How Can Colleges and Universities Assist International Students in Their Classroom and Campus Culture?

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico


Nearly 25 years ago, when I began my academic career, I served as an assistant professor and counselor in the College Discovery Program at Kingsborough Community College (KCC) in Brooklyn, New York. KCC is one of 21 colleges and universities within the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Back in the 1990s, The College Discovery Program was an educational opportunity program that provided counseling, academic support services, and financial aid to students who would otherwise be unable to attend college because of economic hardships. Individual, comprehensive counseling services were provided, as well as personal, academic, and career counseling. The intent for many was simply to complete a two-year associates degree, but others aspired to transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. While the original aim of the College Discovery program is still pursued by CUNY today, the guidelines and focus have shifted a bit to accommodate a larger segment of the population and to address the changing demographics of eligible students. Back in the 1990s, the city of New York was struggling with the historical issue of “Open Access” for its four-year colleges, as well as dealing with a growing number of underprepared American students and a wave of non-native-speaking immigrant students. In my position as assistant professor, I taught a few of the College Discovery Orientation and Student Development courses. In my role as counselor, I maintained a caseload of about 45 students, who I met individually several times throughout the semester.

Due to my interest at KCC in improving the learning outcomes of at-risk students, the then Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Otis Hill, who later became Vice Chancellor of the CUNY system, partnered with me in a CUNY research project to improve the learning outcomes of immigrant students in the College Discovery Program over a three-year period. Most of the students we studied were from the former Soviet Union, mainland Southeast Asia (mainly Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam), as well as Africa and the Caribbean. In conducting this research, we could not help but notice the different ways in which many international students learn content, come to understand concepts, interpret meaning, negotiate their new environments, socialize with others, seek assistance, cope with stress, and deal with daily life on campus and away from their usually close-knit families back home.

Now, more than two decades later, we find ourselves having come full circle, grappling with the same types of challenges, although terminologies have changed. The term “immigrant” has been changed to “international,” and other more appropriate and culturally sensitive language and appreciative approaches have evolved. For example, most colleges and universities today truly value the experiences and contributions their international students bring to campus, and most research is based on an appreciative inquiry approach. Emerging literature on the challenges of international students is readily available (Barry 2006; Birnbaum et al. 2012; Poyrazli and Lopez 2007; Wang 2003), but little is shared about “how colleges and universities can assist international students to participate successfully in their classroom and campus culture.” This was the title of my poster session at the Faculty Resource Network’s 2014 National Symposium, which I will discuss in this article for the Network’s Journal of Faculty Development.

Global Educational Trust Initiative (GETI)

This past January 2014, the United States became the newest country to join the Global Educational Trust Initiative (GETI), whose focus is on technology and other innovations to enhance learning, which are keys for maintaining an inclusive, engaging, inviting academic environment for everyone in the campus community (UN Secretary-General 2014). Due to this Global Educational Trust Initiative, as well as newly available funding opportunities, colleges and universities are seeking new ways to avail themselves of the strategies and tools necessary to recruit, authentically engage, and retain international students on their campuses. The strategies discussed herein will broadly outline the current literature and best practices relating to the challenges faced by many international students. Furthermore, I will recommend specific strategies for addressing these concerns, and for improving the overall quality of academic life and personal campus experience of international students on American campuses.

It is apparent that American colleges and universities need to develop better strategies to assist international students to fully and authentically thrive in classrooms and campus culture. The best practices to be discussed include: global understanding, competence, skills and mindsets; cross disciplinary teaching approaches; digital citizenship; and global communications, viewed in terms of what works for happy international students on American college campuses. Utilizing these practices can help institutions tailor-make strategies to meet their needs and maintain an inclusive, engaging, inviting academic environment for everyone in the campus community, especially international students (Ozturgut 2013).


By 2020, seven million international students are predicted to study outside their own country (Daller and Phelan 2013). Currently, the United States reports maintaining the largest number of international students, with the United Kingdom and Australia following close behind (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2011). The quality of international student relationships on campus help determine their well-being and academic performance. One American university in particular has created a comprehensive international learning community on their campus that serves to attract and enrich the lives of international students, as well as many other members of the campus community. Farleigh Dickinson University (FDU) maintains a student population of just over 9,000 students; however, over 1,000 each year are international students and nearly 500 are new international freshmen. With such robust numbers, FDU created several new classes and labs in the majors that are most popular among international students. They also recognized the need for English proficiency and writing, so they implemented an English proficiency class and writing lab, required for all students in their first semester who are not native speakers. Other institutions, such as the University of California, Los Angeles offers a welcome dance and other activities for international students when they first arrive on campus, and encourages them to engage in campus activities. San Diego State University has an email exchange called the Email Partners Program, which matches new SDSU students with student volunteers. This allows students to thoughtfully get to know one another and practice their writing skills.


After describing some of the greatest challenges faced by international students in American college classrooms and on American college campuses, I will attempt to align those challenges with recommended strategies to overcome them. My list is not exhaustive, but includes the most common challenges, based on the current literature.

In the classroom, there are numerous issues that negatively impact the overall academic experience of international students. For example, because of the high level of English proficiency required, international students take a longer time to process reading assignments and read and respond to postings. Therefore, online courses are especially difficult for international students. In general, many international students are accustomed to listening passively and learning, rather than speaking in class. They often expect faculty to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. Classes where there tends to be only one right answer are usually not a challenge for international students. The challenge arises when these students are required to be critical of what they read, or to provide an opinion or position on an issue (Wang 2003).

