First Year Programs

International Student Struggles

October 10, 2016

It is no secret that there is a large population of international students here at the University of Washington. In fall quarter of this year (2015), international students accounted for 15.2% of the total undergraduate enrollment at the UW Seattle campus (Office of Minority Affairs, 2015). If the total undergraduate enrollment in 2014 was 29,468 students, assuming that there was a similar enrollment rate this year, there are around 4,400 international students enrolled (Quick Facts, 2014). This large group of students brings a great dimension to the UW and the students have many unique perspectives and experiences to contribute to the culture here on campus. Hailing from more than 100 different countries, the international community of students is full of diversity, international flair and adventurous spirits (Office of International Student Services, 2014). Not only do international students bring diversity to campus, they also expand the reach of UW and create opportunities for international recognition. With the UW student community constantly changing and expanding, connections to countries all over the world are continually being forged and cultivated with the transfer of knowledge and information. In order to accommodate all of these international students, UW is tasked with the challenge of meeting all of their different needs. These needs include housing, financial advising, or needs that require more attention, such as emotional or mental support. Whatever the need may be, UW has the difficult task of not only identifying the needs, but also addressing them appropriately. This paper is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the needs of international students, but a look into some of the overarching needs that arise when studying here at UW. I will detail two such needs: the need for academic and general support, and the need for community. These needs have been brought to my attention after some in-depth research and an interview with an international student. I recognize the bias that might surface due to the small interview pool, but I can only assume that if one person has these needs, there are other international students who are searching for help with similar issues. For this paper, I reached out to my friend, Ruby Boram Lee, who I met in my Freshman Interest Group when I first started attending UW. She is from Ansan City, Korea and is currently a junior studying Accounting. Her experiences at UW give some great insight on what it is like being an international student at an American University.

Academics are the focal point of UW, or any university for that matter. People come to college with the hope of expanding their knowledge and soaking up as much information as they can to prepare for the professional world. There are many hardships associated with university academics, including tough classes, rigorous assignments, complex concepts and the occasional interesting professor. Imagine combining all of the difficulty of academics, with the difficulties associated with living in a country to which you are unfamiliar. Such is the situation that most international students are faced with, and a common need that arises is academic and general support. General support would encompass a broad range of issues that international students deal with when adjusting into a new culture and academic system. Ruby describes a time when she needed advising regarding getting a job here in the United States.

“For example, in freshman year, I had a question about job opportunity for international students, visa issues regarding that, and just a bunch of questions about American system. So I went to drop-in advising at the career center in Mary Gates Hall, but they just told me they don't know about those issues so I should go to ISS (International Student Services). I went to ISS and they said they only take care of visa issues when students have jobs so I should go to Mary Gates Hall to get advising about my future (Ruby Lee).”

This situation highlights one of the many reasons that an international student would seek out an advisor for assistance. This also highlights the lack of communication between departments on campus and resources for international students. It would be beneficial if the different resources that international students often turn to were in collaboration with each other on potentially ambiguous issues such as the one previously stated. Some of the commonly used resources are the Career Center, ISS, and FIUTS. Ruby then goes on to state,

“I think providing advising/mentoring session would be helpful to international students. Currently, we can get help with our papers at the writing center and with visa at ISS. However, I think there isn't really no where to go for advising or asking questions about their college life or American culture.”

This shows that she is aware of some of the resources that we have on campus for international students, but she is also aware of the lack of resources we have on campus. Advising on both the academic front as well as general advising is crucial to international students. When this advising is not available or not well communicated, international students may have a tough time getting their important questions answered or needs met. Regardless of whether the advising isn’t as comprehensive as necessary or the advising isn’t communicated as effectively as possible, one thing is clear: there is a need among international students for both academic and general support and advising. To corroborate this testimony, in an article posted by US News, Cristian Craciun Brutten highlights the necessity of supporting international students from an advising standpoint. Cristian is from Brazil, but he has studied at many American universities. He says that he has been asked to be used as a resource for prospective and incoming international students, by many of the schools he studied at. He frequently talks to international students or exchanges emails with them regarding any questions they may have about studying in America (Craciun, 2014). Looking at how other universities seek out international student peer counselors like Cristian, this shows that there is a need among international students for people to turn to when it comes to getting their questions answered.

