Colleges Encourage More International Student Engagement

Katy Hopkins

Many American college campuses are mini melting pots, bringing together students from countries across the world. But simply congregating students from different cultures doesn't necessarily mean they'll interact--and some colleges are starting to step in.

In a new environment, it's often easiest to gravitate to what you know. For international students, in particular, language and cultural barriers can muddle attempts to make friends at a new school in the United States. But in the past few years, colleges across the country have debuted initiatives, orientations, and programs to encourage cross-cultural interaction, often even before the school year starts.

At Juniata College in Pennsylvania, for instance, incoming freshmen from any country can opt into the school's InBound program, which unites small groups of students around a common interest. The three-day program, held before orientation, preempts a natural inclination to hang out with similar students, says Jenifer Cushman, dean of international education.

"Our idea is that when international students come to campus, they should be thrust into interaction with domestic students as quickly as possible, so they don't bond and form their own cohorts within [their cultures]," she says.

[See what surprises international students about U.S. colleges.]

And by bonding over a common interest, such as outdoor sports or community service, students discover they immediately share a passion, despite not sharing a culture. "There's a lot of time to get to know each other in ways that wouldn't happen if you were just thrust into the classroom," Cushman notes.

Minnesota's Macalester College is also using the days before college to encourage cross-cultural interaction. U.S. students can choose to partake in the school's international student orientation, which starts a few days earlier than the welcome for domestic students and covers topics including immigration, visas, and even shopping.

"Students really do want to be friends with people from other cultures when they arrive, but the idea of it is a lot easier than the practice," says Aaron Colhapp, director of international student programs at Macalester College.

Looking to make the most of her college experience, Macalester student Amy Janett volunteered for both the orientation and the subsequent Ametrica program, a weekly meeting of international and domestic students to discuss common obstacles that get in the way of friendships.

"I didn't realize how different it was for international students to come to school in the U.S. than it was for American students to do so," says Jannett, who now serves as an international student program assistant. "I didn't realize all the other obstacles they have to overcome, like getting a visa [and] figuring out finances."

[Find out why international students may have to pay more for college.]

Though she is now friends with students who come from countries all around the world, Janett says a cross-cultural friendship can require time and patience to build. "I think you have to really want to do it in order for it to happen," she says.

American volunteers are also an important factor in the new International Pal Program at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, an offering that debuted this fall.

"We were finding a lot of international students saying it was difficult to make friends with U.S. students, so we wanted something to facilitate that interaction, but we didn't want it to be completely forced," says Liz Kruse, adviser for international student and scholar services.

International students deal with a variety of obstacles that can serve as barriers to new friendships, Kruse notes, especially if they struggle with English.

"There are lots of cultural things that go into making friends and making conversations--what's appropriate to say when you're first getting to know someone," she says. "People like to be able to go back and forth really quickly, and international students don't always have those language skills to converse so quickly."

[Find out how to overcome common challenges for international students.]

Though adjusting to language and cultural differences can make the first month or so at college feel overwhelming, Danish student Simon Sangaard says interactions get easier with time. Now, he's so accustomed to life at Macalester that country of origin doesn't define the peers he hangs out with, he says.

"The group of friends I have here is very mixed, and I don't really think of them as being American or international," Sangaard says. "I just have a group of friends here, and they happen to be from Lithuania or Sweden or the U.S."

For more international student tips and news, explore the Studying in the United States center.