International students

Language and culture in the classroom

Despite their many achievements, some international students can feel their competence diminished early in their graduate programs. Linguistic proficiency and lack of awareness of how the U.S. academic system works may be initial hurdles to overcome in getting a research or teaching assignment underway. Most international students have different collaborative or classroom communication patterns. For instance, in the educational systems of East and Southeast Asia, the student’s role is a more passive one in interactions with professors, whose authority goes unquestioned. Thus, some international students are surprised to encounter U.S. students speaking up without being called upon, or challenging their professors’ remarks.

Behavior in graduate seminars can seem unnecessarily competitive to international students, who fear that if they do not exhibit these same behaviors, professors will judge them less capable or intelligent. Many international graduate students come from countries in which only a small percentage of high school graduates is admitted to university, so the different levels of preparation of first-year undergraduates in the United States can be a challenge for international teaching assistants.

The rules of the academic game

When international graduate students arrive on campus, they need to demystify three cultures: the U.S. culture, the culture of the research university and the academic culture in their departments.

They discover that policies in graduate departments can be quite different from those in their home institutions, or are opaque or difficult to interpret. For instance, some may find it initially hard to understand why they can accept teaching or research assistantship “work” but are not permitted to work off-campus. On a subtler note, international students rely on different assumptions about how faculty members and graduate students should relate to each other. Many East Asian graduate students, for example, have reported sensing a kind of interpersonal “coldness” from some U.S. faculty who, while informal and jovial with students during seminars, might remain distant regarding students’ personal or family lives. In other countries, the faculty-graduate student relationship extends beyond academic discussions.

Social stresses

In moving far away from families and friends, international students can feel displaced. Those who are new to the United States, and who bring their partners and children with them, worry about how well their families will adjust to American life. After a while, some students may wonder how they will be accepted at home with different dress, talk and behavior. In essence, they worry about being foreigners in their own countries.


Help international students acclimate by encouraging them to participate in discussions. Assure them that you are stimulating dialogue and not singling them out. Some students may have a hard time jumping into animated discussions.

Spend time outside of seminars or labs interacting with international students. Ask about their research and outside interests, their families, how they are adjusting and what education is like in their home countries.

Realize that not all international students have difficulties with English; many of them were trained in English-speaking institutions. For others, English is their first language.

At the same time, if an international student speaks English well, don’t assume that he or she does not experience cultural dissonance about how U.S. education works.

Offer several ways for international students to meet with you: in person, email, phone, scheduled office hours or group meetings.

Introduce new international graduate students to more advanced international students and U.S. graduate students with international experience.

The rules governing graduate studies and funding in the United States may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single-country visa that prohibits them from traveling. They also cannot work for pay, except for TA and RA positions, and are excluded from many U.S.-based fellowships. If you have questions about your program’s requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about your students’ travel or work, contact the International Student Services Office.