal-Mart. It is far. I go around to Kroger, CVS” (Gautam, 2016). I can connect with this issue very well. Back in 2013 when I first came to campus for my orientation, I got into the wrong bus three times; I was not able to speak or communicate with the people around or the driver. I was shy, scared, confused, and felt helpless. I ended up reaching my home in almost 2 hours whereas I lived 10 minutes away via bus!
Disconnection of international students with the American culture and community
Assisting the students should not be restricted to more exposure to the same community or “their cultural” events. The institution should focus on introducing events and organizations that also allows American students to grow interest to know and assist these students to learn and communicate better with the American culture. Tendency of American educational institutions to teach “good practices” to international students whereas the focus should be more on allowing and helping them adapt to a new environment, “there is a disconnect between what the literature suggests is “good practice” in accommodating international students and the reality of what is happening on U.S. campuses (Özturgut and Murphy, 2009). Research suggests the importance of establishing relationships with international students so that other “good practices” may occur. After conducting an extensive review of the literature and current good practices, the authors concluded that United States (U.S.) institutions of higher education are not “practicing what they preach” when it comes to meeting the needs of international students. They are not using the research to drive practice in accommodating international students (Özturgut and Murphy, 2009).
Discrimination and bias
There are many Americans or host country members who tend to discriminate and create hatred around expressing their concerns about international students taking advantage. This is a myth. This perception is based in bias and the false narrative that international students are taking away financial and economic opportunities. This misconception needs to be erased with giving more awareness to local community as to why the international students come here to learn, to gain better opportunities, and have a better life. This does not mean they are taking away from the local communities, in fact, international students contributions to the US economy are very helpful and important. Özturgut and Murphy (2009) provided statistics that support this assertion, “First, the U.S. economy has declined over the past two years causing significant budget shortfalls in most states. Second, there has been a decrease in international students caused by 9/11 restrictions. This effect hurts the economic health of universities.” Misconceptions such as this definitely made me feel like a minority or being looked down upon so many times that at one point I would emotionally be so frustrated that I would cry or be at home regretting being an international student. This is something I am sure all international students felt at one point in their life.
Psychological adjustment and mental health
Psychological adjustment that people make to their social environment is known as adaptation. Every stage of a person’s life, including childhood, adolescence, middle age, old age, and death, involves psychological adjustment and change, which is the process of adjusting to one’s social environment. Self-acceptance, self-enrichment, satisfaction, happiness, and other outcomes of adaptation can be seen. On the contrary, if adaptation is not successful there can be physical and mental harm and dysfunction (Wilczewski et al., 2022). Some of the psychological adaptation that international students experience include cultural distance. Cultural distance is a measure of cultural similarities and differences. Cultural distance can lead to cross-cultural anxiety. Cross-cultural anxiety is almost a necessary stage for every international student, it is difficult to manage and can cause physical and mental discomfort. For cross-cultural adaptation, cultivating international students’ positive attitude toward life and optimistic quality is critical.
Strategies for Supporting International Students
After going down my memory lane along with my brief literature review, I listed some points which I believe are useful to any individuals who wants to make a difference in the lives of international students.
Strategy #1: Orient New Students
Seek out and learn about the resources and programs your institution has for new international students. For example:
- Identify any specific orientation programs and support resources for new international students and encourage your students to engage with those resources.
- Examples of helpful programs might include:
- Chaperones or mentors with whom they can communicate openly and freely, starting with meeting each other in the airport.
- Help with academic responsibilities and activities.
- Support with accommodation and transportation, for example, finding your new apartment and moving in, assisting with travel and communication to/from campus, at least during the first year.
Strategy #2: Incorporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Perspectives
Consider ways to incorporate DEI perspectives:
- Practice culturally responsive, inclusive, and antiracist instruction in your courses.
- Teach about and address microaggressions. Practice microaffirmations.
- Support, participate, and share awareness programs with students and colleagues so the campus community is able to feel and understand and embrace DEI perspectives about international students, among other DEI topics.
