International Students and the US University Experience

A lab technician recorded soil pH
A lab technician recorded soil pH


International education to some is a crucial gateway for positive career development and other potential pathways. To some, being educated abroad seems to be the coolest and prestigious option as oppose to receiving similar education domestically (i.e. nationally). It is not the intention of this post to downgrade domestic/national education in anyway, but to elaborate on experiences of some colleagues I was fortunate to attend classes with who “English” wasn’t their first (native) language and their first time pursuing a degree in the US.


Photo Credit: Daisy Runggeary

Panoramic View of Clark University

Each year tens of thousands of international students enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States. In fact, the 2012-13 academic year brought about 819,644 international students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to US colleges and universities. An annual survey conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE), an independent non-for-profit organization founded in 1919 to advance international education in its “Open Doors Survey” found that there are now 40 percent more international students studying at colleges and universities across the US.

At Clark University where I completed course requirements for both Masters Degrees (2010-14) approximately 40% of enrolled students at the undergraduate and graduate levels are international students who are mainly from China, India, Kenya, Nepal, etc.


Photo Credited: Daisy Runggeary

Overview of the City of Worcester from the College of Holy Cross

Given that international students consider the higher educational systems in the US as the “optimal choice” for their academic and subsequent professional development against other competitive options in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, France, Japan, Sweden, etc. Some deep questions remain unanswered concerning the actual teaching-learning experiences of international students in the educational settings of a “typical” US classroom.

Usually, a typical classroom at Clark University is compose of students that are domestic (US-based students, which include out-of-state and in-state students) and their counterparts from abroad (international students) some of which English may not be their native language.

The good thing with such a diverse classroom environment is the diversity of the “previous knowledge” of a given subject of the course, the life experiences of each students, which informs how they participate, interact and contribute towards the teaching-learning process, and the ability to work together in small groups with folks of different perspectives, a situation which mirrors what students should be expecting when they get a job post-graduation.

However, with all the good things that we can extra from such a diverse classroom environment, which includes domestic and international students. There seems to be a salient indication of dominance in classrooms discussions and group meetings of domestic students unlike their counterparts from abroad. What I mean is that domestic students are more likely to dominate classrooms and groups discussions compare to international students. Although this association may not necessarily apply to all classroom setting and could also differ with the composition of the student themselves and their levels of expertise in the area of study.

With that said, I would now like to focus the rest of this article on specific aspects some of my colleagues highlighted during our encounters at Clark University where I also served as Co-President for Masters Students for three academic years (6 semesters) and a year as Graduate Students Representative to the Graduate Board.

For additional information, I was one of the researchers on a study, which sought to understand whether or not international graduate students at the International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE) Department at Clark University with prior connections in the City of Worcester, Massachusetts more satisfied than international students without prior connections.

  1. English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

This first most salient aspect, which keeps international students almost apparently silent in classrooms is their inability to express themselves fluently in English. This doesn’t mean that these students are not capable of the course work, but what this means is that, the inability to express their views on a given subject of discussion is closely linked to their English-speaking skills.

While it is obvious that they may have had some level of English-speaking/writing competency prior to their arrival in the US, it becomes much more challenging speaking out and engaging in a discussion with domestic students who are native English speakers.

Yet, some professors and domestic students seems insensitive to this cultural problem. Cultural competencies in the classroom is a very useful tool to foster and enhance the teaching-learning environment. Some universities are in the process of providing campus-based resources to facilitate the process of bringing their instructional and non-instructional staff -base to the cultural nature of college and universities education today.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to those international students who have to learn it. There are also students from other English-speaking countries, but find it challenging to be understood when communicating their views to peers or their professors. Some colleges and universities now have English Prep classes prior to the start of the academic semester.

However, during the semester one way that this issue could be addressed is to form small groups of Peer Ambassadors for Non-English Students (PANES).

Each domestic student willing to participate in this voluntary initiative would be assigned to an international student preferably from his/her degree program. While this kind of work could lead to establishing long-lasting friendships, it could help non-English international students gain more confidence in their English-speaking skills and get use to the “American” ways of “self-expression” that are more frequently common in classroom settings. International students contribute more evenly and with deep experiential insights compare to their domestic peers when they speak English fluently.

This is true because most international students has years of work experiences prior to enrolling in graduate school in the US. This doesn’t however, underscore the fact that some domestic students also speak other languages apart from English and have years of professional experiences.

