International Students

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to identify cultural factors that influence the graduate experience.
  • Learn to appreciate the strengths and special challenges experienced by fellow students.
  • Learn to manage situations that are influenced by cultural differences.


“There is a lot of emphasis on talking in the American classroom and arguing with the professor. In my home country, we do not question or even think to interrupt the instructor. It’s seen as very disrespectful.”

“My education is funded by (my home country’s) government. I do not have the luxury to take time off nor would I ever think of dropping out, as I am indebted to my country and will return after I am done; that is the agreement. I’m not here to have fun, I’m here to get an education.”

The Growing International Community

The U.S. hosts the most international students in the world; the majority are graduate students.1 Graduate programs in science and engineering enjoy a large proportion of international students—approximately 30%. A high proportion of graduate students in some programs hold temporary visas, e.g., 58% in Computer Science and 68% in Electrical Engineering.2 About one-third of the international graduate students in science (excluding psychology and social science) and engineering are women.3

The NSF data underscore that women are not only underrepresented in most science and engineering doctoral programs but they are likely to be in programs where the majority of fellow students are men and from non-U.S. cultures. The mix of American students from domestic majority and ethno-cultural minorities as well as students and faculty from a diverse set of countries present rich opportunities and additional challenges for members of most university departments.

CareerWISE: A Field Guide for International Students

The information on this site can be viewed as a field guide for international women graduate students. Graduate study is usually characterized by students as a stressful process. Being outnumbered by men in a program and adjusting to the American culture at the same time may combine to make it an even more challenging time. Many students describe the differences as causing a sense of culture shock.4 The more the student’s home culture is different from the U. S. culture, the more culture shock the student is likely to experience. These cultural disparities can influence how well students adapt to student life and how well they become academically and socially integrated in the department.

Students with temporary visas encounter a host of legal, structural, and bureaucratic hurdles that complicate the already stressful experience of graduate school.5 These include meeting visa requirements, maintaining adequate financial support to continue their program, being subject to special requirements such as language proficiency tests, facing extra surveillance, dealing with impersonal administrative offices, being limited in visiting home and assisting family members in need due to financial and visa considerations, and meeting conditions of sponsoring agencies.

Academic or interpersonal difficulties become more difficult to resolve because of these hurdles. For example, although the majority of international students express satisfaction with their advisor relationship, one out of four report that they would like to change their advisors.1 But the consequences of changing advisors would be severe for students who would jeopardize their financial support, be subject to high rates for non-resident tuition, cannot be employed due to visa conditions, and may not be able to finish their degrees.

The perspectives, information, and skills offered in the CareerWISE project represent the culture of the American research university. Navigating successfully the norms of the host institution and U.S. culture depends on first knowing what they are and recognizing how they may differ from those familiar to you.

Understanding more clearly the expectations within the current context can help you monitor your own reactions and frame your responses more effectively. At the same time, you want to honor your own traditions and values and meet the expectations of your family back home. Hopefully, CareerWISE can assist you in managing challenging situations while still being true to yourself and reaching your goals.

Culture, Stress, and Language

Even though you thought you were prepared to attend graduate school in the United States, you might not have quite anticipated the differences between your home and the new surroundings. The term “acculturative stress”6 has been used to describe the physiological and emotional reactions you may be having with respect to the cultural differences. Besides being lonely, isolated, homesick, and sometimes guilty for being away, some international students report feeling marginalized, helpless, distrustful, and even angry. Being exposed to new people, customs, and ideas may challenge an international student’s sense of security with beliefs that she has held for a long time.

Often the biggest concern of international students is around English language proficiency. The different language can contribute to academic difficulties when students do not understand lectures or the subtleties of group interactions. Students can experience interpersonal distress when language gets in the way of easy communication. The degree of confidence and comfort students have in their social interactions also appears to depend on whether they interact with fellow native language speakers or not.7

U.S. universities and American culture in general, place a high value on verbal communication. When your primary language is not English, having to speak in English to teach, communicate with your fellow students, and interact with your advisor and other faculty can be particularly anxiety-provoking. You may find yourself staying quiet more than you usually would in order to avoid the discomfort of saying something incorrectly. Or, you may actually make more language errors precisely because you are worried about it. [See Stereotype Threat]

When there is an interpersonal or other difficulty, chances are that you think it through in your primary language. People tend to think and process emotions in their native language.8 Discussing emotional issues is also easier and more comfortable in your primary language where you have the range of vocabulary and control to express the nuances of your reactions. Thus, on the one hand it may be more difficult to express yourself fully in English when you have a troubling situation. On the other hand, speaking in English can help you stay more removed emotionally when you are interacting with another person about a matter that needs to be resolved.

