Recognizing the university’s obligations to its international students

Many U.S. universities have increased their international student enrollments over the past few years, through building out their international student recruitment capacity, working with overseas study abroad agents, or partnering with a pathway provider. Financial motivations are at the heart of much of this recruitment activity, but many institutions have been keen to implement and communicate a campus internationalization plan that adds value to the students’ experience by offering a diverse student community. But such a plan requires more than merely a recruitment effort: institutions need to develop the capacity to support their growing international population of students, who may need help with cultural adjustment, language skills, and orientation to the demands of the U.S. higher education system. In many cases, institutions have been slow to recognize the need for and create appropriate support systems for their international students, and this has led to concerns or complaints among faculty that students are not prepared, heightened stress for international students, and academic disciplinary measures taken against students who may not be familiar with citation practices. Clearly, institutions that have recruited international students should take their responsibilities toward these students seriously by offering plentiful support through dedicated staff, offices, and programs.

But this is only part of the solution. Much talk about international students on campus focuses on getting them to integrate, getting them to learn the American way, improving their communication skills. In this discourse, which belongs to the longstanding assimilationist tradition in the U.S.,  international students are viewed as a problem to be fixed. If institutions really want to develop their global credentials though, they need to look in the mirror: how prepared are faculty and staff to work with students from other cultures and language backgrounds? To what extent does the institution prepare its U.S. students to break out of their familiar social groups to befriend and welcome those from other countries? At a time when many institutions are signaling that they welcome international students, how many are actually taking measures to build that welcoming environment?

We know that most international students leave the U.S. not having formed a single significant friendship with an American or having once stepped into an American home. To serve their international students well, university administrations and faculties should refrain from merely problematizing those students, and accept their share of the burden in creating a welcoming, globally oriented institution.