If you ask a random staff or faculty member on a college campus, “What are the needs and concerns of international students?” they will likely point to 1) help developing their English skills and 2) help assimilating to American culture. If you ask a random international student, though, the answer may not include either of those things.
First of all, of course some students are concerned about their English skills and seek out campus resources for that. Likewise, some students are concerned with adapting to and adopting the practices of the Americans they study with and meet off campus. But most international students on the campuses where I’ve worked are proficient in English. Sure, they have an accent. Everyone does!
Furthermore, while some international students tell me that their goal is to do what Americans do and live the way local Americans live, this is usually not a top concern. Many students prioritize finding foods they are familiar with and cultivating social groups with people who come from the same country or region of the world as them, and enjoy speaking their language together after a long day of classes feeling like an outsider.
International students are not usually trying to “figure out” American culture or “assimilate,” whatever that means. More often than not, they are fairly familiar with the way we do things here because they are already well traveled, well read, and have been exposed to many aspects of American culture through film and media. Many are from the biggest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and have been developing intercultural skills their whole lives. Most go through some degree of “culture shock,” and many underestimate how serious culture shock will be for them in the beginning. But culture shock is a highly complex experience that has a lot to do with processing and adjusting to difference. It’s not a process of assimilation, and for many students, culture shock doesn’t end after they are very familiar with their new place and how to interact there.
Overall, the image of the bewildered international student trying to understand American language and culture needs to go. Instead, these are the things international students tell me are their top concerns:
Finding good food
Time management (especially getting through course readings)
What will happen after graduation (especially concerning visa status)
Mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, stress)
Racism and micro-aggressions on campus
Clearly, these concerns are in no way exclusive to international students, but we can imagine the ways in which the stakes are sometimes higher for those thousands of miles from family and home.
On top of that list, I’d like to add a few that I have noticed over the years:
Institutional separation on campus (separate programs and spaces when that isn’t necessary)
Perceptions and policies that treat international students as a problem to be solved
Perceptions that international students are a resource that benefits the campus rather than having value as humans and students themselves
Low expectations about students’ academic, linguistic, and social skills
Assumptions that anything that goes wrong (poor grade, argument with a roommate, failure to pay tuition bill on time) is because the student is international
I encourage you to talk to the international, multilingual, and multicultural students on your campus to find out who they are and what they need from you.