40% of foreign students in the US have no close friends on campus: The culture shock of loneliness

Students and visitors sit in front of a fountain at Harvard University.
Students and visitors sit in front of a fountain at Harvard University.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Foreign students are flocking to the higher education system in the US. A recent study found that in 2011-2012, the number of international students in the US increased by 6.5% over the last year to a record high of 764,495 students. Of these, 56% came from only five countries: China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

The reasons for the shift and the consequences of this massive migration have been discussed at great length within universities, in papers with titles such as “The Chinese are Coming.” When the students arrive on American campuses, however, they have to wrestle with social and educational experiences that are fundamentally foreign to them. Most anticipate their American adventure as an exciting opportunity laced with some inevitable adjustments, caught off guard by the extent and nature of the obstacles they encounter, in the classroom and on campus.

Studying and writing in a foreign academic language is difficult enough, but it is often the classroom dynamic that is most daunting to foreign students. They are disconcerted by the interaction, often marked by an easy familiarity and questioning rapport, between American teachers and students. Yongfang Chen, one of the authors of A True Liberal Arts Education, co-written about his academic experiences as a Chinese student at Bowdoin, noted in an interview after the book was published, that, “Coming from a culture in which a ‘standard answer’ is provided for every question, I did not argue with others even when I disagreed. However, Bowdoin forced me to re-consider ‘the answer’ and reach beyond my comfort zone.” The intense and narrow focus required of Chinese students as they spend high school preparing for the gaokao, the national test that is the sole determinant of entry into China’s universities, is also at odds with an American emphasis on ongoing assessment through tests and midterm exams.

Many international students find the social adjustment even more difficult.  A growing number, for example, come from Saudi Arabia (many on Saudi government scholarships) with its very different gender roles. For these students taking instruction from female professors and studying alongside other women students requires setting aside deeply held assumptions.The demographic profile of incoming students shifting as the World Education Services report in “Not all International Students are the Same.”The students come from different socio-economic backgrounds (Chinese students tend to be increasingly middle class and well-traveled, for example, compared to Indian arrivals); they differ in academic preparedness;and whereas in the past the majority came to pursue graduate students, now a growing number are prospective undergraduates. Unlike graduate students who are not only more mature but also live and work in a more structured environment, undergraduates bring to campus their own culturally-specific versions of teenage. Many Chinese freshmen, for example, may be an only child at home and sharing a dorm room with anyone, much less a stranger, is a new experience.

Even standard college fare like campus parties confronts young foreign students with a range of behaviors and interactions that they can find unpleasant or even threatening. As a young African student at Brown explained, at home parties were occasions to talk to friends, while in the US they seem about everything except talking—dancing, drinking, and hooking up. Typical campus discourse is often a minefield for newcomers, said a Norwegian student. “I find that Americans are generally very politically correct, and as a European, I think I’m used to being blunter and saying things right out. There are certain things, particularly politics, race and religion, that are simply not talked about here—or if they are, they are super-sensitive issues. It took me some time to figure out what those things actually were.”

Many international students respond to the “adjustment fatigue” by sticking to their own. An Indonesian student at the University of Florida laments that, “Their [American students’] conversations revolve around things I am not familiar with. As a result, international students tend to stick closely with each other. Even until today, I still always sit down together with other international students in the dining hall and hesitate to mingle with American students.” Many, however, find themselves even without the solace of their countrymen. The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication reports that 40% of international students had no close friends amongst their American classmates, a rate that was especially high amongst East Asian students (and incidentally slightly lower for those attending universities in the South). So despite actual numbers of foreign students on the rise, this casts one of the sadder lights on the true internationalization of American campuses.