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Adjusting To American Universities

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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International students may notice when they first arrive on campus that everyone appears to be friendly to everyone else. People may smile and say hello and ask such questions as "How are you?" But that question is meant as a statement rather than a question. And it may appear odd to the international student when the speaker does not wait for an answer, thus seeming rude or insincere.


The posting below looks at some of the issues facing the assimilation of international students on American college campuses. It is from the section, Adjusting to American Universities of Chapter 3, Preparing International Students for a Successful Social Experience in Higher Education, by Jan Guidry Lacina in Internationalizing Higher Education: Building Vital Programs on Campuses, Bruce W. Speck, Beth H. Carmical, editors. Published by JOSSEY-BASS, A Wiley Company, San Francisco. Copyright © 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Jossey-Bass is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Jan Guidry Lacina

International students' interactions with other people (their social life) form an integral part of their college experience in the United States. Often they have problems adjusting to their new environment. Some students experience loneliness; others may have problems due to their unfamiliarity with U.S. customs and values. International students may also experience a loss of social status because their social standing in their homeland may not be recognized as important in the United States (Al-Sharideh and Goe, 1998). This chapter presents a discussion of the social challenges that international students face when leaving their homeland for school in the United States and highlights ways colleges and universities can encourage the social success of international students.

Adjusting to American Universities

International students tend to share certain characteristics, despite their diverse cultural, social, religious, and political backgrounds (Thomas and Althens, 1989). Unlike immigrants, international students are usually in the United States for only a short period of time. As a result, they are a group in transition for the purpose of achieving an educational goal (Sakurako, 2000). Because their families and social networks are left behind in their home countries, international students are forced to form new social networks. And these networks are often very different from the traditional college students' social support system, as the traditional student may have a family living in the same state. Overall, international students have very different backgrounds from their American peers, and these differences often lead to discrimination.

* Language Diversity

Language discrimination hinders many international students from adapting to a new social environment. Even though the United States has a long history of bilingualism. Americans remain xenophobic (Crawford, 2000; Lessow-Hurley, 2000). Many Americans do not have the patience to listen to someone whose accent is different from their own, or they are fearful of other cultures or nationalities due to stereotypes they have of different groups (Crawford, 2000). Overall, the United States tends to be linguistically unsophisticated and maintains a parochial attitude toward multilingualism (Crawford, 2000; Lessow-Hurley, 2000). The English Only Movement exemplifies how Americans view multilingualism or bilingualism. For example, Crawford (2000) posits that many supporters of the English Only Movement believe that language diversity often leads to language conflict or ethnic hostility. As a result, diplomacy and international relations have suffered, and many international student do not feel welcomed by Americans. This will most likely continue, given the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

An international student's accent or use of different expressions can interfere with communication while he or she is conversing with an American. For international students to be well prepared for social interaction, they need to be familiar with idioms and college slang, as well as proficient in academic English (see Chapter Two). Many international students acquire academic English so they can function successfully in their college classrooms but have little acquaintance with the language used in social situations. For example, and American university student might say "Get out of here," which literally means "leave." However, a speaker might use this phrase figuratively when he or she is merely joking. Likewise, statements such as "Let's get together" and "I'll call you soon" are often misinterpreted by international students (Sakurako, 2000). For many American students, these statements are just a polite way of ending a conversation; miscommunication often results when the international student interprets the statements literally. University faculty or college peers who use these idioms need to explain their meaning to international students.

* Cultural Differences.

Cultural differences may also play a role in the international students' ability or inability to form social relationships. The concept of friendship is often viewed differently in diverse cultures. For example, Bulthuis (1986) states that, because America is a highly individual-oriented society, friendship is sometimes viewed as less permanent than in other cultures. International students may notice when they first arrive on campus that everyone appears to be friendly to everyone else. People may smile and say hello and ask such questions as "How are you?" But that question is meant as a statement rather than a question. And it may appear odd to the international student when the speaker does not wait for an answer, thus seeming rude or insincere. After the international student has interacted with American students, the American students may begin to seem more interested in superficial socializing than in become close or trusted friends.

