Helping International Students Acculturate at the Beginning of the Academic Year

Once again, we are at the start of a new academic year.  As record numbers of international students arrive onto US campuses, I am reminded of how tenuous a time it is for so many students.  Arriving in a new country without family, finding and setting up home, becoming functional in a new culture and establishing a foothold in our academic setting — wow!  Below, please find a blog I wrote last Fall for the staff and faculty members who may encounter these international students.  I hope this piece will help refocus us on the unique needs of these international students.  Thank you for all you do!

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I’ve had the opportunity to take part in Orientations and Acculturation programs at various universities in the last month.  I always admire the young cross-cultural pioneers I meet on campuses, ready to step forward.  More so, I am touched by their feedback about my talks, where they can make sense of their struggles, know that they are very normal and that at the end of this confusing period, is personal growth and success.  I want to take this moment to highlight these students’ situations and to offer suggestions to enable the smoothest possible acculturation for international students.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a phenomenon all persons experience when they settle into a new geography.  The greater the cultural difference, the more severe the adjustment can be. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that for many students, this is the first time they have left their home country and not have had family support.  Simply imagine you or your child experiencing this phenomenon.
Arriving, Finding and Setting Up A Home
From the moment they arrive at the airport, these students are experiencing a sense of being lost that they have never experienced.  Many arrive without a notion of where they will live during their first year in the United States.  The search for temporary housing, permanent housing, bank services, phone services, furnishings, restaurants, food, can be overwhelming.  Students have mentioned the wall they hit as they try to use English everyday and navigate through our system of commerce.
Beginning the Academic Year
From the start, many students experience first hand our American expectation for personal choice and personal expression.  Whether it’s about choosing a class, preparing for a class, participating in class or socializing, many are not used to the notion of personal choice, or what we may deem as self-initiative.  Especially for those from East Asia, who have been accustomed to being told a “right” way to do things and to follow prescriptions by persons in authority, these students feel truly lost about ways to exert their personal perspectives.  The American social scene, with its extroverted and alcohol intensive tendencies, can be very off-putting to those from more introverted cultures who build relationships in small gatherings.
Suffering in Silence
Perhaps most troubling is the degree to which many international students do not proactively seek external help, whether from persons of authority or their peers.  Many cultures do not have a regular practice of having counselors, therapists or mental health specialists.  For some, seeking help is a sign of personal failure and shame.   As a result, they struggle in silence. 

RECOMMENDATION FOR SUPPORT

Empathy
Each of us, having reached our stage in life, has experienced significant personal challenges in one form or another. Thus we understand suffering.  Students in culture shock need compassion and TLC.  If we can go within ourselves, to a time when we suffered and from that experience, offer help to students, we may offer a true starting point for students to trust, and eventually to open up and accept help.  Students may fear persons in authority, but no human being is afraid of another human being truly ready to help.
The Straw Can Break the Camel’s Back
Little incidents and inconveniences, when accumulated, can be truly overwhelming.  Be on the watchout to make sure “checked out” students have their basic needs met — safe housing, furnishings, utilities, food purchase, transportation, etc.  They may not proactively ask,  but if you can prompt even these basics, it may be incredibly helpful.
A Buddy System
Consider hooking up first year students with a second year buddy for just the first few months of acculturation.  Provide second year student guides with a checklist of questions or areas to discuss with the new student to maximize their effectiveness.
Small Gatherings of Relaxed Fun
Large groups can be intimidating to newly arrived international students.  Create smaller, more intimate groups with topical discussions that focus on the light fun aspects of life.
Regular Check-ins
Create events, lunches, etc. where you can check in with students.  Finding a brave person to offer up their personal struggles can ignite a passionate conversation.  Always end with solutions and positive reinforcements.

 

HELPING PIONEERS IN THEIR JOURNEY

These international students are, indeed, pioneers, entering into lands unknown.  They are among the best students from around the world, who have chosen to come upon our shores to further their studies, their careers and their lives.  May we, who have journeyed before them, guide them so that they can find their footing to walk strongly and confidently into their future.