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Recognizing and Supporting Diverse International Students

Although many US colleges and universities experienced lower enrollment last fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students from around the world started their first semesters at their new institutions. As a faculty member and an academic advisor at two California institutions, we welcomed a diverse population of domestic and international students to our classrooms, offices, campuses, and virtual learning environments.

In our experience, university advisors and faculty are stretched thin and do not have the time or resources to recognize and support the dynamic experiences and extra pressures faced by international students—and all of our diverse students—in the current political and economic climate. Understanding the different profiles of international students—including their goals and the expectations placed on them—will be increasingly important as we welcome them back to our campuses after COVID-19.

In 2019–20, more than half of the 1,075,496 international students studying at US colleges and universities came from just two countries, India and China, and many institutions plan curricula and student support services with these populations in mind. But a closer look at the data reveals that 47 percent of international students (about 525,000 students) came from the world’s other 192 countries. Collectively, this student population is often woefully underrepresented and overlooked on campuses.

Many of these students come from the Global South (which includes parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America), and they are often among a small number of individuals from their home countries enrolled in their institutions in the United States, providing fewer opportunities to find community and support among their peers. These international students may also face unique expectations or pressures from their families or home communities, from their institutions or scholarship funders, or from themselves.

To afford the exorbitant cost of US higher education, international students often receive assistance from scholarship programs funded by the US government, the government of their home countries, or private sponsors. While some of these scholarship programs are prominent (such as the Fulbright Foreign Student Program), many are less well known yet still support hundreds of students each year. 

Our recent research, published in the Review of Educational Research, found six rationales for funding international scholarships for students from the Global South:

  • fostering the development of unique or specialized skills that students can apply in the home country
  • enhancing diplomatic relations between students’ home and host country
  • promoting social change when students return home, such as promoting rights for people with disabilities
  • advancing sustainable or international development goals, such as in the field of agriculture
  • bringing diverse and international perspectives to universities, or promoting university partnerships 
  • increasing access to higher education for marginalized students, such as refugees

Many scholarship programs that pay the tuition of young, talented individuals expect a return on their investment through economic, social, or policy changes, and these expectations can weigh heavily on students. Many scholarship programs also give students strict frameworks that guide their higher education abroad, including which programs of study to pursue, which classes to take, and how to focus research and intended career trajectories.

In addition, scholarship recipients may face additional academic or programmatic policies from their funders, host institutions, or governments, such as required courses or training, community service work, or limits on earning extra money to complement living stipends. They may also be caught between different postgraduation expectations: their families may encourage them to remain abroad in order to earn higher wages and send money home, while program sponsors may require them to return to their home countries, often to work for lower salaries.

We urge faculty and advisors to conduct regular and individualized outreach to underrepresented international students—and, if appropriate, the students’ scholarship administrators. Suggestions on how to do this include inviting international students to office hours, supporting them in finding local diaspora communities or other students from their regions (even within other departments or programs), and considering flexible assignments that allow them to align their work with expectations from their scholarship funders or home countries. Faculty and advisers can also find support from NACADA’s websites on international student resources and advising international students and NAFSA’s websites on policy and advocacy and supporting international students and scholars.

These suggestions, which may go above and beyond the international student services provided at most US colleges and universities, will ideally lead to a more welcoming environment for international students in the current context of rising nationalism, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and higher education’s transition to virtual and hybrid learning environments.

Anne Campbell is an associate professor of international education management at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and Emelye Neff is a graduate student advisor for computer science and engineering master’s programs at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California–Santa Cruz.

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