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Let’s jump right in. An international student who might have traveled across the globe to study in the United States might have to cope with a bunch of things which are ‘new’.

Here’s a short list:

  • country
  • language
  • academic subjects
  • method of writing assignments
  • teaching methodology
  • lack of financial stability
  • currency
  • food
  • ways to travel
  • culture
  • job scene

Collectively international students are America’s ‘golden goose’ with $39 billion in revenue flowing in from more than 1 million foreign students in US educational  institutions. All this is fine and dandy, but if the goose is unhappy it’s soon going to stop laying the golden eggs.

Breaking the ice

Some universities have ‘buddy programs’ to help integrate international students which helps them negotiate the ‘foreign’ part in their education via the local buddy they are paired with. This helps them get familiar with the new place and speeds up their process of feeling ‘at home’. Then there are groups like International Friendships which help foreign students find their feet, with something as difficult as learning English or as as simple as finding a suitably priced mattress. Sometimes these friendships, based on a foundation of equal parts empathy, curiosity and interest in other cultures, might grow to become long-lasting and deep.

The challenges

It’s easy to make friends when one is still toddling in and out of the sand-box in diapers;  however, for international students this could be one of the hardest mountains to climb, given their disparate backgrounds. Frequently, they might come up against prejudices and biases amongst local students and staff that they might not even comprehend, let alone have the ability to deal with. To be fair to locals, it might just take a conversation or two to clear things up. But then language might be another deep and impassable moat.  

A yearning for home might make international students cluster with students from a similar ethnic background leaving them monocultural and closed to local friendships. This might mitigate their anxiety about the unfamiliar, but the other side of the coin is the marginalization of the student, and the chauvinism which might become deeply entrenched in their personalities. Also, when a group always hangs out together, a local student who might want to befriend one of them might hesitate about approaching the clique. But then this is a problem however you look at it. An international student will be even more hesitant to approach a clique of locals.

The alternative is not to give up one’s culture completely in lieu of the foreign one. This has its own problems because they fail to keep the good things they have been brought up with, rendering international students alien to their own milieu, when they return. Not to forget the trauma when local integration does not happen deeply; they will neither have their cultural moorings nor the anchor of the local culture.

It makes sense to find the right balance to become multicultural. This helps the international student maximize their education with intellectual, cultural and emotional equanimity; easier said than done.

Why friendship is important

The goal of multicultural campuses is to build a vibrant community with an interest in helping all of them become cross-cultural representatives. This widens a student’s world view, helps them perceive other viewpoints, builds in them an interest in diverse peoples, and makes them tolerant of ‘other’s ways’, which in turn benefits communities they eventually move into. After all, the basic building block of multicultural societies is friendship and respect between individuals.

Finding friends can be hard within the same milieu; much harder when everything is foreign. However, there is no alternative to friendship. Students could develop sociological, psychological, emotional, physical or cultural problems from living an isolated life but, the worst nightmare for a hard working student would be pathetic academic grades. Friendship can never be overemphasized because it’s the easiest route to integrate into a foreign society, which in turn will help international students make the best of their educational sojourn.  

5 simple ways local students can help build friendships

This is no master list, just ‘commonsensical’ things locals students could do to extend a helping hand to the international student :

  1. Engage international students in conversations wherever possible. This will make them feel welcomed and it’ll help improve their communication skills. Tell them about the processes at the University.
  2. Talk to them about local places to buy clothes and ethnic food. Take them there the first few times as there might be transport issues.
  3. Introduce them to college writing in case they need tutoring, or the subscription models available for  homework help.
  4. Tell them about people and helplines they can approach for help, in case of any distress.
  5. If you feel they are stressed about something, try and ask them about it. If you cannot make any headway, speak to someone who is in a better position to offer help.

5 simple ways international students can help build friendships

  1. Engage locals in conversation. Take lessons in English. Do not be dismissive when locals ask questions which have obvious answers. Perhaps it’s a local who has poor conversational skills, but is trying!
  2. Ask for help if you have trouble with academics, understanding University processes, sourcing things, etc.
  3. In case you feel you are being harassed, talk to someone to understand what to do. Is it a cultural thing? Is it serious enough to warrant official help?
  4. If you are a group of ethnic friends, introduce them to the local friends you’ve made. Include locals when you have cultural gatherings. Ask them to bring their friends over.
  5. Most importantly, if you spot friction, that you know is plain misunderstanding, step in and help both sides understand.

Our universities have an illustrious history of welcoming the finest students from all over the world. They have created spaces of invigorating academic rigor. After an explosion in the number of international students over many years, there is a small troubling decline in graduate applications. As other countries woo international students, it’s time to make our campuses more welcome with our diversity and warm friendships.

Author Bio: Sophia Sanchez is a newbie online ESL/EFL instructor. She is a passionate educator and blogs about education on her personal blog. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When Sophia is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking.


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