Strategy #3: Advising and Curriculum
Become familiar with courses specifically for international students.
- Advisors and faculty members can become aware of and encourage international students to register for courses designed to support international students.
- Programs and faculty could develop and offer specific classes for international students which specifically guides them in building communications skills to cooperate and adapt not just in classroom but outside the institution too.
Strategy #4: Support Social Connection
Help students make connections:
- Take time to build class community and help students get to know each other.
- Identify and share programs that focus on providing international students with opportunities for social connections and means to attend and make those connections.
- For example, become familiar with student organizations or enhanced transportation efforts on campus and in town.
Strategy #5: Think Outside of Class
Purposefully invite and welcome international students to the campus community outside of class. For example:
- Events. Consider ways your program and department can actively include and invite international students to department, alumni events, etc.
- Hire international students. As your program hires international student workers and teacher’s assistants, consider ways you can leverage onboarding, social events, and other ways to welcome and address the needs of international students in a work setting.
- Address barriers to participation. Some students might be waiting to get a call for alumni or social events, some might know but are not sure if they were invited, some international student may still not able to go because of lack of transportation to these events.
Strategy #6: Translation Options
Even though international students can understand and use English proficiently in class, additional assistance can prevent them from feeling isolated and help them feel more heard.
- Provide information to students to access and use automatic translation services. For example, the free translation features in Microsoft 365 in apps like Word, PowerPoint (turn on subtitles in the language you choose for live auto-translation), and more.
- When possible, provide translators in class to help students feel more confident and included in class.
Strategy #7: Consider Basic Needs
Identify and share campus and community resources with students to support basic needs:
- Food security,
- Personal care/hygiene products,
- Health services, etc.
If you are able, consider providing free snacks and basic school supplies in your classroom, office, and/or department for students.
Strategy #8: Support Mental Health
Support mental health care by sharing resources and programs that offer counselling sessions and other events where international students are able to participate to be more at ease and peace. Identify and share culturally responsive resources and services when available.
Strategy #9: Conduct Research
More qualitative research should be conducted to understand lives of international students. Consider ways to conduct research in this area. You might consider collaborative research with undergraduate and graduate international students to explore these experiences in your department or institution.
Strategy #10: Advocacy
If your institution or department does not yet have these kinds of resources, programs, or curriculum available, advocate for resources to create these supports!
As an international student I have gone through a lot, But I have also learned a lot! I have proudly graduated with my undergraduate degree. And now currently just got done with my second Masters’ degree in Gender and Women’s study from Minnesota State University, Mankato. I am sharing a case story below which talks about my experience as I transitioned from a student to a teaching assistant, and how a supportive mentor, colleagues and mentally staying strong helped me move pass these traumatic incidents. I hope readers can understand, feel, and maybe understand the lives and challenges international students can experience better.
United States of America, the land of freedom, the land of opportunities. I am an international student from Bangladesh. If I am asked about my identity, I identify as a brown female from Bangladesh. Bangladesh being a marginalized country does have a lot of limitations when it comes to education but still, I have been fortunate enough to gain education from one of the best schools in the country. Schools in Bangladesh focus on general subjects to be taught we do not see, we, at least I had no curriculum which taught or discussed microaggression, domestic violence, sex education discrimination or culture shock, this is something whenever a student comes from Bangladesh, or I believe any international student from Southeast Asia would face.
I went to an English Medium school, I am trilingual which gave me a benefit of being raised in an environment which was not as conservative, confused, or strict like majority of the families exist in Bangladesh. My father from a very young age knew the benefit of learning English and exploring all forms of experiences and adventures in life. He would take us private libraries with good access to English books, movies and videos that allowed us to be very used to speaking English and attend events from a very young age. I used to watch a lot of Hollywood movies that helped me understand where I am going and what to expect. But that was never enough. There were so many challenges that I had to deal with on my own, and I was not aware of.
