The Truth: Americans Reveal What They Really Think of International Students

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, June 18th, 2012 at 9:55 am

Admit it, you’re secretly dying to know what other people think of you – what they say behind your back that they would never say to your face. Do they really like you, or are they just being nice?

After some of our international student friends told us they’d love to know what their American classmates really think about them, we devised a way to find out – an anonymous survey.

Over 50 American students responded to our online questionnaire, sharing their most honest thoughts about international students.   Not to let the Americans off the hook, we also gave the survey to over 50 international students, and we’ll be discussing the responses in a series of posts all this week.

So, what did they have to say?

Let’s start by “ripping the Band-Aid off” (getting something painful done quickly). Here’s the worst comment we heard: “They smell bad and don’t speak English,” said an American student at North Dakota State University. “They are annoying.”

Take a deep breath. Are you still here? Are you okay?

American students at Ohio University talk to our blogger Olena about what they and their classmates think about international students

We also heard a lot of really positive things, like this comment from Noa* at Oberlin College, who said, “I think the international students on my campus are really interesting and wonderful people and a lot of times I feel that they are more grounded and well-rounded than American students.”

Or this one from Jacob at Washington and Lee University, “International students add so much more to a college campus. They have experiences that you could not possibly have, and make some of the best friends. The negatives are negligible.”

As is often the case, the reality of how Americans feel about international students is somewhere in between these two extremes.

Relating is easy, except when it isn’t

Both our American and international student survey takers were split nearly in half over how well they relate to the other group. Exactly 50% of international students said they relate to Americans as well as or better than they do other international students. 60% of the Americans who took our survey said they relate to international students as well as or better than other Americans.

Among those 40% of Americans who said they sometimes struggle to relate to international students, many cited cultural differences as a primary reason.

How well do American students relate to international students

Click for full-sized image

“I sometimes do not share the same values or norms as international students do, nor the same culture,” said Christine from Texas A&M University. “It is sometimes hard to bridge over these differences if both parties are not committed to engaging in dialogue.”

» See all the comments we received from American students

Others noted that a lack of English skills can be an obstacle to getting to know their international classmates. One American student at North Dakota State University even said that they get scared to approach international students because of the language barrier.

“I think that I get nervous to say something wrong,” said this student, or “if they have a thick accent that I will offend someone by asking them to repeat what they said more than once.”

(It’s a fear that’s not totally unfounded. One Oberlin international student said Americans “can be condescending and patronizingly pitiful towards international students (even though they may mean well), and sometimes offensive.”)

And both groups sometimes feel that the other isn’t putting in the effort to bridge the gap.

“At my school, international students stick together,” said Laura at the University of Central Oklahoma. “There’s always a group of two or more in my classes and they rarely try to talk to us, so we sort of just leave them alone. It’s like they don’t want to make friends with us.”

“When they’re in their own country and there’s a minority outsider who they’ll have to put particular effort into getting to know, I think most of them just don’t bother,” said one international student of American classmates at Oberlin College.

» In part 2 of this series, we take a deeper look at who’s failing whom when it comes to bridging this gap

Are international students just a curiosity?

Despite the challenges, the majority of American students who took our survey – 55% – said they’d like to have more international students on their campus. Only 10% said they wouldn’t want more international students at their school, and some of those explained that their campus already has a large international student population.

35% responded that they didn’t care either way.

One international student in our survey worried that some Americans might only say they like having international students on campus because they are “being just politically correct,” while another said that Americans only like international students because they are “exotic.”

There’s certainly some truth to that. When asked why they want more international students on campus, many of the Americans in our study used the word “diversity” (9 respondents, to be exact).

But for many this interest in diversity seems more than superficial – they also talked at length about the opportunity to learn about other cultures and other parts of the world.

Words used by Americans when describing why they form relationships

Words used by Americans when describing why they do or do not form relationships with international students

“I like to learn about who people are and what their different stories are,” said one Oberlin student. “Almost always I learn something new about not only their personal life but how their life at home contrasts with their life in America.”

“I make an effort to get to know them because I think all of their international backgrounds and cultures are so fascinating and I would be truly blessed to get to experience a small sense of their life through what they tell me,” said a North Dakota State University student.

“I get tired of seeing the world from [an] American perspective all the time,” said one student at Marymount University. “The international students show me their perspective of my country.”

And if the cultural education is a major reason why Americans like having international students on campus, it may be a much-needed and much-valued reason.

The international students in our survey who said they had difficulty relating to Americans said it’s because Americans “live in [a] different world altogether.” They have been raised in “the ‘American Bubble,’” as one College of Wooster student called it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single way in which Americans view international students. Some are particularly eager and open to meeting their international classmates, while others are perfectly happy to stay with the friends they find easy and familiar (and the same goes for international students, by the way).

In fact, the most honest opinion we heard might have been this one, from an American student at Princeton University:

“I’m too busy to go out of my way to try and make friends with people of specific demographics. I’m friends with whomever comes across my path.”

