How Universities Can Effectively Provide Support for International Students

9 min read

Julia Sachs

Aside from the day-to-day challenges of starting a new program at a University, international students often have additional struggles in acclimating to their new life. The unique experience of attending a university abroad can be an incredible, eye-opening experience for anyone. Still, it doesn't come without challenges as students have to navigate life in a new country, learning a new culture, and, often, living in a world that doesn't speak their native language. 


When attending university abroad, international students face the unique challenge of navigating their educational experience in a new culture and often with a language barrier. These experiences can be lonely and intimidating without the right resources, so it's essential for schools and educators to create robust programs that not only welcome their international students but offer important resources that aid in their success.


International students also provide a cultural learning experience for other students at their university. College creates a unique opportunity for students to expand their world views, and international students play a crucial role in bringing that learning experience to life. Beyond that, they can bridge barriers by showing that many of our issues are global—and that social and environmental issues like climate change go beyond borders to bring the world closer together.



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What are some of the unique adversities that international students might face? 


Beyond the obvious language and cultural barriers that international students might face, other factors create obstacles that international students often have to navigate through. When referring to international students, it is often implied that, colloquially, we mean foreign exchange students specifically. However, international student bodies can encompass a wide range of students from different cultural and financial backgrounds. Therefore, each of those international student bodies should be given specific resources catered to their unique needs.  


Universities seeking to diversify their student bodies should provide financial and legal resources for refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented students to further their education. Unfortunately, these roadblocks often make getting a university degree more challenging. Having to navigate those issues on top of language or cultural barriers means that these international students often lack the equity they need to find success on campus.  


Financial barriers create additional roadblocks for international students. 


A 2017 Forbes article discussed the ways that social divisions present themselves in American colleges. The article highlighted how most universities in the United States perpetuate wealth inequality through their student bodies. A section of the article discussed the differences in two student body demographics at two American colleges—Washington University in St. Louis and the University of the District of Columbia. At Washington University, 21.7% of the student body comes from families that report an income of over $630,000 per year, while just 6.1% of the school's student body comes from low-income families making less than $60,000 per year.  


The report indicates that, while universities in the United States may diversify their student bodies by welcoming in more international students, there is still work to offer equity to students of different financial backgrounds. Even universities that are considered average in terms of acceptance rate and affordability still show discrepancies in the economic backgrounds of their student bodies. This indicates that most U.S. schools lack appropriate legal and financial resources for students that may fall into both the low-income and international demographics.  


For universities looking to offer robust international student programs, leaving out refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented students unintentionally gate-keeps opportunities for international students. This leaves only upper-middle-class or wealthy foreign exchange students with open doors to higher education. Even then, universities that lack adequate visa and legal resources for their international students can mean disaster in global emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many international students stranded abroad or having to migrate home at a moment's notice.


Solving problems that international students might face.


A 2021 report titled "Toward Greater Inclusion and Success: A New Compact for International Students" discussed how universities worldwide can better prepare for and accommodate their international students. The report examines the many benefits that international students have in diversifying college campuses around the globe and highlights the fact that international students are an integral part of the college experience as we know it today.


One of the best ways to start showing interest in international students, and solving their issues is through constant communication. When universities and representatives are in touch with students from the get go, then international students can feel like their needs are being heard. Keystone's SmartHub software lets universities keep the dialogue going. SmartHub was created so that universities would be able to keep in touch with current and prospective students and hear about their needs. The software also helps universities come up with and respond to frequently asked questions about the course and other topics. These small communication strategies help big time when it comes to understanding both domestic and international students and their struggles. 


International students bridge international barriers and trigger global activism, awareness, and social change through first-hand exposure to new world views and perspectives. College often piques interest in activism and social change naturally among students. International students play a key role in exposing students to new ideas and global perspectives that they may not otherwise be exposed to. But that opportunity comes with the responsibility to make international students feel welcomed and supported in their experience.  


Support for international students.


The aforementioned report discusses how international students can be better supported in their college experience. It suggests that universities invest in resources such as a dedicated international student officer that can assist with anything from cultural resources to visa and legal assistance and mental health support. The officer should be able to speak the students' native language and understand their cultural practices. This means that a school may need to employ several officers with an educational background in each language and culture corresponding to the students a school is hosting.


Beyond on-campus resources, schools should build relationships with the families of each of their international students to assure that both the students and their loved ones feel comfortable about the experience. These relationships can assist with visa help to cultural learning and provide families with key updates on how their loved one is acclimating to the new experience.


Schools should also invest in resources that allow international students to thrive on campus without assimilating to the local culture. This can mean anything from offering accessible prayer rooms on campus to providing resources for international students to share their own culture with their peers instead of having to abide by local cultural norms to fit in.


Opportunities to move forward.


Finally, the above report discussed how schools could commit to global issues such as climate change and see opportunities for international students to assist in that work. International students often see how global issues are the same everywhere and can impact climate change awareness through that perspective by bridging global perspectives. A blog post from Maryville University discusses how international students expose both students and educators to different perspectives. The article suggests that those international students are given the freedom to express and share their culture. Universities should actively work to make them feel both safe and welcomed in doing that on top of providing logistical resources to provide equity.  


Each suggestion in this article comes together to create a robust program for international students to find both equity and success in their college experience. While an opportunity to learn abroad is an exciting experience for students, it does not come without its hurdles that schools should recognize to provide true equity—whether students are undocumented or foreign exchange students visiting campus for a short period.

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