On-boarding international college students

The five biggest challenges international students face and how colleges and universities are helping them to adjust

Colleges and universities are ramping up services for international freshmen and sophomores as administrators increasingly look abroad to further diversify their campuses and to expand enrollment with students who pay full tuition.

International students face adjustments in and outside of the classroom—from unanticipated language barriers to stricter standards of academic integrity to joining the campus community. “The biggest mistake administrators make is that they think their job ends once they’ve recruited the students,” says Diann Newman, assistant dean for student services at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, which has about 800 international students. “Their responsibility is to keep the students engaged in the program, and not to underestimate the level of adjustment.”

Here are five top challenges of adjusting to U.S. higher education—and how administrators at institutions of all sizes are supporting foreign students.

1. Breaking down barriers

Regardless of students’ TOEFL scores or other indications of English fluency, the language barrier can be a major challenge in and outside the classroom, says Sandra Lemons, associate director for student services in the Office of International Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“Once they come, they still struggle because of the colloquial use of the English language and the speed at which classes may be delivered, or the overwhelming amount of reading and writing they’re expected to do,” Lemons says. “Sometimes, their lack of confidence in using English causes them to be withdrawn in class or withdrawn in terms of reaching out and getting involved and making friends.”

Quick tips for helping international students adjust

  • Class participation: During orientation, make sure international students understand part of their grades may depend on it. Allow them opportunities to practice in informal settings and ask professors to give students time to adjust.
  • Speaking English: Provide opportunities to have regular conversations with native speakers. Consider giving them writing assignments during orientation.
  • Academic integrity: Some international students need guidance on how to properly cite sources in academic work.
  • Mentoring: Recruit seniors and juniors—both domestic and international—to mentor freshmen.
  • Outreach: Allow students to visit local schools and community groups to talk about their home countries.
  • Campus life: Organize campus events where domestic and international students can share their cultures—especially food and games.
  • Relations with faculty: Students from some countries need to know they can ask questions of instructors, attend office hours and even address professors by their first names.

IUPUI, which enrolls about 30,000, runs a mandatory summer bridge program for its approximately 1,800 international students. The program takes place the two weeks before the first year of classes and involves basic writing assignments and oral presentations. “Because it’s a small group and only international students, they start to gain confidence in participating and speaking up,” Lemons says.

A program being launched at Winona State University in Minnesota will provide more opportunities to practice English outside the classroom. Each international student will be paired with a domestic student for regular conversations and social activities, says Kemale Pinar, director of international services. Winona State counts about 300 internationals from 45 countries out of its enrollment of 8,800.

“Even when students are exceptionally fluent in English in their country,” Pinar says, “when they come to the U.S. they find their English level is always going to be a little lower than what they thought.”

2. Class participation and plagiarism

Participating more in class is one of the biggest adjustments for these students, say administrators at many campuses. “There are a lot of cultures and education systems where you don’t ask questions of professors or teachers in high school because it’s a sign of disrespect,” says Emily Givens, director of transitional programs at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., which has about 1,600 undergraduates and around 200 internationals.

These students are told during orientation how important it is to participate in class and attend office hours to ask questions. Administrators also encourage Drury professors to be patient while international students adjust to new expectations, she adds.

At Grinnell College in Iowa—where about 200 out of its nearly 1,700 students are from foreign countries—professors gather with small groups during orientation to discuss how faculty and students in the U.S. work together on more of an equal footing. This includes, for instance, students using instructors’ first names, says Karen Edwards, associate dean and director of the office of international student affairs.

“It’s fairly common for students from abroad to struggle with the issue of ‘power distance’—that’s the concept of how you build relationships with a faculty advisor and how approachable a faculty member is,” she says, explaining that some international students are used to more hierarchical systems where they cannot develop personal relationships with instructors.

Another top academic challenge is the American standard of academic integrity, says Eric Fry, the director of the INTO center at Marshall University in West Virginia. INTO runs “pathway” programs on several campuses throughout the U.S. for students who need extra assistance with English before fully matriculating into the institution.

“We make sure students understand how academics in America cite the sources they use,” says Eric Fry, whose program at Marshall has about 200 students. “We’re also making sure they independently do homework instead of doing it as a group—in some countries that’s common practice. We want student to produce original ideas.”

