Cultural Challenges

Accounting for culture is a difficult task—there are hemispheric, national, ethnic, gendered, and social cultures all of which are dynamic and at no level completely homogenous; to use Triandis’s terms, any individual will be more or less idiocentric, sharing the perspectives of the group, or allocentric, at odds with the group that they nonetheless identify or are identified with. Given WOU’s population of international students, I will briefly address common difficulties they experience with (the overly general notion of) ‘American culture’ and the more specific concept of ‘American academic culture’—the organizational and behavioral norms of our colleges and universities.

It should be noted, that all of the cultural adjustment issues presented below are extremely compounded by any lack of English proficiency in both real-world interactions and written domains that are different from the academic English that students have studied.

Outside the classroom, cultural issues, while definitely important, may not be as significant as we might expect. Unlike many Americans who travel abroad and face difficulties adjusting to new and unknown social structures and norms of behavior, the majority of international students have spent years consuming international and American media—this is not to say that Desperate Housewives and Fast and Furious are representative depictions of life in the US, but that most students arrive with a great deal of both stereotypical and accurate conceptions of US culture couched in the understanding that 1) they will need to acculturate, and 2) the degree of acculturation is a matter of their own control. Sherry, Thomas, and Chui (2010) point out that despite the suggestions in the previous literature that adapting to new cultural norms is a major problem, 65% of the students in their study “indicated they had ‘no problems’ at all adjusting to the cultural norms of the United States,” and an additional 18% had “few” or “little” problems while only the remaining 17% indicated that they had difficulties adjusting (p. 38).

In my experience at WOU, the situation is similar, and I suspect that this is due to students’ awareness and expectations of difference but more importantly to their insularity as university students. Outside of the university, most students’ interactions with Americans are limited to shopping and securing housing and utilities. Though I have heard students complain about these interactions which are culturally situated, they constitute only a fraction of students’ lives, and I hear many more positive compliments about American friendliness. However, there is one particular adjustment issue that is of concern for many students.

Food. Our primary populations are Chinese and Saudi Arabian, and both groups value their ethnic cuisine and the social rituals of dining as essential elements of their culture and identity. Though both groups are exceedingly familiar with American fast food, most students doubt their ability to subsist on it alone and bemoan the lack of availability of familiar staples for cooking. Students must regularly drive to Salem, Corvallis, and more likely Portland, to buy supplies. It should not be surprising to know that no food source on campus provides authentic dining choices for these students. Fortunately for the Chinese population, there is at least one local restaurant that caters to their needs, but no such venue is present for students seeking Middle Eastern or halal options. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that many students, though they are expert consumers of their cultural foods, are less experienced cooks. Many Americans may view this lack of familiar food as a minor detail, but for some international students, this posses a significant barrier to life in the US and even to a healthy diet because they are even less prepared to cook nutritious meals with items from local grocery stores.

Academic culture, more specifically, posses many challenges for international students. When they enter our educational system, they will probably find that it is very different from their previous school expereinces. These differences go far beyond the ones that American students, who have been socialized into our system for at least 12 years, experience when they transition from high school to college.

In class

Discussion-based, interactive teaching rather than lectures requiring passive reception of information may be entirely new. This includes American’s expectations of individual contributions to discussion and
content that diverges from, adds to, and/or challenges course readings.

Valuing of peers’ perspectives and teachers’ role as facilitator rather than exclusive expert:The privileging of authority is enacted differently across cultures. One form that it takes in many countries that our international students come from is honoring teachers by accepting their words and the words of textbook authors as the only necessary and the final words. What should matter to students is knowing the information that is given to them by the experts. For students who have spent a lifetime being receptive learners, our approach to education can be both liberating and incredibly challenging on a number of levels.

Working in groups: American students have been socialized into the various roles that individuals play in group interactions, but most international students have little experience working in groups or familiarity with expectations for members’ roles.

For students who have never or rarely studied in mixed-gender classrooms, these interactions can be awkward especially at first.

Liberal arts courses: More accustomed to science, humanities, or technical ‘tracks’ in their previous educational experiences, many international students will have less familiarity with the background in a variety of subjects that faculty assume American high school graduates enter with. Likewise, some students may question the value of courses outside their majors; however, many international students find the breadth of classes and ability to choose a liberating and enjoyable part of our system.

Timeliness: though most of our international students come from school systems that enforce punctuality, for a variety of reasons, this trait seems to be forgotten by a small but persistent percentage of international students. Possible reasons that I have heard from students are: the perception that US classrooms are “casual,” “open,” and “free”. Confronted with the relatively informal and egalitarian situation in US classes, the students incorrectly apply the polychronic approach to time that characterizes most non-academic social situations in their own cultures. Some students are simply sleep-deprived for a variety of reasons which combines with a lack of experience living on their own and managing personal schedules to make them late. Still other students live outside of Monmouth which, when combined with the previous reasons, leads them to underestimate commuting time which is often shared with friends who may be delayed despite the timeliness of your student.

