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Sense of Belonging for International Students: How Can We Foster It and Why Do We Need To?

The EvoLLLution | Sense of Belonging for International Students: How Can We Foster It and Why Do We Need To?
International students are a promising and important revenue stream for American universities, but unless their unique needs and expectations are met with specific services and the development of tailored environments, their potential will not be met.

Over the last decade, college enrollment levels within the United States as a whole have been fairly stagnant. Despite this, enrollment of international students (classified as any students studying in the U.S. with F-1 visas) has grown significantly within the last 10 years across both public and private institutions. When paralleled with the quickly diminishing state budgets for education, this increase in international student enrollment from all over the world is hardly a coincidence, as student tuition makes up nearly half of all institutional revenue for public universities.

So, while colleges and universities, that are strapped for resources, must garner this revenue in one capacity or another in order to ensure that they can continue to operate, are they even adequately prepared to support the students that they are heavily recruiting?

Sense of Belonging Theory, as defined by higher education scholar Terrell Strayhorn, when applied in a collegiate context is the way a student perceives their own connection to their university community. There are a variety of factors that influence a student’s sense of belonging at their institution, including the degree to which they feel accepted, respected and included in their environment, both physically and metaphorically. A student’s sense of belonging on campus has been shown to influence their level of motivation, persistence and success in their overall degree attainment, and without this sense of belonging students often face alienation, isolation and poor performance in academics.

The challenges that international students may face in their development of a sense of belonging on their university campus are abundant and given the current social and political climate within the United States, it can become increasingly difficult for students to feel respected in their educational environment. International students continue to come to the U.S. from all over the world, but the highest populations of students are coming from China, India, and South Korea. And while many colleges advertise the diversity of their campuses and inclusion efforts of their institution to prospective students, it is no secret that ethnic minorities have been historically marginalized and excluded throughout American history. The potential for hostile environments to exist for students of color as a whole (as well as for international students who hold identities that are radicalized and minoritized) is high. With the increase of xenophobic policy being implemented by the current presidential administration, the overall environment for non-domestic students can oftentimes be anything but accepting and inclusive.

In addition to social and political stressors, international students face a multitude of challenges that domestic students do not when it comes to the transition and development of a community in their new college environment. Throughout the application, matriculation and orientation process there are various bureaucratic steps that international students must navigate before they even reach the United States. Once students arrive, they are facing a loss of shared identity both culturally and linguistically from their home countries which places an additional transitional burden on their shoulders beyond what every college freshman endures. International students also report receiving less social support from their American peers, and due to cultural barriers, international students are also far less likely to seek out social support on their own than their domestic peers. Additionally, engagement and involvement with the larger university community through student activities and organizations is said to facilitate the development of a sense of belonging. However, when the activities being offered to a student are not culturally responsive, the engagement level for international students is often quite low.

With sense of belonging along with the challenges faced by this population in mind, what can institutions of higher education be doing to create better conditions for success for international students on their campuses? First and foremost, it is important to change the way we talk about this population of students. While colleges and universities may rely on revenue from international tuition, this perception of international students as “money-makers” for the institution is detrimental to their ability to feel at home in an environment where they are aware of the fact that they are being viewed by their educators as dollar signs rather than students.

Without a shift in the language surrounding this population, universities run the risk of alienating a significant population of students in their journey towards degree attainment.

Beyond this, it is increasingly important for universities to further invest in culturally familiar programming that occurs frequently on campus for their international student populations. For many international students, this type of programming can exist as both large campus-wide events, as well as smaller scale events. While many university offices that cater to international students already work to develop such programming, it is possible that these events and programs are either advertised or facilitated in a way that is not culturally responsive, meaning it takes into account the norms of that population’s culture. Since offices serving international students often program for the larger demographic as a whole, it can be difficult for students to relate to (and want to engage with) programming that is generalized when the population itself is so diverse, with backgrounds that are not actually generalizable.

International students will continue coming to study in the United States, and institutions of higher education in the U.S. will continue to recruit and admit them. However, if colleges and universities hope to create environments in which these students are able to persist through to completion of their degree then an investment in developing a sense of belonging for these students is crucial.

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