Academics analyzed 400 reflective essays written by international students between 2013 and 2020 and found that six key themes emerged.
Students reflected on cultural, psychological, and academic adjustment, personal growth, and what the researchers called “hybridized identity,” the mismatch between expectations and reality in the U.S., in addition to quality relationships and “common humanity amid differences.”
The research offers university officials recommendations to support student adjustment, well-being and success in and out of the classroom, according to University of Delaware’s Center for Global Programs and Services associate provost Ravi Ammigan.
Ammigan co-authored the paper with Yovana S. Veerasamy of Stony Brook University and Natalie I. Cruz of Emory University.
Research has found that Americans’ inability to “pronounce [international students’] names, lack of outreach by American students, homesickness and the pandemic” have exacerbated cultural differences and affected the psychological well-being of some students.
Some students had to rely on self-efficacy to overcome mental stress, he added.
“From a psychological level, colleges can support international students by developing intentional, adaptable, and student-centered programs and services that address the diverse and changing needs of students across cultural contexts, foster a sense of belonging, and leverage social engagement that leads to new familiarity and friendship,” Ammigan explained.
“Supporting international students should be an initiative and a necessity for the entire campus”
Diversity, equity and inclusion programming, as well as campus safety and security efforts, can address and combat racism, discrimination and xenophobia in addition to promoting students’ emotional well-being, he continued.
Institutions’ crisis management and response plans should include counseling services, student wellness resources and emergency funding, Ammigan suggested.
“Universities need to consider creating a strategic and dedicated communications plan to effectively reach international students, get their feedback, stay in touch with them and optimize their engagement. “International students are often met with the directive ‘Go see the international office’ for any question,” he said.
“The key task of supporting international students cannot fall to the international office alone – it should be a campus-wide initiative and imperative, based on a model of cooperation between academic and non-academic units.”
Other points highlighted by students included feeling like outsiders looking for a new culture and differences in interactions with classmates and teachers. In addition, students with weaker language skills also reported problems with joint tasks.
While the key points the students emphasized did not change over time, concerns about security and political instability “emerged as an issue” that “students found troubling,” according to Ammigan.
“During the pandemic, Asian students have suffered emotionally from a hostile political climate and anti-Asian rhetoric,” he said.
“Adjustment challenges revolved around the fury of the pandemic and the resulting complexities — accessing home country, moving off-campus, adjusting to online learning, etc.”
While studying abroad is “a rewarding experience for the most part,” some students struggle to adapt, he concluded.
“Some struggle to adapt to new university life due to problems stemming from language barriers, cultural differences and misunderstandings, and difficulties in developing local relationships and friendships. Schools can play a critical role in alleviating these concerns and promoting the success of their students,” Ammigan said.
“Even when analyzing hundreds of essays, it is important not to generalize. International students come from culturally complex societies and are just one example of this culture. However, researchers, practitioners and fellow students in higher education can learn a lot from these reflections.”