Out of class

Homework and papers that count for significant portions of students grades: Accustomed to grades based almost entirely on tests, many students don’t grasp the importance other assignments. Showing students the syllabus and breakdown of their final grade will not be enough to overcome these entrenched ideas; students need to be reminded of the importance of constant production for success in our system.

Meeting with professors: To many students visiting a professor’s office is seen as a punishment or sign of poor performance. Though teachers all over the world devote time above and beyond their duty to students, in many places this does not include individual consultations. Though international students are informed about and encouraged to use faculty office hours, this practice is not part of their schema of academic culture until they have practiced it–thus, they will need more encouragement than expected in order to begin visiting instructors’ offices.

Group projects: As with in-class group work, students may find it difficult to negotiate the expectations of small-group interaction. This can easily lead to negative stereotype creation by domestic students and a cycle of miscommunication and unsuccessful interactions.

Assignments that require critical analysis, personal responses, and finding information in outside sources: These writing genres may be unfamiliar to students who will in turn be unsure about what is expected of them in terms of the content and organization of the final product.

Non-negotiable standards: In some cultures various terms (prices, time allotments, business favors, bills) are more commonly determined by an explicit or implicit negotiation between parties rather than by pre-determined, fixed standards. Students who are more accustomed to this style of interaction may have difficulty accepting that it is the cap on enrollment that determines the number of students in a class, not the number of desks in the room; that the validity and reliability of an examination are more important than the immediate needs of the person at the next desk, or that instructor’s standards for grading must adhere to departmental and university standards even to the detriment of a particular student’s academic standing. The back-and-forth interaction of bargaining that can make many Americans uncomfortably nervous and even angry is seen as a healthy, mutually beneficial way of life in other cultures.


Course selection: Most international students have little to no experience selecting and scheduling courses because in their previous institutions this is done for them, and they may have difficulty juggling an international, general, and faculty advisor. They may unaware or unclear about their degree requirements and/or the consequences of their course selections.

Registration: Building on the previous challenge, online registration can prove difficult for students who are unfamiliar with the timing and steps of this procedure. All international students are required to enroll in First Year Experience (FYE) for International Students during their first term, and this class informs students about nearly all of these issues, but some students will still have difficulties in later terms.

Infrastructure: Students are likely to be unfamiliar with the organization of university administration with its range of offices and duties. This can prove very frustrating for them especially when they are passed from building to building and office to office in their attempts to meet visa requirement, pay bills, set up online accounts, and seek advising, academic, and social support.

Student services: For international students the services available to assist them come in a dizzying variety that may be confusing to them. They may also attach a stigma to seeking support for anything from course tutoring to personal counseling.

Tips for teachers (academic culture)

In class

    • Allowing international students to audio record classes will allow them to focus class time on the whole message and engaging in discussion rather than trying to keep track of details which they will likely see as crucial to successful listening.
    • Provide structure for group work by clarifying roles such as organizer, recorder, questioner, encourager, etc. to the class (or even assigning them to individuals).
    • Compile a list of relevant background information that you expect domestic students to bring to a class but that international students might not. If given in advance, students can use Wikipedia to gain some degree of familiarity with the topics.
  • If a student is habitually tardy, please meet with this student (or refer him or her to ISAS) to discuss his or her reasons for tardiness and the significance of what the student is missing during the beginning of class. It may be necessary to make an individual or group accountable by documenting tardiness with a clear and measurable effect on the student’s final grade.

Out of Class

    • Emphasize to students both the percentage of the final grade that assignments are worth and a suggested amount of time that students should use to complete the work.

    • If you see that an international student in your class is struggling, talk to him or her at the end of class and suggest that the student come visit you at your office and set an appointment time. Assure students that they are not in trouble and that faculty welcome students who visit their offices—it shows that they are good students who are concerned with learning. Talking to the student in person initially may work better than email because some students do not regularly check their WOU email (despite having been told how important it is).
    • When assigning group work or projects, if possible assign groups and distribute international students as much as possible—and, when possible, assign international students to domestic students who are cooperative and organized.
  • If a student attempts to negotiate a grade with you, a helpful strategy is to depersonalize the topic by referring to a specific rubric, to department standards, or to the need for standards that transfer to other universities. Appeals to authority are also useful—emphasize that you grades are subject to scrutiny by department heads and deans. Likewise, if students implore you to add them to a full class, make it clear that enrollment caps are decided by committees, set for good reasons, and to make an exception would single you out as not following departmental guidelines. In any case, do listen sympathetically to the student; it is likely that he or she has serious or desperate concerns and it may be a good idea to refer them to an international student advisor, general academic advisor, or the Office of International Student Academic Support.


Sherry, M., Thomas, P., and Chui, W. H. (2010). International students: A vulnerable population. Higher Education, 60: 33-64.

see also

Lipson, C. (2008). Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada. Chicago: University of Chicago.