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Equity in Higher Education for International Students

International students deserve better support in higher education.

Written by: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge

International students face many interconnected challenges that should be addressed in a holistic way by higher education institutions. Challenges vary by the individual and can range from cultural differences in academic writing to culture barriers and homesickness, and even discrimination and exclusion. International students represent about 4% of the total student population, which comes to around 1 million students enrolled annually. Recently there has been a drop of international student enrollment in U.S. schools, highlighting the importance of outreach and support. Therefore, higher-ed stakeholders should do more to implement comprehensive community-driven, human-centric approaches to ensure greater equity for international students.

International students often confront a wide range of unique academic challenges that make classes frustrating and difficult. A language barrier is an example of a challenge that can make it difficult for students to both learn and communicate about class material. Social anxiety or culture can also make it so that some students feel uncomfortable asking for help. Another potential challenge is academic writing style. Different cultures may have different communication and writing styles, and may structure academic writing differently. Having to adjust to American academic writing and grammar can therefore be challenging and time consuming. Prior knowledge gaps can be frustrating too, as professors may expect students to have specific academic or historic background knowledge that international students may not have. Finally, some students may feel alienated by Western-focused class material that is non-inclusive of diverse perspectives or historical backgrounds.

International students may also experience many kinds of interpersonal challenges. These can make adjustment to college and life in the U.S. difficult. It can feel frustrating and alienating to live for an extended period of time where people don't speak one's first language, people don't look or dress like them, and/or general conduct is different. Students may also miss foods from their countries, as dining halls mostly serve American foods. Homesickness is therefore common, especially since some international students may be unable to travel back home over the holidays. Finally and importantly, international students may also be faced with prejudice. Not only may some students face racism based on their appearance, but they may also face negative stereotypes of their country or culture. Not to mention the additional pressures students may face such as sexism, religious discrimination, anti-LGBT+ discrimination, etc.

Prospective international students may also be influenced by tuition costs and emerging competitive alternative colleges and universities abroad. Studying abroad in the United States is expensive, which can deter many students. Barriers to employment for international students can exacerbate this problem too, as most are unable to get paid work due to visa restrictions or other similar issues. It does not help then, that skepticism about the return value of higher education seems to be spreading from the U.S. to other countries. Even those who have decided to study abroad may be less likely to choose the U.S., as great colleges and universities in other countries around the world increasingly create more competition for international students. However, U.S. higher education institutions can differentiate themselves to prospective students by addressing these discrepancies and fostering positive academic and social environments for prospective international students.

Higher education stakeholders can do many things to improve active inclusivity for their international students. Below is a list of examples of efforts that institutions can implement to do so.

  • Adopt more inclusive alumni networks to support enduring relationships

  • Adopt a more inclusive career support program with connection to opportunities abroad

  • Make efforts to decolonize the college classroom and curriculum

  • Promote anti-racist grammar in the classroom

  • Make efforts to provide comprehensive and accessible financial support

  • Provide safe spaces for international students to share experiences and concerns

  • Provide human centric support programs for students that extend beyond the first year

  • Include family member support programs

  • Instate international student support programs for professors and faculty

  • Create open discussions about international student social inclusion

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