*Some students gave us permission to use their first names in this article

Read the rest of this series:
Part 2: Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?
Part 3: Americans are Self-Centered but Friendly
Raw comments: 60+ Opinions from American Students About Their International Classmates

36 Responses to “The Truth: Americans Reveal What They Really Think of International Students”

  1. “I’m friends with whomever comes across my path”. This is my favourite sentence in this article. I’ll check again later to read all the comments. Interesting survey!

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Thanks! I’m actually posting a follow-up tomorrow looking a bit deeper into friendship in particular. Hope you check it out :)

  2. Alamyar says:

    Interesting!

  3. David says:

    Thanks for interesting article. Even though I am not living in US, living in australia, I can see through in australia by reading american’s opinions towards international students. But I am not international student, just used to be and I am originally from Korea, republic. People here in australia seem to have same opinion towards international people studying or working here and it varies from city to city. I want to read the additional article when updated and woder if I can know its direct URL whe it is updated. Cheers!

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Thanks David. How long have you been in Australia? I’d be really curious to know whether it’s different to be an international student in Australia or in the UK than in the US.

      I’m going to post Part 2 of this series tomorrow and Part 3 the following day, so if you check back on Thursday they should all be posted by then.

      • Kay says:

        Am an international student in Australia and will be going off to US soon for a summer programme, hopefully I will be able to find out.

        At the moment, pretty much reflects most of it in Australia as well, especially putting the effort in bridging the gap. Perhaps some of them are somewhat annoyed the fact most of the international students are coming over for migration/work purposes via the studying route.

        Good read btw.

        • Jessica Stahl says:

          Thanks! Would love to hear about your experience in the US! Is that this summer? US summer or Aussie summer? (I know this really dumb, but do the US and Australian school years run on the same schedule, or does the Australian school year follow Australian seasons?)

          • Kay says:

            Yes, it’s this summer (US). Flying off in a few days. 1 more exam to go still. The moment I thought exam’s over and I can have freedom, in less than a week summer sessions are about to start. What a roller coaster ride!

            US Summer = Australia Winter, and vice versa.

            US runs the same academic year as the United Kingdom. (Begins on Sept and ends roughly around May/June?)

            Meanwhile Australia runs their academic year from End of February to End of November.

            But at the end of the day, both US, and Australia have 3 months of summer holidays.

          • Jessica Stahl says:

            :) Thanks for answering my question and not thinking it was too stupid. Have a safe trip to America! Hope the plane is showing some good movies to pass the time!

  4. Jacqui says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Great article. Do you know of any blogs that are written by Chinese international students in particular? Thanks!

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Thanks Jacqui! We’ve got a bunch on this site, if you’re interested. Take a look at the posts by:
      Tara – http://blogs.voanews.com/student-union/author/tiantiac
      Dandan – http://blogs.voanews.com/student-union/author/dandan
      Qian – http://blogs.voanews.com/student-union/author/qianchen
      There’s another website – http://unicq.net/ – that was founded by Singaporeans but I believe has some writing by Chinese students. Are you looking for anything in particular?

      • Jacqui says:

        In particular I’m looking for viewpoints from Chinese students living in the Philadelphia area. I am interested in their thoughts and feels on most subject, but particularly in areas such as getting involved in cultural events in the area, access to medical care, comfortability with social interactions in the area, and the biggest obstacles they are faced with, in regards to American customs/areas of culture shock.

        Thanks for the resources!

        • Jessica Stahl says:

          Hmmm I don’t know of anyone who blogs specifically about Chinese students in Philadelphia. I wonder if maybe UPenn or another Philly school might have an official blog run by the admissions office – a lot of schools are doing that now, so you might check them out. But definitely take a look at the links I sent you. The ones from this blog have a lot of interesting stuff about American customs and culture shock, and Qian and Tara were studying on the coasts, so the culture would be fairly similar to what you might find in Philadelphia.

  5. Jessica Stahl says:

    Just to let everyone know, I just posted the second part of this series, which focuses on why American and international students don’t always become friends. Check it out at: http://blogs.voanews.com/student-union/2012/06/19/why-aren%e2%80%99t-americans-and-international-students-becoming-friends/

    Also on the way this week, a look at the biggest cultural differences observed by international students, and I’ll post the raw comments we received from the Americans and international students who took the survey.

  6. Linza says:

    Neat. I’m an American student in Finland, so I’m the other side of the coin. It’s very similar here; international programs are taught in English, and regular programs are taught in Finnish. Many Finnish students understand a lot of English, but don’t speak it very well, whereas many international students don’t know very much Finnish (at least, not enough to have a long conversation, and certainly not in their first year). It’s a major barrier. At least American students seem to have a more positive view.

    However, I noticed that the proportions on your pie charts don’t actually match the numbers. What program did you use to make them?

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Thanks Linza. That’s interesting to hear your perspective from Finland. Are you studying abroad there, or do you live there?

      I’m not sure I see what you mean about the numbers not matching on the pie chart. Maybe I’ve just looked at it too long so I’m not seeing it. Which numbers don’t look right to you? I made it in Illustrator…

  7. Aalim says:

    thanks from Jessica Stahl that provide such interesting topic for international student ,this is very help full for those who want to join in American universities next year or some other time, may be like me that study in American university become my dream
    and one more thing ! if you could provide interview of American students as a video …..
    i will be very happy …. ones again thanks

  8. Marina says:

    Thanks for such an interesting article. This is very informative. However, I think that the percentage of international students who can or cannot adapt to the new environment in the US also depends on their nationality and ethnicity, we should not assume that every international student is the same. Thank you!

