Academics analysed 400 reflection essays written by international students between 2013 and 2020, and found six key themes emerged.
Students reflected on cultural, psychological as well as academic adjustment, personal growth and what researchers called “hybridised identity”, the mismatch of expectation and reality in the US, in addition to quality relationships and ‘common humanity amid differences’.
The research offers university officials recommendations to support the adjustment, wellbeing and success of students both inside and outside the classroom, according to associate provost at the Center for Global Programs & Services at University of Delaware, Ravi Ammigan.
Ammigan co-authored the paper with Yovana S. Veerasamy from Stony Brook University and Natalie I. Cruz from Emory University.
The research found that the inability of Americans to “pronounce [international students’] names, lack of outreach by American students, homesickness, and the pandemic” exacerbated cultural differences and impacted some students’ psychological wellbeing.
Some students had to rely on self-efficacy to overcome mental stress, it added.
“From a psychological level, HEIs can support international students by developing intentional, adaptable, and student-centred programs and services that address the different and changing needs of students across cultural contexts, foster a sense of belonging, and harness social engagement that leads to new acquaintances and friendships,” Ammigan explained.
“Supporting international students should be a campus wide initiative and imperative”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion programming, as well as campus safety and security efforts can address and combat racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, in addition to supporting the emotional wellbeing of students, he continued.
Institutions’ crisis management and response plans should include counselling services, student wellness resources, and emergency funding, Ammigan suggested.
“HEIs must consider establishing a strategic and dedicated communication plan to effectively reach, seek feedback from, liaise with, and optimise engagement among international students. International students are often met with the directive ‘Go see the international office’ for any issue,” he said.
“The critical task to support international students cannot fall only on the international office – it should be a campus wide initiative and imperative, built on a collaborative model of programming from both academic and non-academic units.”
Other points that students highlighted included feeling like outsiders looking into a new culture, and differences in interactions with fellow students and teachers. Additionally, those students with weaker language proficiency also indicated issues with collaborative assignments.
While key points students highlighted did not change over time, concerns around safety and political instability “did surface as an issue”, according to Ammigan, which “students found to be unsettling”.
“During the pandemic, Asian students suffered emotionally from an unwelcoming political climate and anti-Asian rhetoric,” he said.
“Adjustment challenges revolved around the wrath of the pandemic and its ensuing complexities – access to home country, moving off campus, adjusting to online instruction etc.”
While studying overseas is “for the most part an enriching experience”, some students struggle to adjust, he concluded.
“Some struggle to adjust to their new university life due to challenges stemming from language barriers, cultural differences and misunderstandings, and difficulty in developing relationships and friendships locally. Campuses can play a vital role in ease these concerns and supporting the success of their students,” Ammigan said.
“Even when analysing hundreds of essays, it is important not to make generalisations. International students come from culturally complex societies, and they are but one example of that culture. However, scholars, practitioners, and fellow students in higher education can learn much from these reflections.”