Paving the way for international student success

We see dizzying statistics and market trends in international education every day. But the key to success for many recruiters often rests in understanding the individual student experience. This perspective is a solid foundation for any recruitment effort, and it offers a competitive advantage for marketers who can remember it while recruiting new prospects, retaining them as continuing students, helping to ensure their success in their studies, and then engaging alumni as strong advocates or ambassadors after graduation. This article looks at how supporting international students through culture shock is an excellent articulation of this idea.

When culture shock hits

They’ve dreamed of your campus. They’ve saved their money. They’ve braved the long flight and packed all that you told them to pack. Now here they are on campus, your international students. They’re excited and … scared. They’ve seen some impressive things in their first few days at your school. Now, they want nothing more than to curl up in their residence beds and text their friends and families back home.

Of course they’re experiencing culture shock, the stages of which are said to be honeymoon, frustration, understanding, and finally acclimation. Most international students will experience culture shock, and most will get through it in time. However, the way in which an institution supports – or doesn’t support – its international students through culture shock can make a real difference in how these students form their first impressions of, and lasting associations with, an institution. Helping students through culture shock is the first step to setting them on a path to success in their studies and to a feeling of overall satisfaction at an institution.

Most institutions that are serious about internationalisation will have both a well-staffed international student advising and counselling team and a robust orientation week for new arrivals. But sometimes even this is not enough. As Inside Higher Ed tells us, one international student explained in a study of eight US colleges how international students’ expectations of college met up with their realities:

“The office helped in all administrative matters, but nothing more. Please, do not get me wrong: they were very helpful, but they did not help in my transition from Mexican to American culture.”

Another was more critical:

“I had a difficult time adjusting to the US culture and educational system. I thought it would be cheaper and I made no friends. I asked for help at the Office of International Students and I was sent to the counselling services. The counsellor sent me to the psych ward because she thought I was suicidal, which was not true. It has been a very dramatic experience that schools should consider when having international students.”

Strategies for overcoming culture shock

In “The Transition In: Setting International Students Up for Academic Success,” an article by higher education consulting firm Academic Impressions, Darla Deardorff, executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators and Norman Evans, a professor in Brigham Young University’s linguistics department provide advice developing an effective orientation strategy. The entire article is worth a read, but here’s one suggestion we really like:

“Can you leverage peer leaders, selecting and training upperclassmen who are international students to lead an orientation for entering freshmen?”

We recently wrote about the importance of cultivating alumni for international student recruitment purposes. Similar to international alumni, current international students can be crucial supports for newly arrived students in the sense that they provide a peer-to-peer perspective.

Hearing about how to survive culture shock from someone who has actually gone through it, who is also an international student, and who has lived to tell the tale and be successful is just a little more convincing than hearing it from office staff.

Moreover, it can also be fun. Check out the giggles this Columbia University international student’s presentation elicits from the room of nervous new students as he takes them through the various stages of culture shock:

Finally, international students are students just like all the others; they aren’t the only ones who have a difficult time adjusting to college life. After all, for many students, university marks a major transition in life. Our article which appeared just yesterday entitled “The increasingly negative impact of social media profiles on student admissions” highlights the culture of competitive sharing on social media networks, which can produce added feelings of pressure or loneliness amongst first-year students. In addition, our article “US college freshmen’s student service needs left unmet” highlights US campus student service gaps in the areas of career planning, study skills and financial guidance, illustrating that there is room for improvement when it comes to students’ academic and social needs and concerns.

Articles and videos like the ones referenced in this article remind us of the importance of remembering that in recruitment – and retention – it really is wise to think one student at a time, and to think people, not just numbers.



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