Interpersonal Challenges

As with cultural challenges, the difficulties that students have fitting in at the university are partly a product of language proficiency and partly cultural. A student’s success at striking up a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance can be severely limited by a lack of vocabulary and pronunciation confidence as well as insecurity about what topics of conversation are appropriate. For many students the risk of sounding strange or stupid is greater than the reward of entering new social groups, and this can quickly lead to loneliness and isolation.   

Making friends: Many international students—even the ones who are confident speaking English—report that it is difficult to make friends with their American counterparts. What do American college students talk about? How do I, an outsider, enter a conversation without butting my way in unwanted?

People from other cultures sometimes think that Americans are shallow because they are overly friendly to strangers and outwardly gregarious to acquaintances and they say things like “we should get together some time” though the meeting is likely to never happen. International students may interpret a friendly conversation after class or in a line as a significant sign of a personal relationship rather than idle talk. It probably does not help that many international students are actively seeking friendship whereas American students are already comfortable (or uncomfortable as the case may be) with their circle of social connections and are unwilling to admit an international student who may effect the domestic student’s standing or the existing group dynamic. Likewise, international students who are accustomed to meeting with friends to cook and eat together may find American parties extremely awkward, and vice versa for an American who is invited to hang out with a group of international students.

These differences in the expression, degree, and activities in personal relationships (as well as linguistic barriers) make it difficult for international and domestic students to form significant friendships.

Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students make friends

    • Encourage students to participate in the Conversation Partners program–see webpage here.
    • Encourage students to use the Health and Wellness Center. Whether it is a game of basketball, a badminton match, swimming, yoga classes, rock climbing, or using the equipment, playing together poses few linguistic challenges and provides opportunities to socialize and make friends.
  • Encourage students to become involved in student Clubs and Organizations. ASWOU offers many opportunities, and clubs are always welcoming to new members–see list of clubs here.

Personal Challenges

Homesickness: This longing for the relationships, places, and routines of home is compounded by culture shock and the other challenges that international students face. Many domestic students also feel homesick, but with two important differences: 1) they are better equipped to fit in with new social groups, and 2) their home is on the same continent. International students who feel homesick will be more isolated, and if they seek the comfort of friends and family back home via live internet video, voice, or text, it is likely to be the middle of the night here. Once these patterns are set, students may exist in a liminal space between continents and cultures where day and night, physical and virtual, past and present are blurred. Students who stay up late or all night to interact with people who are not physically present, sleep during the day, and are tired during classes. All of this makes isolation and depression more probable than if they were on the same sleeping, studying, eating, and interacting schedule as their domestic peers.

Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students overcome homesickness

    • Limit time spent online communicating with friends and family back home to a certain time each day (maybe one hour). While it is important to maintain these relationships, international students need to get out and form new relationships with people here at WOU–see the tips above for making friends. This pay off in better sleep and study routines as well when students adjust to life in college.
  • Students can visit the Student Health and Counseling Center where a counselor can help them deal with their adjustment issues–see the webpage here, and FAQs here.

Social Challenges

Becoming part of the school community: In some countries, university students are required, expected, and often willing to participate in collective activities forming groups ranging from student housing units to classes, to academic disciplines. These rallies, performances, sporting events, and other social activities, build a kind of collective solidarity that is not typical of American university campuses. On campuses in the US sports and entertainment events are the primary social gatherings in addition to clubs and organizations. For many students simply hanging out on campus, studying in the library, and using the other facilities make the campus feel like home.

Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students become part of the WOU campus

    • In addition to all of the above tips:
    • Suggest that students attend sports and entertainment events on campus. Many international students will be unfamiliar with the variety of events that are available–therefore, if you have international students in your classes, please make an effort to announce to your classes upcoming events that are happening on campus and encourage attendance.
  • Meet one of your international students somewhere on campus outside of your office to discuss your class. Help students get out and experience their campus 🙂