    • Jessica Stahl says:

      Yeah. That’s a really good point. It was obviously outside the scope of what we were doing to look differences between international students from different countries or regions. But in part 2, I referenced a study about the extent of friendships between American and international students, and that study did look at this issue a bit. If I remember correctly, it found that East Asian students had fewer American friends than international students from other regions. And, not surprisingly, that international students from English-speaking countries mix in better.

  9. Jawad Rezaei says:

    Very interesting and helpful. I learned some experience before I face them.

  10. Abdullah says:

    Good article, and it’s interesting.

    I’m from Jordan – Middle east, I studied at the university and there was international students, but I wasn’t absolutely interested about knowing them or talking to them.
    In my opinion it’s not normal to have friends from other countries or cultures, because as one of the students said ” It’s not easy to know others, especially if they don’t speak your language, or if they are from another culture”. But I think it will become easier and interesting if there is something pushing you toward knowing others and talking to them, for example: now because I learn English and I keen to speak to native speakers, I like to know foreigners and speak to them, why that changed, I think because I have goal in my mind, even it’s not easy sometimes.

  11. [...] Part 1: The Truth – Americans Reveal What They Really Think of International Students [...]

  12. febry says:

    it’s great article and very interesting for all student, international or local student. it helps them to realize how to understand each other for their relationship and take the advantages from it. Thanks for sharing this, I’ll check it out for the next article.

  13. Ian says:

    I’m a student at a community college in San Antonio, TX, Northwest Vista College, and we actually have problems with the Mexican students (nationally Mexican). They wish to be lead at every turn and treat American students as lessers. This could be due to most of them being of upper class background (many winter in the US for school). They snub Spanish speaking Americans as being “unrefined” or culturally ignorant. Many ignore our no smoking policies very blatantly. Most American students avoid them. They tend to stick in cliques anyway and can be exceptionally rude if you don’t understand them.

  14. vy says:

    Hi. I’m from Vietnam. I’ve been taking the Advanced Education Program for 3 years. several weeks ago, there were some Indonesian friends came to study with my class. They did not seem to be shy but also walked from their current place to the university and other places in order to hlep people here understand the World Food Day.

  15. sandra says:

    Hi I like our article, thanks for writing about the odd relationship, its a mystery for me.
    I think its true that international student gang up on american students but in my experiences as international student in LA, its hard t approach American student because they give you face like they don’t understand what the heck your saying. The thing is its hard to communicate because as international student I don’t want american student to look down on me while I’m trying hard, it will be more appreciative if they help us with correcting our mistakes, I had a bad experience with american student that I will never forget. They ganging up on me, I tried to approached them but its no use. At the end we just stand on a different side of the power point presentation, me alone, and them together. Even now, I talk normal but once the notice the accent they’ll make a face.

  16. Dana says:

    Hello! Interesting article! I’m curious if you got some replies from Kazakhs? (from Kazakhstan)
    Thanks in advance!

  17. Jane says:

    Great article. As a American born Chinese I’ve always enjoyed the many diverse faces in my college. I’m friends with alot of mainland Chinese and I seem to be more accepted in there group than being with my other white American friends who still sometimes stereotype and sometimes exclude me due to me being Asian.

    Honestly, in my 4 years of college the only true friendships i made were with international students. I find them to be enlighting and always enjoyed hearing about their homeland it helps me break out of the American bubble shell that i was so closed off to. :)

  18. Jairo Alegria says:

    Wow! To be honest, I found this article pretty interesting! Besides, it’d be helpful if once I wanted to travel there!
    There was a sentence that really called my attention: ““I’m too busy to go out of my way to try and make friends with people of specific demographics. I’m friends with whomever comes across my path.”.

    That’s kind of true!

  19. Jairo Alegria says:

    You know something, it’s a fact there are people who travel to another country without knowing anything about it. However, there are other people that really care for getting into knowing not only about the country itself, but also the language and culture.

    I think this is the important issue here. If you really want to travel to another country, culture, or as you want to call it; firstly, you should care of getting to know a bit about the place you’re going to travel to.

  20. oliver says:

    very interesting article

  21. Chaka says:

    Awesome article! Thanks.

    I think either American or International students should try if they want to be friends.

    Yes, first of all, the language barrier is the main problem. I clearly remember a guy of Peace Corps, who came to my class to teach English. At the same time, there were shockingly large number of people who speak English in my class – 2 out of 150. Whenever we wanted to communicate deeply, just do not understand each other.

    Second, it is a individual perspective. Someone said he was a nice guy and why not we hang out. Contrarily, some said he was just a stranger.

    Eventually, it is all about you. Most people are nice and friendly. Easy to become friends. If you really want to understand someone sincerely, language obstacle is nothing. If some say I do not want to hang out with you, just find others.

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