2. Working in Groups

In graduate school, working in groups from small research projects of 2-3 peers to large projects of 4-6 students creates several opportunities and challenges. To begin with, I would first like to recommend that each group should have proportionate distribution of domestic vs. international students. The good thing about having an equal distribution of domestic to international students per group is to foster group participation and to reduce the dominance of one sector.

While there will always be someone who tend to dominate the discussion irrespective of whether or not the group have equal numbers of domestic to international students, at least international students don’t feel that they have to fit in.

While it is good to have students decide who they would like to partner with for a given project, the problem with the voluntary group members selection is that you are more likely to have a group in which people team up with those who they already knew and or feel comfortable with. I would like to team up with folks that I know are within my comfort zone, but that is not a good way to go about that especially when you have a diverse class with students from different countries, prior educational background, cultures, and languages.

Also, If you haven’t already started that, working with folks you probably haven’t work with on a project is a good skill to develop, because that’s exactly what happens in the real world. In the real world, we get hired into a position we will be working with folks on a team (probably), on a project which includes folks from finance, project management, HR, Accounting, Transportation, etc. In these groups, you will have to develop relationships.

Remember, there is a big difference between a team and a group. I will leave discussion concerning the difference between a group and a team to another post soon.

Assigning roles, shifting the group leadership structures and frequently asking for group individuals feedbacks on the group process can allow the Professor to address any issues, whether time, group absenteeism, lurk-warm group members, and other personal issues that might arise.

International students like their counterparts (domestic students) should see the group process as an opportunity to start getting use to the American college/universities setting as well as practicing their speaking skills with their peers.

Also, domestic students should be sensitive to the others in the classroom as well as during group discussions. I know it can be frustrating understanding colleagues, who takes several minutes trying to make a point, for them, it is difficult considering that English is not their native language.

3. The Role of Technology

Technology transcends cultural barriers and can be an effective tools to enhance teaching-learning outcomes. Universities in the US unlike those in developing countries are rich with technological gadgets. In fact, some colleges and universities in some least developed and developing countries rarely have a computer lab. They may have Internet Cafe’ around campus, which are pay-per-use but not centrally owned by the college/university. In the US and other developed countries, technology plays a crucial role in the teaching-learning process.

For international students, English-speaking computer-based materials are available for those interested in accelerating their English-speaking and writing skills. Google Translate and other web-based interface are effective tools that international non English-speakers could utilize to ease the teaching-learning process.

4. Teacher’s Aide

Prior to the beginning of the semester and based on the number of students that are enrolled in a course and their English proficiency levels, providing extra in class resources for the class can ease the teaching-learning process and outcomes. Teacher’s Aide could be a Senior Student or another graduate student preferably someone who completed the course work in past semesters. The Teaching Aide would provide additional after-class hours and services to assist those students who because of their English proficiency level would fall behind the class.

5. Social Media Groups

Now a days everything is known on Social Media from clothes lines to items on sales at Amazon to the latest news releases at CNN to BBC and research updates at NASA and NIH. Also, at the college and universities levels, social media groups could facilitate the interactions between international and domestic students and in the process share places, photos and information of interest that are less sensitive to the social public. Social Media Groups is also a form of technological strategy.

6. Extra-Curricula Activities

The engagements outside the classrooms are very important for the physical, mental and spiritual health of each student. Each graduate and undergraduate programs should plan activities or provide institutional support and logistical resources to students-led organizations on campus to foster social engagement, education and participation.

Extra curricula activities such as sports day, field trips, picnic, cook out, brown bag events, special cultural events, or other special days (Halloween, Holi, Earth Day, etc.) should be developed and implemented to make experiences worth the money spend. While it is not the role of the college/university to actually plan these programs, students groups and organizations with funds provided from a portion tuition allocated for “Students Activities Fees” can be used to fund student groups and organizations that actually plan those programs or activities.

International students feel more involved and satisfied with their educational experiences in US colleges and universities when the resources provided are specific to their needs and interests. Upon completing their programs, these students could recommend their friends, families and love ones to pursue degree at the very institution they graduated from.

Thus, it is to the interest and advantage of US-based colleges and universities to work closely with students’ groups and organizations to have a clear sense what they are doing and how the university can help improves services provided.

Remember, this also applies to domestic students as well, but for the purposes of this post, I focused the narrative on international students.