Mentoring 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. 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 understated 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 assistantships 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.


  • Reach out to international students by asking about their research and outside interests.
  • If you are an international graduate student, ask advanced international and U.S. graduate students for advice on navigating the UW.
  • If you are an international student, ask your peers, professors and mentors for the best way to interact — in person, email, phone, office hours or group meetings.
  • Refrain from stereotyping international students as having difficulties with English.
  • Help your peers and faculty mentors learn that international students who speak English very well can still experience cultural dissonance or confusion about U.S. graduate education.
  • Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the United States are often different from those in other countries. Most students have a single country visa that prohibits them from traveling freely outside the United States. Also, they cannot work for pay, except for TA or RA positions. If you have questions about your program’s requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about international student travel or work, contact the International Services Office.