Understanding International Students’ Experiences with Social Integration

Reviewed by Ken Guan 

Two recent studies published in the January 2018 Journal of International Students revealed similar concerns about the sense of belonging for international students in the United States. The findings of the two studies strongly imply that a considerable number of international students perceive a lack of social engagement with their domestic peers. One study used a quantitative method and the other qualitative. Both suggested institutional leaders intervene in developing meaningful social interaction between international students and their domestic peers. A more significant concern is that the findings of the two studies are congruent with the research literature on international students from the past four decades. 

Engagement, Satisfaction, and Belonging  

In a study conducted out of Iowa State University, researchers Sam Van Horne, Shuhui Lin, Matthew Anson, and Wayne Jacobson sought to find ways that institutions can best support international student involvement and their success. 

Using a general linear mixed model, the researchers used data from approximately 3,800 international students and 55,000 domestic students at nine U.S. research universities through the Student Experience in the Research University Survey. They examined similarities and differences of students’ perceptions of academic and social integration experiences to identify the unique challenges only international students are facing, which are not part of the typical undergraduate experience. The researchers selected variables based on Alexander Astin’s input-environment-output model and prior work about the academic and social integration of international students. Survey variables related to social belonging, the climate for diversity, academic satisfaction, financial insecurity, higher-order learning tasks, and academic engagement. 

The study found commonalities between international and domestic students’ academic experiences and financial situations, but differences in their social integration experiences (belonging and respect). The study pointed out that social interactions are a unique challenge for international students. However, the authors were not able to pinpoint why international students felt a reduced sense of belonging at their institutions. 

The perception of campus climate in this study was the most pronounced difference between international and domestic students, especially for those with higher GPAs. This finding is troubling as this adverse effect is greater among academically high-achieving international students. The authors suggested, echoing other research findings, that universities should not necessarily assume academic achievement indicates satisfactory social integration or belonging.  

The following observations are also worth noting. Female international students, on average, were less likely to report being financially insecure and less likely to have the engagement in higher-order academic tasks beyond memorization and comprehension (e.g., evaluation, analysis). International students who were older and who had higher GPAs had modestly more elevated levels of financial insecurity. International students may struggle more once their major is determined and they are committed to a specific track of academic requirements. All international students perceived a similar level of interaction with faculty as the domestic students, suggesting that institutions could help faculty to develop inclusive classroom practices as educational interventions may potentially benefit students universally. 

Even though interaction with faculty and staff is a common practice among research universities, the authors suggested that universities should also focus on the quality of interaction among students and their peers, which contributes significantly to international students’ sense of belonging. Although the academic setting is essential to shaping the student experience, students spend far more time outside of classrooms than in them. To improve the climate for international students, the study suggested the importance of fostering social integration and belonging in nonacademic settings as well as in the classroom.  

Difficult and Negative Experiences 

Another research study probed further into the experiences of 12 international students from one Midwestern university. Researchers Lu (Wendy) Yan and Shaohua (Linda) Pei—both with international student backgrounds—interviewed students to understand their negative experiences on and off campus. Their goal was to suggest changes in policies and practices that could create a more inclusive and adaptable collegiate climate for these international students. 

The interviews with the participants were conducted until researchers were gaining no new information. Four common themes emerged among all participants: 1) their on-campus experiences: “Please don’t be too mean to us.”; 2) their off-campus experiences: “You are welcome to study here, but we are not equal.”; 3) their reasons for unpleasant experiences: “Everything is my fault”; and 4) their suggestions for professors and peers: “Mutual understandings.” 

In particular, authors emphasized that 10 out of 12 participants internalized inequality and blamed themselves for it, which is congruent with the system justification theory. Some of the reasons include: 1) having imperfect English to express themselves better; 2) not trying harder to prove to biased instructors or domestic peers that they are capable of doing group work or homework; 3) looking different or wearing something different (e.g., a hijab); and 4) merely being seen as “foreigners” or “outsiders.” The other two participants who didn’t blame themselves mentioned that they kept quiet after being discriminated against for fear of losing their F-1 visa status. 

The authors’ prediction of international students seeking a sense of belonging and thus making friends with the least resistant group (other international students) held true to all 12 participants. The participants stated they all had tried but found it difficult to make and maintain friendships with domestic students. As observed by researchers Bonnie Hagerty, Reg Williams, James Coyne, and Margaret Early in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, when international students feel unvalued, unaccepted, and ill-fitted to their new community, they alternatively will increase their identification with their home country or with other non-U.S. citizens. In the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers Michael Thomas Schmitt, Russel Spears, and Nyla Branscombe speculated that this is because these students are more likely to share a collective experience such as being treated as an outsider or foreigner. 

Limitations in the study were a language barrier with participants and lack of trust at an earlier stage of the interviews. With proper data validation methods, the researchers were able to minimize these limitations.  

To apply to practice, the authors suggested two interventions. First, campuses should have a designated office or program to help international students process and cope with social interaction problems on and off campus. Alternatively, staff can direct them to a student counseling office, equal opportunity office, or off-campus housing location service provided by the university. Second, authors suggested mandatory semester-long seminars for newly enrolled international students and mandatory cultural seminars for domestic students. These seminars were proposed to foster mutual understanding and enhanced communication. 

As union and activities professionals seek to advance campus community among all students, it is important to understand and emphasize the experiences of international students. Only by doing so will future researchers see strong social integration and sense of belonging regardless of students’ national origin.


Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited (Vol. 1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Hagerty, B. M. K., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K. L., Bouwserna, M., & Collier, P. (1992). Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 6(3), 172–177. doi: 10.1016/0883-9417(92)90028-H 

Schmitt, M. T., Spears, R., & Branscombe, N. R. (2003). Constructing a minority group identity out of shared rejection: The case of international students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(1), 1-12. 

Van Horne, S., Lin, S., Anson, M., & Jacobson, W. (2018). Engagement, satisfaction, and belonging of international undergraduates at U.S. research universities. Journal of International Students, 8(1), 351–374.  

Yan, L., & Pei, S. (2018). “Home away from Home?” How international students handle difficult and negative experiences in American higher education. Journal of International Students, 8(1), 453–472.

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