The International-Friendly Campus

At NAFSA conference, international education administrators and scholars discuss ways to help foreign students feel a greater sense of belonging.

May 30, 2014

SAN DIEGO – At Ohio State University the number of undergraduate international students has skyrocketed in the last 10 years, growing from 1,360 to 3,345, with the majority of that increase involving students from China.

With that growth came growing pains. “About four years ago we began to hear what, for lack of a better word, I’m just going to call it a ruckus,” Gifty Ako-Adounvo, director of Ohio State’s international students and scholars office, said Thursday in a session here on creating an “international student-friendly campus.” The session was part of the  annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “All of a sudden, we were getting all of these calls from faculty saying, 'I have all of these [international] students in my class and they’re not ready,' etc., etc.”

“And then in addition we were hearing from students that they were not feeling as welcome as they thought they would be when they came to Columbus,” Ako-Adounvo said.

Her office joined with the Office of Student Life to survey international students about their experiences, and the results, Ako-Adounvo said, were likely to be familiar to many of the international educators: students asked for more opportunities for guided social interactions, additional academic support – writing support in particular – and more preparation regarding the culture and expectations of the American classroom (notably, Ako-Adounvo said, her office was finding that international students were disproportionately represented in academic misconduct cases compared to their American counterparts).

International students at Ohio State also talked about wanting to build a better sense of belonging.

While students rated their experiences over all as good, satisfactory, they did not report a high sense of belonging,” Ako-Adounvo said. “This concerned us because the institution is really looking at how to create an exceptional experience for all our students, so if we had almost 10 percent of the student body, give or take, saying they didn’t really feel like they belonged – well, that was a problem, and we had to do something about it.”

What to do about it was a major theme here at the NAFSA conference. Among the strategies Ohio State tried were creating a pre-departure orientation for students in China and an airport welcome program. The university also expanded its cross-cultural programming to try to respond to the students’ desire for more guided social interactions. “The great part of it was that they wanted to make friends with American students, so we brought American students and international students together in very deliberate ways in smaller programs to create learning opportunities,” Ako-Adounvo said, noting, for example, that Ohio State sponsors excursions, conversation groups and student leadership programs.

Bringing international and domestic students together was likewise a theme in a presentation given earlier in the day by Joe D. Potts, associate dean of international programs at Purdue University.  “We wanted the answers to some basic questions: Are they interacting with one another, are they making friends? What do they think about their interactions with one another?” he said.

Purdue surveyed 11,000 of its domestic students and 4,000 international students. Among the findings: only 5 percent of Chinese students reported having an American student as one of their five closest friends. Similarly roughly 5 percent of American students reported having an international student among their five closest friends.

“Looking at Chinese students specifically, which is important because we have so many students from China, Chinese students were generally satisfied with their interactions with American students,” Potts said. The same was true for American students: “Chinese students and American students mostly were neutral about their interactions with one another, but in general satisfied or very satisfied, which was surprising [as] there doesn’t seem to be that much interaction going on," Potts said.

So, how do you motivate students to change the status quo? Or, “How do you get students to be less satisfied with what they’re currently satisfied with?” Potts asked prompting laughter from the audience. “We haven’t figured it out but we know that getting students involved in positive experiences with one another and activities together is helpful.”

Potts also described a need to get all the various offices on campus involved with integration efforts – not just the international student office – and to provide resources for those efforts (at Purdue those resources come from a $2,000 tuition surcharge that international students pay). Potts gave a long list of areas that Purdue has invested in with an eye toward better-serving international students, including advising, counseling (in the form of foreign language-speaking counselors), writing services, faculty/instructional support, first-year mentoring, orientation and registration, residence life, and career services.

A report released by NAFSA earlier this week on improving international student retention identified improved career services to be a top desire on the part of international students. 

“Collaboration is big,” said Ako-Adounvo, of Ohio State. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when you have colleagues who do particular things for a living; you can just collaborate with them.”

In addition to those international education administrators who shared some of the practical strategies they’re trying to improve integration and acculturation on campus, several scholars spoke Thursday about the research they’ve done on international student adjustment issues. Kenneth Wang, an assistant professor in counseling psychology at the University of Missouri, presented on an “International Friendly Campus Scale" he co-created. 

“In our research on international students, we don’t often measure how friendly they perceive the campuses [to be]," Wang said. "We often look at individual factors: is it their personality, is it their language proficiency, is it their self-efficacy, their acculturation. We attribute it to the individual, to the international student himself, but not so much in terms of the environment. I thought this would be a good opportunity to measure the friendliness of the environment that international students are in because we believe that the environment has a huge impact on international student adjustment.”

The scale asks students about 1) their perceptions of the services offered by the international student services office 2) their social engagement (including their friendships with American and other international students), 3) perceptions of academic support (do they feel comfortable talking with faculty about academic issues when needed or do faculty make an effort to understand the difficulties international students may face), 4) identification with the institution and 5) experiences of discrimination. In a sample of 501 international students at Missouri, Wang found that identification with the institution was the factor most strongly correlated with life satisfaction and positive affect, whereas negative affect was strongly associated with a lack of academic support and feelings of discrimination.

In a presentation on factors impacting academic success and social adjustment of international students, Chris R. Glass, an assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University, stressed the critical role that faculty play in helping international students succeed. He reported that in open-ended interviews a large majority of international students said that professors played a significant role in their educational and personal development, “and not just in terms of class content but in terms of their long-term academic success as well as their sense of belonging at the institution," Glass said.

“What we found is that at pivotal moments where maybe a student is struggling and a professor responds with cultural sensitivity, it has transformative effects,” Glass said. “We have examples…of that not happening in the classroom as well and that have equally deleterious effects for students’ sense of self and academic outcomes.”

Glass also emphasized the value of inter-group dialogue in the classroom, “so even if a student may not have a deep friendship with a U.S. peer, there is meaningful interaction that goes on across cultures. It’s not just the content of the class, it’s the way the instructor structures the class for interaction.”

He quoted one international student, a female undergraduate student from Eastern Europe, to this end: “One of my professors, Dr. [Professor], what he does is he makes us sit at different places every class so we get to talk to pretty much everybody in the class over the semester. At first everybody is like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that! That’s going to suck.’ But then we really formed a cohesive group because of that. I love that.”

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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