Student Voices: Discussion

This study was undertaken to give voice to international undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota and to better understand the challenges they face. We found that these challenges focused around four major themes:

  1. challenges of studying and participating in a second language
  2. a lack of shared academic and classroom culture
  3. feelings of isolation and exclusion
  4. general cultural differences

While some of these themes are not surprising, the details included in the student responses provide insight into the undergraduate international student experience. These findings point to areas where the first year experience for these students can be improved.

We anticipated that language would be a challenge for students in their first semester at the University, and we found that to be true. For most students there is a period of adjustment when transitioning into full-time study in a second language. Speaking up in front of a class (even to ask a question), dealing with the processing time needed for the reading load, and coping with vocabulary and grammar issues were among the most often cited language issues. Students also pointed out that references and examples derived from American culture made comprehension challenging.

These language challenges do not appear to be isolated to students with lower levels of proficiency. Even students with high English proficiency stated how it took great confidence to speak up in class during their first semester at the University. In addition to skill building, there is a transition period for students during which they gain confidence in their language abilities, adjust, and learn what is expected in terms of language at the University.

Although some language issues are related to transition, others represent greater language deficiencies that can be addressed through coursework or accommodations. English as a second language (ESL) classes, conversation partners, and other resources can help students build confidence and improve their skills in the language. Ensuring that all students know how to access the language learning resources available to them can help ease their transition into the University and allow them to more quickly become active participants in their courses and study groups.

When an international student struggles in their coursework, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that it is a lack of language ability that is the cause of the problem. Sometimes that is the case, however, sometimes language is just part of the issue or not the issue at all. As we saw in student responses to this survey, there are many other challenges that students face. Some of these challenges are the same ones that native English speaking students face, such as a lack of study skills or social adjustment when entering the University. Other challenges are unique to international students, but are not directly related to language, such as cultural adjustment. The responses in this survey demonstrate that there are many areas we need to consider beyond language when an international student struggles so that we can best help them address their challenges.

A lack of shared academic and classroom culture was the second major theme to emerge in the student responses to this survey. International students arrive on campus to an entirely new educational system for them. They have to acculturate and make adjustments in order to navigate the demands of new social, physical, and academic systems.

The survey data indicate that international students often approach asking questions in class differently, particularly when students want to ask questions and whom they want to ask. Students also identified differences from their home culture to the amounts and types of participation expected, the amount of homework, how one addresses a professor, the ways in which students are assessed, the exclusive use of American culture-based examples in class, and attendance policies at the University. These differences caused stress and a perception of unfairness if students came from cultures that had different classroom norms.

Students also voiced concerns about knowing how to make connections with classmates and instructors. Group work was challenging to some students. Creating these classroom connections are important so that students can engage with classmates out of class to study or form project groups. Engaging international students from the beginning of their time on campus, and educating them about the importance of group work if it plays a large role in a course, could help them feel more engaged.

A theme that strongly emerged in the data was that of students feeling isolated or excluded. Unprompted by our quantitative questions, this theme emerged from the open-ended questions on the survey. Different factors seem to contribute to this. They include students not feeling welcomed to take part in discussions and social events, not knowing how to take the initiative in social interactions, focusing too much on academics and not making social connections during their first year on campus, and a perceived reluctance by domestic students to engage with international students.

Student respondents specifically asked for structured opportunities for cross-cultural interaction with domestic students. Making connections on campus can impact student retention rates (see Rather & Harter, 2010; Lopez & Louis, 2009; Snyder, et al., 2002) and help students to feel more connected to their learning community. Research in the area of intercultural relational theory suggests that supportive, respectful relationships are essential to well-being and development (Miller, 1976; Comstock, 2005; Comstock, et al., 2008), and are important for international students (Rajapaksa & Dundes, 2002). Simply bringing international students to campus does not necessarily create an environment for cross-cultural interaction to take place, and students recognized this. Meaningful relationships need to be nurtured with specific opportunities developed for domestic and international students in and out of the classroom.

In addition to the themes above, students also cited general cultural differences that made it challenging to adapt during their first semester or year on campus. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that in addition to living in a new cultural and linguistic context, international students, like most students, are adapting to managing their time, a new transportation system, perhaps a new climate, and developing new social connections. All of these factors can create challenges for students. Helping them navigate these challenges can help them succeed at the University.

In this study we asked international students about challenges so that we could better understand their concerns, create a dialogue around the first-year international student experience, and better support international students at the University. Some students recognized that they have a responsibility to adapt, while others want to retain aspects of their cultural identity and value systems. Students also provided many good suggestions on how the University community can aid them in their academic success and transition to campus life. The final section of this report outlines our recommendations based on the survey findings for University administration, as well as for those who directly serve students through instructional and service roles.

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