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International College Students: Challenges and Solutions

Research shows that college is challenging for international students.

Key points

  • For international students, language barriers may keep them from feeling comfortable with other students and faculty.
  • Social and cultural differences and racial and ethnic discrimination often pose significant stress for international students.
  • College campuses thrive when there are diverse poulations that support inclusion. University leadership should find ways to foster belonging.
seventyfour images/Envato Elements
Source: seventyfour images/Envato Elements

co-authored by Mireya Nadal-Vincens

College campuses are an ideal place to learn from others. While we can read about different cultures, there is no better way to truly understand their rich diversity than by living and studying together. Learning from international students is personal and interactive. It is often an important part of a college education but not often discussed.

Being an international student is not always easy. International students can experience challenges in several areas, including language barriers, academics, social and cultural differences, discrimination, financial stressors, and mental health concerns. These are not easy problems to overcome but can be tackled by the education community.

Challenges for International College Students

Language Barriers

  • Engaging in Conversations. Many international students have studied English in their native countries but may be less familiar with slang and the fast pace at which their peers and professors speak. For example, using prepositions to create compound verbs is particularly challenging (e.g., turn in, turn up, turn down, turn away). These can make both understanding and speaking in conversations difficult.
  • Reluctance to Ask for Clarification. Many international students will not ask others to explain what they mean out of fear of offending them or increasing their own insecurity. Their lack of understanding may be viewed negatively by peers or professors. And if they sense a negative response, many are even more reluctant to ask for explanations. The result is that their self-esteem may be lowered.

Academic Challenges

  • Written Assignments. International students may be unfamiliar with doing research and academic writing or with the format of assignments at a U.S. university. Many countries value memorization of a common fact base over the personalized interpretation of material favored by U.S. higher education institutions.
  • Classroom Difficulties. The emphasis placed on classroom discussions will disadvantage international students whose speaking of English is not fully spontaneous. The discussion format in which various points of view are debated is at odds with formats used in other countries where “correct answers” are expected. In many cultures, it would be considered disrespectful to counter or debate a professor’s opinion, whereas, in the U.S., students who can debate well are valued with top marks. In some countries, grading is weighted heavily towards final exams, as opposed to the emphasis placed on classroom participation and utilization of office hours. Students seeking out professors or teaching assistants are typically graded higher. In contrast, in some cultures, the norm is to respect the higher status of faculty as off-limits, which would keep students from approaching them in more informal contexts. Some students may also have trouble taking notes or giving oral presentations.

Social and Cultural Differences

  • Social Isolation. International students miss home, like all students, but are usually only able to return twice a year as opposed to the more frequent visits that are typical, especially for first-year students. In addition, time zone differences make calling home at convenient times more challenging. Students come with fewer possessions, meaning their spaces are less personalized. They are naturally outsiders, sharing fewer common activities with their roommates, such as sports teams or extracurricular activities. In addition, their holidays are not always acknowledged in the U.S. system, and they may not have any attachments to the holidays observed here. They will naturally gravitate to others from their own cultures, but those groups are usually small, further isolating them from fully integrating with their roommates or classmates. International students, so far from their own families, friends, language, and social and cultural norms, may avoid social situations.
  • Culture Shock. Often, international students are not prepared for the culture of American college campuses, such as co-ed dorms, informal relationships with “authority figures” such as professors or college leaders, and differences in food and alcohol in social settings and community events. Openness around sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity can also be uncomfortable if they came from cultures where these behaviors and identities are taboo. How Americans eat while not seated at meals is also considered rude by some other cultures.


  • Racial and Ethnic Prejudice. International students can be perceived as outsiders and feel marginalized in class and social settings. Those lacking complete fluency in English or with more obvious accents are often treated as intellectually challenged. There is prejudice against markings or headdresses identifying membership in religious or ethnic groupings.
  • Stereotyping. International students are often misunderstood and subject to false assumptions about their native culture. The American high school education system does not normally expose students to a real-life understanding of cultures in other countries outside of history or social studies coursework. American teens may only be aware of historical stereotypes of cultures they have not encountered. In addition, there are several complexities of ethnic minorities, persecuted groups, and cross-border tensions between countries that are often not presented to American students.

It would be a great addition to our secondary and college educational curricula if students from other countries and cultures could talk about their native traditions, holidays, religions, foods, clothing, and family relationships. Sharing personal narratives is probably the best way for students to appreciate and respect cultural differences through conversations with their peers.

Financial Difficulties

  • Getting Loans and Jobs. It is difficult to get student loans or a U.S. credit card without a U.S. Social Security number or a credit history. Additionally, international student visas do not allow them to have jobs unless they are co-sponsored by their college or university.
  • Pressure to Achieve. Because of the high tuition and room and board costs, many international students feel extra pressure to excel academically. They may feel obliged to their families to limit their majors to those considered practical or lucrative and may not be encouraged to explore the full range of possible careers.

Psychological Difficulties

  • Emotional Difficulties. One of the most profound problems for international students is homesickness. This is compounded by academic, social, cultural, and financial pressures, potentially resulting in excessive stress, anxiety, and depression. There is often a conflict between their emotional struggles and the expectation that they should feel privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad.
  • Failure to Access Mental Health Services. Though at increased risk for psychological problems, many international students do not seek mental health services. This is often due to stigma, as mental health concerns can be incongruent with their cultural norms and expectations. In addition, students may be unaware of mental health services provided on campus or not feel comfortable discussing their emotions or “complaining.”

What Can You Do as an International Student?

  • Access College Resources. Many resources can help international students navigate the academic system, like writing and learning centers. Advisors can guide students to mental health programs, service-learning, and work-study. International student organizations can also assist in acclimating to college culture.
  • Talk With Other International Students. Sharing experiences, working through issues, and discussing solutions with other international students can be helpful and cathartic. In addition, larger cities often have formal or informal groups for visitors and residents from a particular country, allowing gatherings with compatriots.
  • Use Host Families. Many universities have host families sorted by countries of origin, or alumni from those countries can be identified and serve as informal mentors.
  • Seek Family Support. Most international students report that emotional support from their families at home is most helpful. There are also opportunities for support from family members living in the U.S. and homestay families.

What Can Allies Do?

  • Welcome Diversity. Confront your assumptions about people from different cultures. Try to appreciate their backgrounds with curiosity and acceptance.
  • Advocate for Safe Spaces. International students need places on campuses to freely discuss their concerns and experiences of discrimination and seek support from others in similar situations.
  • Treat all People with Respect. Be open to learning from students about their diverse backgrounds, and don’t judge others based on their different experiences.
  • Advocate for Cultural Competency and Sensitivity Training. This should include mental health first aid training programs. These programs benefit faculty, staff, and students alike.

All students benefit from a campus that is welcoming to international students. It is a mutual responsibility to help foster inclusion and make campuses a place where everyone feels accepted. Above all, getting to know individuals from other parts of the world is enriching and fun.

A version of this post was published by the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

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