Problems may also arise when students misinterpret the translation of a word or a phrase. Spinks and Wells (1997) use the phrase "cool dude" as an example. This phrase to the American college student means the same as "OK," but for international students it may mean something entirely different. They may think the speaker is referring to someone's body temperature being below normal. Another example is that Americans who refer to "taking a bus" do not mean "stealing a bus." Spinks and Wells (1997) tell the story of a man from a different culture who was told to "run across town" to a CPA firm to bring back a folder. Unfortunately, he misunderstood the phrase "run across town," and he literally ran the distance to pick up his folder. University faculty must choose their words carefully when interacting with international students, and international students must likewise become familiar with everyday phrases spoken in the United States to prevent miscommunication.

Daves's ESL Café [] is a good place for international students to begin learning new idioms and slang to better understand informal English and a good place for college faculty to become with ESL (English as a Second Language) issues. This site offers numerous discussion boards that are applicable for both administrators and professors to use, such as "English for Specific Purposes," "Business English," and "Making Friends."

Misunderstanding can also exist when an American from the opposite sex makes such statements as "Let's get together sometime" or "Stop by my place." Pedersen (1991) asserts that friendly statements by Americans are often misinterpreted by international students as romantic invitations. As a result, some international students may be left confused and frustrated by cross-cultural communication. In like manner, men from countries that openly discriminate against women may find it difficult to accept women as their equals. The role of women in society in many countries resembles the role that women played at the turn of the century in the United States. It may be especially difficult for those men who have been segregated in all-male schools to respect U.S. female professors as authority figures in an academic field. After experiencing many problems with cross-cultural communication and discrimination, international students can become discouraged from seeking friendship with Americans (Bulthuis, 1986; Sakurako, 2000).

In like manner, religion is an important element to consider when discussing cultural differences. There appears to be no greater influence on cultural customs and practices than religion. And most people from diverse cultures throughout the world tend to view their religion as right ands feel great social pressures when they believe their religious beliefs have been violated (Spinks and Wells, 1997). In the United States, many Americans are unreceptive to religions other than Christianity. This can become an issue when international students belong to non-Christian religious groups and, in particular, when they need to miss class to attend religious meetings. For example, during certain holy days, Muslims may need to attend prayers as the mosque, or they may need to fast for a number of days. Students who are fasting may experience a time in which they are tired or drowsy during class and may not participate readily. University faculty should seek to accept diverse religions and customs to be flexible when students need to attend religious events if they want to attract and retain international students.


Al-Sharideh, K.A., and Goe, W.R. "Ethnic Communities Within the University: An Examination of International Students." Research in Higher Education, 1998, 39(6), 699-725.

Bradley, L., Parr, G., Lan, W.Y., Bingi, R., and Gould, L.J. "Counseling Expectations of International Students." International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 1995, 18, 21-31.

Bulthuis, P. (ed). The Foreign Student Today: A Profile. New Directions for Student Services, no. 3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986

Crawford, J. At War With Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety. New York: Multilingual Matters, 2000.

Lessow-Hurley, J. The Foundation of Dual Language Instructional. New York: Longman, 2000.

Pedersen, P.B. "Counseling International Students." Counseling Psychologist, 1991, 19, 10-58.

Sakurako, M. "Addressing the Mental Health Concerns of International Students." Journal of Counseling and Development, 2000, 78(2), 137-144.

Spinks, N., and Wells, B. "Intercultural Communication: A Key Element in Global Strategies." Career Development International, 1997, 2(6), 287-292.

Thomas, K., and Althens, G. "Counseling Foreign Students." In P.B. Pedersen, J.G. Draguns, W.J. Lonner, and J.E. Trimble (eds.), Counseling Across Cultures. (3rd ed.) Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1989.