3. Advising and mentoring

Institutions are enhancing their international advising and mentoring programs to assist with academic struggles and other challenges. Peer mentors at IUPUI, for instance, work in teams of three to advise groups of 10 international students each. The mentors come from all different countries and degree programs, says Lemons, of the school’s international affairs office.

“The mentors are supporting new students throughout their entire first year, in terms of their academic, social and cultural adjustments,” says Lemons. The program puts a special focus on getting international students involved in leadership positions in campus organizations, she adds.

At Texas Tech University, private counseling for international students is a high priority, says Tracy Tindle, the international community coordinator. Texas Tech has about 1,800 international students from 114 countries, out of a total enrollment of 33,000.

“Many cultures stigmatize counseling to a high degree,” he says. “Whenever we say that it’s a confidential service, we have to reiterate that in a number of ways so the students know that we’re serious—that, in this culture, whatever you say is confidential.”

Edwards, at Grinnell, says international students who often consider themselves adventurous are shocked to find they are homesick after a few months in the U.S. Advisors help students stay connected to home by encouraging them to visit local schools to talk about their culture. And in Grinnell’s alternative language program—which combines self-instruction and peer tutoring— internationals have even taught for-credit classes in their native tongues that aren’t in the school’s regular curriculum.

“Our most successful international students are able to manage this idea that they’ve got an identity of, for example, a woman from Zimbabwe but they also have the identity of a student at Grinnell College,” she says, “and find joy in both.”

4. Campus life

Outside the classroom, some institutions are adding social programs and other cultural activities to help international students feel that they’re part of a community and also get to know their domestic classmates.

Oregon State University, which has an INTO center and about 3,500 international students, has done this through its housing program. OSU’s 148,000-square-foot International Living-Learning Center, which opened two years ago, has 350 dorm beds for both domestic and international students. The residence hall also has as an international food market, a coffee shop and a multifaith room where students can come together. “The whole goal of this enterprise is to have integration with domestic students from day one,” says Amy McGowan, director of the university’s INTO center.

At Marshall, dining halls in recent years have increased halal, vegetarian, noodle and rice dishes. One residence hall with a lot of international students added a large kitchen where all students can share cultural dishes. And one of Marshall’s most popular integration programs has to do with dating on American campuses. International students learn the social cues to help avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding, says Fry.

“‘Let’s do lunch’ can have many different meanings, depending on where the person asking is from and where the person being invited is from,” he says.

At the University of Southern Illinois, which enrolls about 18,000, including 1,700 internationals, there is a special focus on females and spouses, says Elaine Conrad, the community and educational programs coordinator at the school’s Center for International Education.

An international women’s friendship group is run by domestic students and meets every week. There’s also an international women’s support group and mother-care program for international students or wives who are pregnant.

“Many of our students express that something that is extremely important to them is making American friends—we try to assist in that area,” Conrad says.

5. Legal requirements

Along with the initial visa process, international students have to navigate a wide range of regulations pertaining to work and maintaining their immigration status. Texas Tech has staff dedicated to ensuring neither students nor the institution violate any immigration regulations.

“There are some confusing processes in the various steps a student needs to go through to work with various government agencies,” Tindle says.

Typical international students can work 20 hours per week on campus during the school year, but can also apply for a “hardship work visa” to work off campus. They can work full-time on campus during summer break. Tindle’s department also helps students follow rules pertaining to internships and the national “optional practical training” program that allows them to work in a field related to their majors for up to a year after graduation.

Abby Van Vlerah, dean of students at Long Island University, says her office makes sure international students understand that poor academic performance has impact beyond the classroom. The university has 726 internationals among its 8,000 students.

Mentors for LIU’s international students can pay closer attention because they serve about 150 students each (compared to 350 to 400 for domestic students), Van Vlerah says. “International students have to be showing satisfactory progress in all of their courses. If they fail a course, that can affect their visa status; if they withdraw from a course, that significantly affects their visa status,” she says. “Knowing those ins and outs is very important.”

Grinnell’s Edwards says the better job the institution does at helping students comply with these logistics, the less likely it is to be a source of stress. “That’s probably 60 to 70 percent of what I do. My hope is if we’re doing it well as an institution, it won’t make the students radar as a struggle.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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