Helping International Students Connect with Peers

Helping International Students Connect with Peers

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

The purpose of the Global Affairs column is to discuss issues pertinent to the student affairs profession that arise out of the growing interconnectedness in the world. This column will provide readers with information and insights about the changing nature of the profession and some of the factors contributing to those changes. The use of the term “globalization” is meant to describe the growing interconnection of nations, people, economies, politics, and education. The term is not meant to reflect a particular ideology or belief structure. The column will explore both the potentially good and bad aspects of a real phenomenon

When traveling abroad, there are many things that I value: experiencing the historical treasures of the world, seeing its natural beauty, learning about other cultures, and tasting new foods. But, the one thing that I value more than any of these things is the opportunity to meet folks from other countries. Whether it is simply a one-off encounter or the beginning of a valued friendship, I have learned that everyone has a story to share and offers something I could learn from them. And, if lucky, we create together a new story to share with others.

So, it was with great dismay that I read a recent study stating that many international students have a difficult time making meaningful friendships while studying in the United States. (The study can be accessed here. A summary of the article was also published in The Chronicle of Higher Education). I might have an idealistic view of what a study abroad experience should include. It is one of the great regrets of my undergraduate experience that I didn’t study abroad. It’s not that I didn’t want to; it just didn’t fit into my busy schedule of being a student leader. But I did have many friends who took such journeys, and I know that many sustain relationships from that critical period in their life. And, there was always a little part of me that was a bit jealous of those stories and the friendships they developed.

Thus, when reading this study, it was hard for me to believe that it would be possible for a large number of students to study abroad for weeks or months at a time and not be able to develop any meaningful friendships. But, that is what the data revealed.

Researchers surveyed 450 students at 10 public universities in the south and northeast, with most of the students having been in the United States for one to three years. The study, published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, found that 38 percent of participants had no meaningful friendships with American students (though 27 percent reported that they had three or more close relationships with American students). There were also clear differences based on the homeland of the foreign students. Students coming from English speaking western nations were the most likely to have developed robust friendship groups; students from East Asia were the most likely to report having no friends from the United States.

It is difficult to discern the exact reasons why such friendships fail to materialize. In the study, 46 percent of the students believed it was due to factors such as their own shyness or their poor English-speaking ability, and 54 percent felt the failed friendships were the fault of the American students. Campus location also seemed to have an effect, with those attending institutions in the South more likely to have developed friendships with American students than those in the northeast. The study did not reveal specific reasons for the difference, though the authors speculated, based on other research, that it could be attributed to different levels of individualism, pace of life, community orientation, and adherence to norms of politeness.

What is more important is that the findings of this study should cause student affairs practitioners to pause and ask what they can do help foster such friendships. A set of solutions could center on additional programming targeted at getting students to meet one another; but most institutions already provide a number of opportunities for American and international students to meet and learn about each other and their cultures. Instead, I think one of the things that is most important, but which many of us often avoid because we say we are too busy, is to talk with students about their experiences adjusting to life at our institutions.

For example, last fall I was teaching a class with several international students. After class one night, one of those students wanted to talk about her performance in class. She had already proven herself to be a dedicated and exceptional student, so I asked her what her concerns were. She said that she wanted to make sure she was keeping up (she was!) and if I had any suggestions for additional work for her to do over the upcoming winter break. I asked her what her plans were for the break-if she were going to go home to China or explore parts of the United States. She said neither; she was going to stay in Albany and study. I then gave her my suggested homework: close the books, explore the area, and try to meet people. My suggestion caught her by surprise, so I explained my reasoning. Academics are important, and they should remain a priority; but if all she was going to do was study while in the United States, then why come to the United States and not just stay in China? Granted the academic experiences here might have some advantage over her options in China, but the real value of studying abroad is learning about the culture and the people in a foreign country. She said she would think about it.

I had actually forgotten about this exchange until at graduation last spring. After the ceremony was over, she tracked me down and reminded me of what we discussed and told me of some of the adventures she had once she “closed the books.” She said it had transformed her experience as an international student, so much so that she is now pursuing a career in international education to help others see the benefits in the same way.

As teachers and student affairs practitioners, we often have the opportunity for such exchanges-ones that we may soon forget but that can hold great meaning for our students. I was thrilled to hear that this exchange had caused the student to think differently about her experiences studying abroad. But, the deeper meaning became more evident only after I read the study mentioned above and realized how many international students in the United States are living on our campuses but are not becoming part of our communities. In fact, when such relationships do not form, both international students and students from the United States lose out on tremendous opportunities to grow.

So, in considering my experience this past year, it reminded me of how powerful a conversation, even a brief one, can be on the lives of our students. In writing this column, my hope is to encourage others to remember this simple truth and to encourage you to remind your students, regardless of their home land, that everyone has a story to tell and that meaningful relationships and memories are often about the stories we write together.

Discussion Questions

  • How often do you take the time to talk with students about their study abroad experiences?
  • How can we better encourage domestic students to seek out friendships with international students and to see the value in such relationships?


Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. (A.V. Miller, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Director of Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. He is member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. His most recent books include Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education (Stylus Press), Colleges and Universities as Economic Drivers (SUNY Press), and Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch (Jossey-Bass). More about the author and his research on cross-border education can be found here.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason E. Lane.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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