Student Voices: Background

This study aims to better understand the challenges faced by first-year international students1 studying at the University of Minnesota. The research project is a direct response to practitioner observations of adjustment difficulties of first-year international students across the University community and reports from University faculty and staff regarding similar concerns and observations.

Table 1. University of Minnesota international undergraduate enrollment

  International undergraduates % increase from previous year
2009 1,411  
2010 1,834 29.98%
2011 2,282 24.42%

Data for the study was collected in Fall 2010. Increases in Table 1 match the trend of increasing undergraduate international student enrollments at higher education institutions across the United States, but the percentage increases demonstrate remarkable growth at the University of Minnesota. According to the Institute of International Education’s (2011) Open Doors report, 723,277 international students were enrolled at U.S. institutions in the 2010-2011 school year, reflecting a 4.7% increase from the 2009-2010 year. Forty percent of this number, or 274,431, were enrolled at the undergraduate level, and undergraduate enrollments increased 6.2% from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011.

The research team recognized an opportunity to better understand the specific needs of the significantly growing population of international undergraduate students in order to facilitate their integration into the University community and to inform decisions related to policies, resources, and student services. The University of Minnesota’s long-standing reputation for its innovations in, and commitment to, international education and the internationalization of higher education (Mestenhauser, 2011), further provided a rich context for the study.

The research project was conducted by staff members from:

Each member of the research team, including two doctoral students from the College of Education and Human Development, has significant professional experience working with international students in higher education settings. The presentation of this practitioner-based research is, therefore, designed to present key findings and themes, to discuss implications of the data, and to provide recommendations to University administrators, faculty, staff, and students, to maximize the presence of international undergraduate students on the UofM campus.

The study is primarily informed by two theoretical models. The first framework that informs international student adjustment is Berry’s (1997, 2005) acculturation model. Berry suggests that whenever two or more cultural groups are in contact, a dual process of cultural and psychological changes takes place. Both groups experience change but the greater impact is on the individuals in the non-dominant group. When an individual encounters a new cultural group, he or she is expected to navigate changes in social structures, institutions, and cultural practices, as well as changes in personal behaviors. For international students, this means going through a continual process of determining the extent to which they want to maintain their own cultural identity. This is in juxtaposition to their preference for participating and developing relationships with the new cultural group. If mutual adaptation between the two cultures does not occur, international students are faced with the difficult choice of giving up their identity in order to fit in or the risk of being socially and culturally isolated. The extent of mutual adaptation impacts how much sociocultural and psychological stress students in the non-dominant group experience. Although acculturation impacts individuals primarily at the beginning, it is nevertheless is a long-term and demanding process.

The second framework, Tinto’s (1987) model of student retention, focuses on the importance of having students integrate both academically and socially if they are to have long-term commitment and persistence at an institution. The result of students’ feelings of being connected and included impacts not only retention but also the academic performance and intellectual development of students.

These two theoretical models combined shed light on the experiences faced by international students who, often through a second language, are adapting to living in a new country and adjusting to a new academic system. The process of acculturation for these students may heavily impact their ability to feel included and connected both academically and socially at the University of Minnesota.

It is well established in intercultural and educational literature that there are transitional issues associated with learning in a second language and culture. Previous studies have examined different facets of the international student experience and have identified language, academic adjustment, and integration or relationships within the local community as some of the primary challenges faced by international students (Justice & McLachlan, 2009; Montgomery, 2010; Robertson, Line, Jones, & Thomas, 2000; Sensyshyn, Warford, & Zhan, 2000; Yeh & Inose, 2003; Zhang & Mi, 2010).
Most of these studies highlight the experiences of non-native English speaking students studying in the United Kingdom or Australia. Fewer studies focus on international undergraduate students in the United States or have explored the specific context of the University of Minnesota. Through student voices, this study seeks to fill this gap and inform the curricular and co-curricular experiences involving undergraduate international students at the University of Minnesota.

Student voices emerged naturally from the survey responses to illustrate many aspects of the international student experience in the University of Minnesota community. While qualitative items were intentionally included in the survey instrument, the dimension and weight of their responses was unanticipated and too powerful not to highlight in the findings. Student comments naturally aligned with Cook-Sather’s (2006) framework of voice as a call for rights and respect, and created an opportunity to “encourage reflection, discussion, dialogue and action on matters that primarily concern students, but also, by implication, school staff and the communities they serve” (Fielding & McGregor, 2005, as cited in Cook-Sather, 2006, p. 362). Providing a space for the international student voice on this campus thus became the focus, and title, of this research project.

1 The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, n.d.) defines international student status as “[a] nonimmigrant class of admission, an alien coming temporarily to the United States to pursue a full course of study in an approved program in either an academic…or a vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution.” This report specifically focuses on international students at the undergraduate level.

Report Content

  1. Abstract
  2. Background
  3. Methods
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion
  6. Recommendations
  7. Limitations and Directions for Future Research
  8. References


Beth Isensee
Director of Student Engagement, International Student and Scholar Services