I am very lucky that I was able to face challenges as an international student, as well as an international teacher. I knew what discrimination and isolation was, but definitely I knew it better as I started being part of the University. When I came to Mankato, I was only 19 years old, I was vulnerable, I missed my family and friends back home. The excitement of coming to America slowly faded away whenever I was homesick; the discriminations and culture shock used to make it worse. I have never seen alcohol in my life before coming to America, I was aware but never knew the impact alcohol can have on an individual. When I was Nineteen, I went out late night for some food with my sister and a couple of friends. It was very exciting as I never stayed or went out this late back home. We were having fun, when suddenly a drunk girl came and started saying things to me which I had no idea where it was coming from. She was a white female maybe in her twenties, saying I am brown and illegal and deserve to get out of here, I was so confused where all this was coming from. Before any of us could make a reaction, the girl spat a chewing gum she was chewing right on my hair. I was shocked, my friends who were not new here started having an argument with the group which included the girl, but I was in a state of shock! Later when I went home, I started crying and I was overwhelmed. I had to trim my hair a little bit. Ever since then, I am not confident being around drunk people or just avoid going to places like bars. It was my first time, I knew we had a color, and our color was brown. I knew about black and white, but brown was a new identity, an identity for people of color like me.
Experiences like this kept on happening as a student with me. I understood USA is not as free and liberal as I saw or read about. I became stronger, I learned from my environments. I implemented what I learned from my surroundings and became strong enough to graduate from Minnesota State University, Mankato with a bachelor’s degree in science.
Life was slightly simpler as I came back for my Masters’ degree in Mankato; but this time I faced challenges as a teacher and not a student which was also news to me! I have been working as a teaching assistant for two and half years now, and now I can clearly see how students especially local students segregate my existence as soon as they enter a room. In my first of work as a teaching assistant, I remember my professor had three teaching assistants and I was the only brown one in the cohort. One of the tasks, I had was to take attendance around the class. I was observing my two other colleagues, and it seemed like everybody was cooperative and welcoming. So, I took the strength and went around to assist students and take attendance. The work was going well, till I reached a back bencher, he was a black, male student. I approached him with a smile on my face and asked him if he was doing ok. When he was not responding, I asked again. He looked at me with aggression and snatched the attendance sheet from me. The stare he gave me scared me to death, and I skipped taking attendance for a while. I was scared to tell this to my supervisor because I did not want to cause any trouble or get involved in any legal action. After a week, my supervisor asked me, and I told her everything. When she heard my story, she was upset, and said, “Dear you just faced an incident of microaggression”. I had a lot of questions in my mind, what made him react like this? Was I also not a woman of color? What was of myself that made him angry? Did I make a mistake? I became more self-aware; I started losing self-confidence. I took a few days off; my supervisor helped me go through this and from then sort of understood the different perspectives individuals can have and it is infinite.
International students especially from where I came from, we are not taught culture shock, how to handle life away from home, away from family and friends and how to hand discriminations. When we come here all the way, assistance from campus sources, mandatory mental health counselling and diversity classes can definitely make us feel not excluded and part of a community. Things are much better now, but I really wish the challenges I faced, I had some resources to help me or guide me so that I could be more confident with myself physically and mentally.
Gautam, C., Lowery, C. L., Mays, C., & Durant, D. (2016). Challenges for Global Learners: A Qualitative Study of the Concerns and Difficulties of International Students. Journal of International Students, 6(2), 501–526. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v6i2.368
Özturgut, O., & Murphy, C. (2009). Literature vs. practice: Challenges for international students in the US. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 22(3), 374-385.
Wilczewski, M., Wang, R., Du, J., Søderberg, A. M., Giuri, P., Mughan, T., … & Jacob, M. J. (2022). Cultural novelty and international students’ experience: a five-country study. Higher Education, 1-22.
“US foreign enrolment once again exceeds one million students.” (2023, March 29). ICEF Monitor – Market intelligence for international student recruitment. https://monitor.icef.com/2023/01/us-foreign-enrolment-once-again-exceeds-one-million-students/#:~: