• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


International Students, Support Structures and the Equity Question

It is imperative that institutions provide sufficient support services to facilitate the adjustments international students must make and to give students and scholars an opportunity to articulate their own needs.

January 3, 2016

An implicit assumption is that by pursuing internationalization, colleges and universities become more interconnected and academically rigorous, raise their global consciousness, and access the opportunities presented by globalization. At the same time, however, the concept of internationalization may inadvertently cause certain constituencies to feel less well served. Examples include creating questionable partnerships or joint programs with foreign universities as a strategy to improve college rankings, or recruiting international students who can pay higher fees than most domestic students can afford.

In recent decades, many public and private institutions of higher education in the U.S., including community colleges, have increased their recruitment of international students, especially highly skilled doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars. While international students are often welcomed for the tuition dollars they contribute and the cultural diversity they bring to a campus, institutions vary widely in their capacity to provide international arrivals with the support structures they need to successfully navigate immigration issues, deal with cultural challenges, and succeed academically.

Community colleges and smaller state institutions may lack necessary funding, infrastructure and resources to address the host of challenges incoming international students and scholars present and to manage all of these demands when there is only one lonely professional in the international office. Some institutions with sufficient funding and human resources host an international student scholar services (ISSS) office with a professional team that personally assists international students with the challenges of finding housing, setting up bank accounts, obtaining driver’s licenses, and navigating other tasks to get settled. But even these offices can become overwhelmed.

Additionally, welcoming greater numbers of international students to U.S. campuses in the post 9/11 era means addressing increasingly strict federal compliance guidelines, expanding the immigration related workload that ISSS offices have to deal with considerably. In response, one developing trend is that within some universities, professional schools of Law, Education, Business, Engineering and others have begun to develop their own ISSS offices as a way to manage their internal population of international students. This strategy has extended capacity for some ISSS offices to address urgent adjustment and learning issues as well as to plan cultural and social programs.

The majority of ISSS offices in the U.S. focus mainly on preparing and tracking visa documents to comply with federal immigration regulations. The ISSS offices may simply lack the staff and support to be able to offer more services, even if they wanted to, for reasons of declining budgets or shifting institutional priorities. The international students and scholars, for their part, are then left to grapple with and resolve a host of challenges on their own. Not only must they adjust to an unfamiliar and challenging academic system, but they must also come to terms with a foreign culture that often has low tolerance and may be laden with erroneous assumptions about their country of origin, ethnicity, culture, religion or social status. In many cases, these students come alone, lack nearby family support and may have difficulty forming meaningful friendships. While some international students may find comfort connecting with compatriots, fellow international students, or a local expat community, these inroads take significant time and initiative.

Moreover, many international students and scholars are often viewed as deficient by their domestic peers who do not experience the same types of challenges. Faculty are not always trained to understand international student needs, critical differences in learning styles, academic expectations, and abilities, or different conventions for writing, citing research, or asserting themselves easily as American peers might in class.

If we indeed value an internationalized learning environment as we claim to do, these inequities must be addressed. While various articles have discussed different issues related to support for international students and scholars, they reach conflicting conclusions about the levels of support international students at community colleges, undergraduate colleges and universities, and graduate institutions receive. While there are some exemplary cases of support for international students at some institutions, these colleges and universities by no means serve the majority of international students who come to the U.S. each year. Many international students simply do not receive a level of support commensurate with the difficulties they will experience. What is clear, is that adjustment to a new academic system is very difficult and that services on campus vary. There is also broad agreement that faculty and other units on campus need more training and support to understand the challenges that international students face and to help them feel integrated.

We advocate that more attention be paid to this issue and that more research be undertaken to determine not only the scope of support that currently exists but also to know what additional support is needed in order to host international students responsibly. To do this, there are numerous questions we should to be asking, including: What is the nature of the support that students and scholars currently receive? Who determines the type of support and how do they gage whether it is sufficient? It is also important to give students and scholars an opportunity to articulate their own needs so that institutions can align services appropriately. It is imperative that institutions provide sufficient support services to facilitate the adjustments that international students must make to settle into a foreign country and succeed academically. If campuses respond, this will begin to create truly internationalized campus.


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Anita Gopal is a postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Maryland, College Park and Bernhard Streitwieser is an Assistant Professor in International Education at The George Washington University.


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