In terms of content, many colleges and universities utilize outdated curricula and learning materials that sometimes reinforce negative stereotypes, which serve to exacerbate social divisions, fear, and marginalization. In addition, teachers often lack the capacity to assist international students with their growing needs due to a lack of training. Sometimes international students are unwilling to ask a question of a teacher in the classroom or pursue a professional relationship with faculty. Faculty are often not comfortable pursuing a professional relationship with international students either, which limits the level and frequency of academic assistance, guidance and direction they could potentially benefit from. This in turn, may reduce teacher confidence and encourage negative mindsets and habits. As a result, international students may receive incomplete support in terms of capacity and resources.

On American campuses, international students face many stressors of acculturation (Berry 2006). They face enormous educational difficulties because of a mismatch between academic and social expectations on campus, as well as the basic realities of college life. Other stressors include language barriers, quality and efficiency of services, loneliness, discrimination, cultural barriers, financial need, mental health, culture shock, and stress in general (Poyrazli and Lopez 2007). Socially, international students sometimes have difficulties making new friends, coping with loss of social support, and developing a new social support system. In addition, international students are often in need of psychological assistance and mental health services, but are least likely to seek assistance; they may fear shame and embarrassment for themselves or dishonor for their families. Also, students often lack an understanding about the laws and policies in place to protect them, and hesitate to obtain support and counseling services (Birnbaum, Cardona, Milian, and Gonzalez 2012).

Recommended Strategies

In the classroom, there are numerous strategies that colleges and universities can implement to improve the experiences of international students on American college campuses. For example, institutions can raise the level of English proficiency required for online courses. Thus the interpretation required of these classes, coupled with the absence of verbal cues, will not limit the level of engagement and learning taking place for international students. In addition, institutions can offer English language courses during the summer, as well as alongside classes as needed, to assist international students in better adjusting to college life. The use of technology like YouTube and other online sources can illuminate many human, cultural, and social issues. Applications such as TED Talks can encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while introducing and discussing culturally-specific ethical issues, such as plagiarism, which may be unknown to many international students. Likewise, teachers and counselors need to be engaged in digital training and workshops on teaching and coping strategies. This will help to facilitate and inspire innovative student learning. Within the community, institutions will need to establish and leverage strategic international partnerships. This will serve as a model for responsible social interactions and also support shared learning and collaboration skills (Hains, Lynch, and Winton 2002). In some cases, institutions might wish to consider individualized, self-directed forms of learning (Daller and Phelan 2013).

Many institutions can implement programs and practices to help alleviate the stressors of international students on campus. For example, college buddies or peer mentors can help to facilitate the transition of international students to academic and social life. In the community, institutions can create “Friendship Families” who walk alongside international students and help guide and direct them, and provide resources as needed. On campus, faculty and students can guide and support every international student through formal mentorship programs. Research has shown that the quality of the student-faculty advising relationship is a critical factor in the success and adjustment of international students (Abel 2002). Similarly, based on Tinto’s research, it is critically important that international students are encouraged to become more engaged on college campuses and in student activities. This is where they will make friends and better understand the culture, customs, and language of their new environment. As mentioned earlier, offering English language courses will also help them better adjust to college life, as well as overcome language barriers. Two of the most important departments on college campuses for international students include counseling services and public safety. Some institutions hold receptions and invite several departments, most often the departments of counseling services and public safety. During this time, students can meet, greet, and discuss the services available to them. By developing relationships with these departments early on in their academic careers, students may be encouraged and more likely to seek assistance when it becomes needed.


It is clear that American colleges and universities need to provide better resources and infrastructure based on realistic guidelines to meet the needs of international students. Faculty, counselors, and support staff need adequate training and other resources to make available all of the supports necessary for all members of the campus community. The world is becoming more global and therefore the number of international students will only increase. Along with them will come a wealth of rich knowledge and experience that will require students and faculty to consider new perspectives and global ways of thinking (Reimers 2009).


Abel, C. A. 2002. “Academic Success and the International Student: Research and Recommendations.” New Directions for Higher Education 117: 12-20.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. 2011. Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum. Sydney.

Berry, J.W. 2006. “Stress Perspectives on Acculturation.” The Cambridge Handbook of Acculturation Psychology, edited by D. Sam & T.W. Berry, 43-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Birnbaum, M., B. Cardona, M. Milian, and M. Gonzalez. 2012. “Strangers in a Strange Land: How Non-Traditional International Adult Students See a United States University.” Journal of International Education & Leadership 2(2): 1-16.

Daller, Michael and David Phelan. 2013. “Predicting International Student Study Success.” Applied Linguistic Review 4(1): 173-193.

Hains, A. H., E.W. Lynch, and P.J. Winton. 2000. Moving Towards Cross-Cultural Competence in Lifelong Personnel Development: A Review of the Literature. CLAS Technical Report No. 3. Champaign: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Early Childhood Research Institute on Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services.

Lavin, David and Elliot Weininger. 1999. The History of Open Admissions and Remedial Education at the City University of New York. New Admission Policy & Changing Access to CUNY’s Senior and Community Colleges: What Are the Stakes? New York: City University of New York.

Ozturgut, Osman. 2013. “Best Practices in Recruiting and Retaining International Students in the US.” Current Issues in Education 16(2): 1-20.

Poyrazli, S. and M.D. Lopez. 2007. “An Exploratory Study of Perceived Discrimination and Homesickness: A Comparison of International Students and American Students.” Journal of Psychology 141 (3): 263-279.

Reimers, Fernando. 2009. “Leading for Global Competency.” Teaching for the 21st Century 67(1): 60-65.

The UN Secretary-General’s Global Initiative on Education. 2014. Priority #3: Foster Global Citizenship. Washington, DC.

Wang, Jing. 2003. A Study Of The Adjustment Of International Graduate Students At American Universities, Including Both Resilience Characteristics and Traditional Background Factors. Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1270.

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