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Institutions can invest in international students' success through intentional touchpoints and cultural education for campus stakeholders.

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International students contribute a large portion of colleges and universities’ funding; they added $32 billion to the U.S. economy in 2022 alone, according to IIE’s spring 2023 Snapshot on International Educational Exchange.

Despite their prevalence in the systems of higher education, international students’ graduation and success rates are not tracked or reported at a federal level, requiring institutional investment in their outcomes.

International students are valued for their global perspective and cultural diversity on campus, but cultural differences can prove difficult in student services, explains Joshua Sine, vice president of higher education strategy at Qualtrics and previous executive director of Shorelight, a recruitment organization for international students interested in U.S. higher education.

“From the institution’s perspective, a lot of the times it’s like, ‘We’ve got to teach the international students when they get here how to act,’ and in reality, it’s quite different,” Sine says. “We have to train the institution itself to be able to support the students who we’ve invited.”

Challenges come for an institution when it makes international student recruitment a financial priority without interest in the student’s experiences on campus.

“Where you start to see some of the friction points is around, what does that actually mean from an implementation standpoint?” Sine says. “How do we bring folks who have different educational experiences into an environment where we may not be prepared for that relationship?”

Supporting success: Promoting success among international students can include the following actions:

  1. Busting myths. Sometimes international students come in with a misunderstanding of college life in the U.S., guided by Western movies and social media. Other times, international students can be unaware of how big or diverse the U.S. can be, and their reality of college in Missouri varies from the idea of a university in California. “Some of the institutions that draw the biggest international populations are actually quite small, and their financial model is built off that,” Sine says. “The institution has the responsibility on some level to help acclimate students to what that experience will be.”

Proactive communication about academics and educating students on state or city norms can help international students understand and appreciate their college experience.

  1. Building campus cultural competency. Creating an accepting campus culture for international students means cultural competency education for students, faculty, staff and administrators. “Where rubber meets the road is around the institution itself being prepared for new cultures, new dialogues, new languages, new norms, and being able to adjust, adapt and welcome those things in a way that is not patronizing,” Sine says.

UNESCO offers a global citizenship course that can be delivered to faculty and staff to encourage an international perspective among all stakeholders.

Rather than expecting students to meld with their domestic peers, institutions should promote individualization and curiosity across campus.

“College is definitely one of those immersive experiences where you are learning who you are and what you’re doing. But it certainly shouldn’t be an ask for our students to blend in,” Sine says.

  1. Streamlining services. International students face logistical challenges in their college journeys that student support staff can help mitigate. International student services offices are known for helping with documentation, but there remain greater opportunities for assistance in this space. One in five institutions reported students face difficulties with visa status and availability of in-person classes, according to IIE.

Many institutions also offer specific orientation events for international students, allowing them to feel more at home at their college or university prior to classes starting. Picking students up from the airport or prepurchasing dorm bedding can make the move-in process one step smoother.

A first-year experience seminar geared toward international students can promote belonging, unifying students with similar interests and lived experiences, and share additional resources available to them at the institution for academic success.

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