At Home on Campus, Not in Country

Many international students feel at home on their college campuses, but have a low sense of belonging in the U.S. and problems making the transition to American culture, a survey finds.
April 6, 2011

Dozens of student affairs officials turned up for a session last week at the American College Personnel Association's annual convention, where survey results from eight American colleges showed that many international students -- despite becoming a larger presence on campuses every year -- still struggle with discrimination and are unsatisfied by the degree to which student services helped them make the transition to the cultural and educational systems of the United States.

Peter Mather, an Ohio University assistant professor of higher education and student affairs, and a recent Ohio doctoral graduate, Bethany Schweitzer, along with Gunter Morson, head of higher education and careers at England's CATS College, set out to understand international students' process of applying to universities abroad, as well as their expectations for college and how their initial expectations compared with their actual experience when they got here. Another focus was how student services assisted this population in their process of adjusting to American college life.

The researchers invited 100 colleges of differing size, location and public/private status to take part in the survey, but only eight volunteered, with 73 participating international students representing 32 countries. While Schweitzer, Mather and Morson are still conducting follow-up interviews to get more details about the reasoning behind students' responses, they took a break to present their findings to date at the ACPA convention.

"When we started the process, we hoped our findings would help student affairs professionals understand the international student," Schweitzer said in an e-mail interview. Among the main issues students face, the survey found, are social and academic adjustment, isolation, racial climate and political ideology. (The crowd at the ACPA session had a good laugh over one student's response that the biggest adjustment to life in the United States has been "Republicans.") They also frequently mentioned unfamiliar food, the weather, and capitalism; many Asian students, in particular, were troubled by the cold weather in the Northeast.

And that's a potential problem for a lot of students. Nearly half of all international students in the U.S. are now coming from Asia, according to last year's annual Open Doors report; China, India and South Korea are the three top-sending countries, together exporting more than 300,000 students. The report also showed that the number of international students studying in the United States -- 690,923, to be exact -- was at an all-time high in 2009-10, when the latest data were collected. (Despite that record, the rate of increase shrank to 2.9 percent, the lowest in four years, likely because of economic stagnation.) International students now make up 3.5 percent of total U.S. enrollment.

With more international students than ever studying in the U.S., colleges must offer the resources to support them, said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, which publishes the Open Doors report, in an e-mail. "International student services professionals provide valuable services to the students on their campuses," he said. "As the international student population grows, campuses need to be sure that student services providers across the campus are also offering the appropriate services to students from other cultures, to help ensure they have a successful experience while they are here.

"It is important that students receive the support they need before, during and after their study experience in the United States," Goodman said, "and not just while they are on campus."

But survey respondents were mostly split on whether student services had helped them make the transition to living in the U.S., and some had more trouble than others. "I had a difficult time adjusting to the U.S. culture and educational system," one international student said. "I thought it would be cheaper and I made no friends. I asked for help at the office of International students and I was sent to the counseling services. The counselor sent me to the psych ward because she thought I was suicidal -- which was not true. It has been a very dramatic experience that schools should consider when having international students." (The survey also found that, before applying to colleges, only 40 percent of respondents had investigated the amount of personal support they would receive as international students.)

Another student said, "The office helped in all administrative matters, but nothing more. Please, do not get me wrong: they were very helpful, but they did not help in my transition from Mexican to American culture." And for many students, that transition was more visceral than administrative. “I am still struggling with emotion and impulse control,” one student said. “In Eastern Europe it is quite normal to behave emotionally, independently from rationality, and now I find it rather difficult to suppress that almost inborn trait.”

There were more positive notes, too; some said organized events such as lectures and orientation programs were most helpful in connecting students and providing insight into American culture and education. And students were generally happy with the quality of teaching at their respective colleges, with most rating their satisfaction a four out of five.

The top three student services that respondents had used on their campuses were student activities, career services and the international education office. Counseling and psychological services came in fifth, and Greek life was last, with zero students participating.

The institutions that distributed the survey were Arizona State and Boston Universities, Earlham College in Indiana, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Fordham University in New York, and Georgetown, Northeastern, and Ohio Universities. (Two of the three states that receive the most international students -- California, New York and Texas -- are not represented on this list.)

While many respondents felt a strong sense of belonging at their respective colleges -- most rated their sense of belonging as a five out of five and their overall satisfaction with their college as a four out of five -- their sense of belonging in the U.S. as a whole was significantly lower, with more students rating it as a two or three. That, along with the "very candid responses" students gave to the open-ended questions, surprised Schweitzer and her colleagues.

Most international students said they applied to U.S. colleges because of career prospects, reputation or location, but 36 percent said there was something they wished they had known about living in the U.S. before they came here. "I wish I had known the difference between Latin Americans and [North] Americans when making friends," one student said. "I was never able to date because it is a different process and I went through a lot of pain and frustration. I thought I was different and I was being alienated from the people who are my age, but I think it is just something you have to know." The same student also noted "the discrimination to Hispanics. I have seen it." Only one-fifth of students in the survey also applied to colleges outside the U.S.

Asked what criteria would be most important if students were to repeat the process of choosing a college, they again said reputation and location, but also noted the importance of “one that pays a good stipend and provides practical opportunities for students,” and -- reiterating their concerns about professors’ high expectations and emphasis on grades – “a more open-minded curriculum – a more free curriculum that does not weigh very much grades on the core curriculum."

Going forward, Schweitzer said she and her colleagues hope to interview enough students “to get to a level of saturation,” and they would like input from students who did not participate in the survey, as well.


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