The words you choose, the way you express them in terms of intonation and pitch, and your nonverbal behavior all communicate your cultural and ethnic identity to the other person. If English is a second language for you, others may have more difficulty understanding clearly the person behind the words. Cultural norms about disclosing emotions outside of the family will also affect how you approach interpersonal problems. These situations might warrant an extra effort on your part to make yourself understood fully, both in terms of the content of your message but also the meaning and feelings you are comfortable expressing.

Cultural Norms

North American research universities, through faculty assignments, teaching practices and evaluation schemes, and through student interactions in both academic and social settings, place a high value on behaviors that are common in the U.S. but that to students from other cultures may be unfamiliar, jarring, and sometimes even offensive. The student may feel caught between two sets of expectations: one from their family and home country and another from the U.S. institution and its members. The more different these expectations are, the more the student will experience acculturative stress that may interfere with successful functioning in the program.

A cultural difference that is cited frequently is the collectivist and communal values of some cultures vs. the rugged individualism of North American life. Most U. S. students strive first and foremost to meet personal career goals and fulfill their potential. In contrast, many international students believe that they are pursuing their doctoral degrees for the good of their families and to meet the expectations of their parents and community. For many international students, it would be unthinkable to curtail their efforts to earn the Ph.D. Doing so would be a source of disappointment, embarrassment, dishonor and shame for their families and could have economic and social consequences for themselves and their loved ones.

Every person is different from every other with her or his identities shaped by a range of influences [See Your Personality and Preferences]. Individual differences outweigh group differences in most instances and it is inappropriate to make generalizations to cultural groups or nationalities. Among American domestic students, there is a diversity of beliefs, values, and traditions that varies by individual as influenced by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and so on.9 Among Asian and Pacific Islanders alone, there are more than 40 disparate cultural groups. That said, it is helpful to understand your own perspectives, regardless of how they originated, and how they may differ from those around you. The similarities and differences between you and the faculty and your fellow students affect how you react and how you are perceived.

The following are some examples of differences in values and norms. Find the characteristics that best describe you. In reviewing the two lists, you may find areas of similarity or difference between you and your U.S. academic environment. You can refer to the similarities when strengthening your relationships with those around you. Being aware of the differences can help you understand some difficult situations and find ways to address them.

Values, norms, and characteristics

Other Cultures United States
Collectivist, shared goals Individual striving to reach personal goals
Communal, shared outcomes Competitive, winning
Family expectations to excel academically Emphasis on being personally satisfied
Family’s financial and personal sacrifices Expectation to be self-supporting
Aspiration for better economic opportunities Aspiration for higher and more predictable income
Respect for elders and authorities Choice of whom to respect
Interpersonal relationships important and long-term Impersonal, business-like orientation
Conform to what authorities expect Question authority and challenge perceived inequities
Accept assignments Negotiate tasks and responsibilities
Polite Assertive
Private Emotionally expressive
Family needs/intents weigh in decisions Make own decisions
Extended family provides tangible support Student is considered independent adult
Reciprocity and sharing of resources Set personal boundaries
Abstinence or moderation in alcohol and tobacco use Alcohol and party drug use
Dietary needs and religious requirements Social events with restricted food choices
Modest dress Revealing, casual dress

Cultural differences are often amplified for women. In most cultures, women are expected to honor cultural traditions and values in their personal and family lives and transmit them to their children. In many instances, women have been raised in societies with strong patriarchal traditions and hierarchies and where strict gender roles are paramount. Some international women, therefore, experience considerable discordance and discomfort in the North American culture where many women benefit from a wide range of acceptable behaviors and roles. The differences in social role expectations for women can further strain the experience of women students who find themselves in programs that are dominated by men from cultures with firm gender roles.

Cultural differences, if not addressed, can contribute to misunderstandings, stereotypes, and prejudices. It is natural to do what is comfortable for you but also common to forget how it is perceived by the faculty and your fellow students. [See The Impression You Make]

Some examples:

You Might Possible Misperceptions by Others
Not participate in class discussions because English is hard for you Not prepared for class
Not offer challenging comments in a critique Lack confidence or intellectual acuity
Shy away from social discourse Uninterested in being part of department life
Stay with students from your country and those who speak your language Cliquish and preference for separation
Accept any request made of you Take on any task, regardless of whether it interferes with your progress
Not respond to inappropriate behavior No consequence for critical and demeaning behavior

These are all reasons to stretch your usual range of behaviors as much as you can.

What Can Help

Social support, that is, having friends and acquaintances with whom to talk things over and lean on, can significantly lower acculturative stress and promote positive mental health.10 Domestic friends or students familiar with the host culture are an important source of learning about the host culture as well.

Social connections can counter feelings of isolation and disorientation. For instance, while domestic students are often able to return home for holidays, international students do so infrequently due to distance, cost, travel time, and visa difficulties. It is helpful when professors or other students invite international students over for a Thanksgiving meal or a New Year’s breakfast and express respect and interest in holidays that may be specific to their home culture.

