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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2005
International Students
at U.S. Universities

Senel Poyrazli, PhD, Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg

The Institute of International Education (2004) reported that there were a total of 586,323 international students studying in the U.S. during the 2002-2003 academic year. About 10% of these students were studying social sciences that include psychology.

International students face many challenges in adjusting to their new environment. These challenges may have an impact on their academic success, psychological well-being, and the educational institution's effectiveness in retaining these students (Barratt & Huba, 1994; Charles & Stewart, 1991; Pedersen, 1991; Poyrazli, Arbona, Nora, McPherson, & Pisecco, 2002).

The initial challenges of the students tend to be related to finding a place to live, learning where and how to shop for groceries, finding transportation or figuring out how to use a public transportation system, registering for classes, and setting up a communication medium (i.e., phone, e-mail) to reach loved ones back home. Students' level of proficiency in English might help or hurt their effort to deal with these challenges. Students with good English skills might have an easier time during their transition to the new setting, while those with lower levels might find it more difficult (Poyrazli, Kavanaugh, Baker, & Al-Timimi, 2004; Poyrazli et al., 2002). Airport pick-up services organized by the international student office, a host family for the initial stay, and matching the student with another international student before his/her entry to the U.S., might be ways to ensure that students will have a more successful transition.

Academic Experiences
When international students first start taking academic classes, they experience several concerns related to understanding classroom instruction, participating in classroom discussions, or figuring out the professor's expectations. Students also tend to worry about achieving their academic goals in order to graduate. To help students reach greater academic achievement and attain their goals, encouraging students to interact with faculty members (i.e., talking with the faculty member after class) has been suggested (Anaya & Cole, 2001). An extended orientation program during the first few months of the students' academic life might also help them to find successful ways of dealing with these concerns. In addition, helping students increase their English proficiency will likely lead to higher levels of academic self-efficacy (Poyrazli et al., 2002) and higher academic achievement.

Social Experiences
International students may display various reactions to the host country and culture. Some become very involved in their new community, while others may feel distant. The similarity between the students' home culture and the host culture, perceived discrimination, being extraverted, high communication skills in English, and a positive approach to forming relationships with Americans are noted as variables affecting this attitude (Ying, 2002).

Usually students from more traditional cultures (i.e., Asian cultures) may feel distant to the American culture and experience more adjustment difficulties (Poyrazli et al., 2004; Triandis, 1991).

Furthermore, as the level of perceived prejudice increases, so does the likelihood that international students will identify with other international students rather than host nationals (Schmitt, Spears, & Branscombe, 2003). Once students start building relationships with Americans, however, their experiences may be more positive, and they may experience an increased level of social support.

Psychological Experiences
During their initial transition, international students may feel lost, confused, overwhelmed, helpless, and isolated. As they try to settle into their new environment with the start of the semester, they may also feel academic stress similar to their domestic counterparts. However, unlike the other students, international students usually do not have similar resources to combat this stress (Sandhu & Asrabadi, 1998). This lack of resources coupled with the previous stated psychological experiences could lead to homesickness, depression, or anxiety. There is some evidence that the culture of international students determines the amount and type of psychological reactions they show. European students, for example, report experiencing less acculturative stress than students from Asia, Central/South America, and Africa (Poyrazli et al., 2004; Yeh & Inose, 2003). Non-European international students, on the other hand, may experience more discrimination which, in turn, may lead to lower self-esteem (Schmitt et al., 2003).

A number of interventions can be set up to help international students with their psychosocial and academic adjustment. These interventions can target professors, advisers, mental health professionals, on-campus personnel, American students, people in the community, or international students themselves. Listed in the box to the right are a few suggestions for international students.

Anaya, G., & Cole, D. (2001). Latina/o student achievement: Exploring the influence of student-faculty interaction on college grades. Journal of College Student Development, 42, 3-14.

Barratt, M. F., & Huba, M. E. (1994). Factors related to international undergraduate student adjustment in an American community. College Student Journal, 28, 422-435.

Charles, H., & Stewart, M. (1991). Academic advising of international students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 19, 173-180.

Institute of International Education. (2004). Foreign student and total U.S. enrollment. Retrieved September 24, 2004, from

Pedersen, P. (1991). Counseling international students. The Counseling Psychologist, 19, 10-58.

Poyrazli, S., Arbona, C., Nora, A., McPherson, B., & Pisecco, S. (2002). Relation between assertiveness, academic self-efficacy, and psychosocial adjustment among international graduate students. Journal of College Student Development, 43, 632-642.

Poyrazli, S., Kavanaugh, P., Baker, A., & Al-Timimi, N. (2004). Social support and demographic correlates of acculturative stress in international students, Journal of College Counseling, 7, 73-82.

Sandhu, D. S., & Asrabadi, B. R. (1998). An acculturative stress scale for international students: A practical approach to stress measurement. In C. P. Zalaquett & R. J. Wood (Eds.) Evaluating stress: A book of resources, Vol. 2. (pp. 1-33). Lanam, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Schmitt, M. T., Spears, R., & Branscombe, N. R. (2003). Constructing a minority group identity out of shared rejection: The case of international students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1-12.

Triandis, H. (1991). A need for theoretical examination. The Counseling Psychologist, 19, 59-61.

Yeh, C. J., & Inose, M. (2003). International students' reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 16 (1), 15-28.

Ying, Y. (2002). Formation of cross-cultural relationships of Taiwanese international students in the United States. Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 45-55.

Additional Reading
Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock. Philadelphia, PA: Routledge.

Suggestions for International Students

  • Speak English without worrying about making mistakes. Many international students do not participate in class discussions because they feel uncomfortable speaking in English. Most Americans are used to listening to people whose native language is not English, and they tend to pay attention to what the individual is trying to say, rather than how many mistakes he/she makes.
  • Create opportunities to listen to or interact with American students. For example, join a student club of your interest or attend student events on campus. Get a volunteer job for a few hours a week. These attempts will not only help you increase your social support network, but also improve your English skills.
  • Ask questions. When you encounter something that you are not familiar with (i.e., getting a train ticket or buying a car), ask someone how to do it. This person can be somebody at the international student office, a classmate, or a roommate.
  • Always keep in mind that the international student office is a great resource for you. They have trained professionals ready to help.
  • Visit your professors during their office hours. Ask them questions to clarify assignments, exams, or their expectations. This will show them that you are interested in their class.
  • Trust yourself. You left behind your country and everything else to start something most people would not dare to attempt. Making such a decision and following through on it usually requires courage, diligence, and self-confidence. Therefore, you should have the potential to deal successfully with the challenges your new life will present. All you need is to find the proper resources to activate this potential.
  • Visit the counseling center on campus to receive tips about how to prepare for challenges in your new life and how to receive additional strategies to successfully deal with them. Remember that you can go to the counseling center for a reason as simple as sharing your confusion about the American culture or for a more complex reason like discussing your anxious or depressed feelings.

Senel Poyrazli, PhD, is assistant professor of counseling psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg campus. She received her PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Houston and master's in counseling psychology from Northeastern University-Boston. Her clinical background includes working with adolescents, college students, married/unmarried couples, and war veterans; and mostly dealing with issues related to relationships, psychosocial adjustment, academic adjustment, depression, and trauma. Her research primarily involves college student adjustment process and cross-cultural counseling/psychotherapy.

Copyright 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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