A Guide for Helping International Students Find Success at Virginia Tech Practical Information for Faculty and Staff
Immigration permeates everything
An international student’s choices and actions are frequently limited and sometimes determined by their visa status, including how many credits or what classes a student takes, internship/co-op opportunities, ability to travel within and outside of the United States, and what kind of opportunities may exist beyond college. Since 9/11, immigration procedures have dramatically transformed the lifestyle of the international student.
Academic integrity is culturally defined
Regardless of your personal/cultural view on issues such as plagiarism, the definition of academic integrity varies by culture. Many cultures view copying and repeating professors or other expert sources as academically valid and even complimentary to the individual or group that created the information used. Additionally, the varying use of group work in different classroom settings often creates confusion. Some classes allow and encourage it, while in others it is strictly prohibited. Be clear about when and how group work can be used in your course. Some cultures value collective work and have limited experience with the high value that is placed on individual efforts by the American education system. Don’t excuse plagiarism or violations of the Honor System, but allow for teachable moments.
Language ability does not equal comprehension
While a student may be active in classroom discussion or the classroom social life, don’t assume the student fully comprehends the information presented.
Expectations about relationships between students and their instructors or faculty members are culturally based
Relationships with professors are often quite formal in other cultures; because of this, students may be reluctant to approach an instructor to ask for assistance. Encourage students by giving specific instructions about when and how to get help with questions and concerns about coursework.
Open discussion about cultural differences can be helpful
Acknowledgement that a difference may exist between the student’s home culture and the American culture can open a meaningful dialogue. Instructors sometimes avoid these conversations because they wish to be diplomatic. Avoidance of such conversations can create feelings of isolation or loneliness in some international students.
Educational systems are as different as cultures
An instructor should not assume that international students possess the same set of classroom/learning skills that domestic students possess. Some examples may include the ability to:
- apply abstract concepts to hands-on-work
- self-monitor or self-direct one’s coursework and/or research
- reflect on their learning experiences
- respond with their own ideas in classroom conversation, rather than repeating what the professor said
- ask direct questions about coursework
- express the difficulty with the encountered task or comprehension
Most importantly, instructors should be mindful that all learning tasks in and out of the classroom should have direction on how to participate in the task.
Often international students don’t know what is important or relevant to them on a syllabus
Professors sometimes skip important items (such as the Honor Code) when going over the syllabus, because it is assumed that everyone understands the importance of the item. International students will often think that if a syllabus item is not explicitly pointed out, then it is “required nonsense.”
A majority of international students respond best to structure
A spontaneous classroom with student autonomy is largely an American concept and can accentuate feelings of isolation. Whenever possible, provide written instructions about required work.
Allow for teachable moments
Mistakes are often made because of cultural misunderstandings. If something is left blank on a form, it is most likely that the student did not know what was expected. When a student makes a mistake, ask questions. Try to assist the student in understanding how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Be directive in factual, non-judgmental language. For instance, if a student is standing too close, state what you see and what is expected by saying, “You are standing too close. Most people in the U.S. like to be about an arm’s length away from people we are speaking to in non-intimate situations.”
Be aware of unintentional negatives
Instructors often do things in ways they think are helpful for the international student, but in reality, they may not be. Some examples may include:
- Assigning a group of students from the same country, culture, or ethnic background so it is ‘easier’ for them to work together on a group project. This can isolate students from other class members and prevent learning from their domestic peers.
- Not using a student’s name because it is difficult to pronounce. It is better to try and mispronounce a name than to leave the student nameless.
- Telling a student that something is not a ‘big deal’ or important when it actually is. Many students will follow verbal instructions above the written guidelines or policies.
Be mindful of how your well-intended actions could be misinterpreted.
Remind students of available resources
Virginia Tech has numerous resources to assist students, including the Writing Center, Center for Academic Enrichment and Excellence, and Cook Counseling Center. Refer students to appropriate resources by giving specific instructions on how to utilize the service with the name of a person to contact, if available.
International students are not homogeneous
We often speak of international students as a group in contrast to domestic students. We should all be aware that each culture is different and that the only way to respond to difference is to acknowledge difference.
Signs of Cultural Adjustment
These can appear throughout the international’s stay in the host country. Some individuals may need assistance if the symptoms are interfering with daily life.
- Not eating or sleeping properly
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Excessive concern with health and safety
- Withdrawal from people or activities
- Anxiety, suspicion, and rejection
- Distrust of Americans
- Easily tired
Important Signs of Students in Distress
(adapted from Cook Counseling Center brochure)
- Excessive procrastination and very poorly prepared work
- Infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed
- Dependency (e.g., the student who hangs around or makes excessive appointments)
- Listlessness, lack of energy, or frequently falling asleep in class
- Repeated requests for special consideration (e.g., deadline extensions)
- Inability to make decisions despite repeated efforts to clarify or encourage
- Overtly expressed suicidal thoughts
Please contact Cranwell International Center for assistance with a distressed international student.