There may also be an organized body of international students that provide support to students from their specific country, including sponsoring social events, study groups or even picking them up from the airport when they arrive. Even if domestic students are scarce, as is the case in certain programs, international students that have been in the U.S. longer typically already have some tricks of the trade that they can share with newer students. International student centers provide a range of academic support services, including English classes, social activities, and networking opportunities.

Sometimes the most important source of support is staying in frequent contact with family and friends from home. The wonders of email, Skype, and telephones benefit students who are far away from their usual environment. Social support in its many forms actually provides a direct and a mediating effect on the stress and cultural adjustment of international students.11

Learning how to deal with cultural insensitivity is another protective factor. Many international students report some experiences with discrimination.12 In fact, some international students encounter racial and ethnic discrimination for the first time. If a questionable or explicitly discriminatory issue comes up, feeling prepared will help make the situation more comfortable for you and perhaps assist the other person in recognizing an unnecessary and possibly harmful stereotype.

Sometimes just pointing out a difference in cultural perspectives can help the other person reframe the situation.

Don’t assume others know they are using language or a characterization that is offensive to you. Being clear about how you feel may prevent the same uncomfortable situation from reoccurring.


All in all, international students are very successful academically, despite the challenges of being in such a different environment.12 International students complete their PhDs at a higher rate than domestic students and do so in a shorter time period.13 Being equipped with personal strategies to manage American culture within the academic setting can help international students feel more prepared and be more resourceful.


  1. Rice, K. G., Choi, C. C., Zhang, Y., Ye, H. J., Nesic, A., Bigler, M., Anderson, D., & Villegas, J. (2009). International student perspectives on graduate advising relationships. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 376-391. doi:10.1037/a0015905
  2. Burns, L., Einaudi, P., & Green, P. (2009). S&E graduate enrollments accelerate in 2007; Enrollments of foreign students reach new high (InfoBrief No. NSF 09-314). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
  3. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. (2009). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering (NSF 09-305). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
  4. Chapdelaine, R. F., & Alexitch, L. R. (2004). Social skill difficulty: Model of culture shock for international graduate students. Journal of College Student Development, 45,167-184. doi:10.1353/csd.2004.0021
  5. Wedding, D., McCartney, J. L., & Currey, D. E. (2009). Lessons relevant to psychologists who serve as mentors for international students. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40, 189-193. doi:10.1037/a0012249
  6. Sandhu. D. S., & Asrabadi. B. R. (1994). Development of an acculturative stress scale for international students: Preliminary findings. Psychological Reports, 75, 435-448.
  7. Lin, S. P., & Betz, N. E. (2009). Factors related to the social self-efficacy of Chinese international students. The Counseling Psychologist, 37, 451-471. doi:10.1177/0011000009332474
  8. Santiago-Rivera, A. L., & Altarriba, J. (2002]. The role of language in therapy with the Spanish-English bilingual client. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33, 30-38. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.33.1.30
  9. Roosa, M. W., Dumka, L. E., Gonzales, N. A., Knight, G. P. (2002). Cultural/ethnic issues and the prevention scientist in the 21st century. Prevention & Treatment, 5, n.p. doi:10.1037/1522-3736.5.1.55a
  10. Lee, J. S., Koeske, G. F., & Sales, E. (2004). Social support buffering of acculturative stress: A study of mental health symptoms among Korean international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 28, 399-414. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2004.08.005
  11. Constantine, M. G., Anderson, G. M., Berkel, L. V. A., Caldwell, L. D., & Utsey, S. O. (2005). Examining the cultural adjustment experiences of African international college students: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 57–66. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.52.1.57
  12. Chavajay, P., & Skowronek. (2008). Aspects of acculturative stress among international students attending universities in the USA. Psychological Reports, 103, 827-835.
  13. Council of Graduate Schools. (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline data from the Ph.D. completion project. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

International Graduate Experience
Appreciation for advisor's assistance in transitioning to the US.

Experience as an International Grad Student
Challenges of being international and female, particularly with regards to an academic career and the choice to have children.

Ways to Cope with Minor Issues Related to Being a Woman
How to observe others' reactions to subtle comments in order to gauge an appropriate response.

Changing the System vs. Focusing on Cultural Barriers for Women
Suggestions for how to increase women's participation in science with an emphasis on policy change.

Distinguishing Customs and Roles in International Relations (Part 2)
Elaborates on the standard practice of science despite cultural differences.

Distinguishing Customs and Roles in International Relations (Part 1)
Highlights the universal customs of science.

Pros and Cons of an International Advisor
Experiences with an international advisor.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Anderson-Rowland
The importance of finding a good advisor and making sure to get everything in writing.


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