            The need for community is a need that everyone shares. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, love/belonging is third on the pyramid, preceding esteem and self-actualization. Belonging to a community provides support, encouragement, friendship, and love. I would argue that this need for community is stronger among international students. Since they don’t always naturally fit into the surrounding culture, a community that they can identify with is essential. Ruby touched on this issue briefly when she talked about how challenging it was to adjust to the culture here in America. She describes the “assimilation process” as being challenging in that there is pressure to assimilate in certain ways. My understanding of this “pressure” to conform to the culture that you are living in is a natural thing one must face when living in another country. Ruby then goes on to mention that it was much easier to learn the culture when she had friends to learn and safely make mistakes with. She didn’t join any of the Korean clubs on campus, but she did admit that it probably would have made the transition easier. Overall, from Ruby’s experience it can be said that finding a community with whom you can relate to can help ease the transition into a new culture.

            In a study done by Education Research International, 10 international students from different countries were asked about the challenges they faced when adjusting to college in the United States. Each interview lasted approximately 70 minutes and interviewees were asked the same open ended questions. The use of uniform open-ended questions was a precaution taken to ensure that they were not making generalizations about behavior. Through the various interviews that each student had, the researchers were able to identify three common challenges that they faced. These include, academic challenges, cultural adjustment, and social isolation. The study then goes on to conclude that universities with an international student population need to be able to support their students not only academically, but also socially and culturally. In most of the interviews, students reported feeling some form of social isolation and loneliness. One student stated that, “I feel that there is no opportunity for me to interact with my classmate(s),” and another student stated that, “I heard some of my friends say that they (Americans) do not like international students.” Some strategies that these international students used to combat their social isolation were to attend international student orientations, if they were offered, seek out American roommates, and find conversational partners to practice speaking English with. No matter how these students chose to deal with social isolation, it is clear that there is a general need for community with fellow international students as well as Americans (Wu, 2015).

            The large portion of international students is unique in that they all come from different backgrounds and cultures, but they are the same when it comes to the difficulties and struggles they face when moving to a new country. The first overarching need that was highlighted in this essay is the need for academic and general support in the form of advising. Advising for international students can often be confusing to get or not relatable to their specific situation. The second overarching needs that was discussed is the need for community. Being thrown into a new culture makes it difficult for international students to find friends and make connections with both fellow international students as well as American students. The presence of these needs might not come as a surprise to many, but the important takeaway from this is that universities need to be proactive in addressing these needs. Direct communication with international students is a great way to get feedback and advice on how to best address these needs. From an Orientation Leader standpoint, I think it is essential for us to be aware of the common needs that international students have. A couple practical applications that we can employ are to be knowledgeable of the ways that UW provides support and advising to international students, such as ISS and FIUTS. We can also be encouraging when it comes to talking with international students about finding community. Encourage them to seek out clubs, organizations, and other social functions where they can meet both other international students, as well as American students.

            There are also a few things First Year Programs (FYP) can do to better accommodate international students.  They can begin by putting greater emphasis on the current international resources that UW offers, FIUTS and ISS. Since FYP is typically the first point of contact between UW and international students, it is important that everyone affiliated with FYP, including Orientation Leaders, is very knowledgeable about FIUTS and ISS. I think it would also be beneficial if representatives from both of those campus partners took a more active role during orientations. This will familiarize international students with some affiliates from both of those campus partners. Lastly, I think that FYP can sit down with some current international students and ask them what was helpful/not helpful about their orientation. If FYP has a good grasp on where and how they need to improve, they will be able to better accommodate international students in the future.



Craciun Brutten, Cristian. "Adjust to Life in the U.S. as an International Student." US News and World Report. N.p., 24 June 2014. Web. 25 May 2016.

Office of International Student Services. "International Students Profile 2014." (2014): n. pag. University of Washington, 2014. Web. 25 May 2016.

"Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity 2015-16 FACT SHEET." (n.d.): n. pag. OMA&D, 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.

"Quick Facts." University of Washington Office of Admissions. University of Washington, 2014. Web. 25 May 2016. <>.

Wu, Hsiao-ping, Esther Garza, and Norma Guzman. "International Student’s Challenge and Adjustment to College." Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.