(Too) Many International Students in the US Have No Close American Friends

For several years, while I was serving as a campus minister to international students at the University of Missouri, I kept a photo of a young Taiwanese couple tucked in my Bible. It was one of the those glamour wedding pictures that are popular in Taiwan. The husband, a student at MU, had given me the photo before he and his wife returned to their country. On the back it said, “To Craig, my best friend in America.” The trouble was, I didn’t remember much about him at all.

Of course, I met a lot of students during my five years in campus ministry. But what made this student stand out was that he considered me his best friend. Maybe I had introduced myself to him shortly after his arrival. Maybe I had given him a Bible in Chinese. Maybe I had helped him find some free furniture. Maybe I was his best friend. But that doesn’t mean I was an especially good friend.

According to Open Doors, last year there were over 720,000 international students attending US universities and colleges, and this number doesn’t include dependents who accompanied them. This total was a record high, and the numbers will surely show another increase when new data are released next month.

More Than One in Three Claim No Strong Friendships with Americans

While more and more students are coming to the US for higher education, more and more of them are finding an environment without significant friendships. This is the finding of a recent study, “Intercultural Friendship: Effects of Home and Host Region,” published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the article’s author, Elisabeth Gareis, of City University of New York’s Baruch College, found that 38% of students she surveyed reported “no strong American friendships.” Students from East Asia (including China) were more likely than those from English-speaking countries to report a lack of friends, with over half of them claiming no close friendships with Americans.

Not only was there a notable difference between the students’ area of origin, but also with the place of their American university. The study, which included students studying at southern and northeastern institutions, showed that those in the Northeast were less satisfied with their friendship situation than those in the South. Likewise, students in larger metropolitan areas were less happy about their friendships than those in smaller towns.

As for the cause of the problem, 54% of the surveyed students believed that Americans were responsible for the lack of friendships, while 46% blamed their own “internal factors,” such as shyness or a lack of English skills. A report on the study in Inside Higher Ed adds that among East Asian students, nearly 80% blamed their own shortcomings.

(“Open Doors 2011 Fast Facts,” Institute of International Education; Karin Fischer, “Many Foreign Students Are Friendless in the U.S., Study Finds,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 14, 2012; Scott Jaschik, “Friendless in America,” Inside Higher Ed, June 14, 2012)

Students Disagree on Whether Americans Are Trying

Voice of America took an online survey of its Student Union readers, asking “about how American students view their international classmates (and how international students think their American classmates view them).” One hundred ten students responded—54 Americans and 56 internationals—giving the following results:

  • 60% of American students said they “relate to international students as well as or better than Americans”
  • 50% of international students in the survey reported that they “relate to Americans as well as or better than international students”
  • 45% of American respondents said that they try to get to know their international schoolmates, 20% said they do not try, and 35% said that extra effort isn’t needed*
  • 30% of international students answering the survey said that Americans try to get to know them, 50% said the Americans don’t try, and 20% said that no extra effort is needed by the Americans*
    *Results from these last two items are approximations, as they were read from a graph.

(Jessica Stahl, “Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?The Student Union, Voice of America, June 19, 2012)

Feelings of Not Belonging in the US

Last year, researchers from Ohio University and CATS College in England asked international students a different set of questions, focusing on their feelings of belonging and what universities can do to help. Inside Higher Ed reports that most students in the survey “rated their sense of belonging as a five out of five and their overall satisfaction with their college as a four out of five.” But when it comes to “belonging in the U.S.”—a feeling that can be strongly influenced by friendships on and off campus—the  majority of students rated that only a two or three.

Many international students feel that their school’s student services can do more. One student said,

I had a difficult time adjusting to the U.S. culture and educational system. I thought it would be cheaper and I made no friends. I asked for help at the office of International students and I was sent to the counseling services. The counselor sent me to the psych ward because she thought I was suicidal—which was not true. It has been a very dramatic experience that schools should consider when having international students.

(Allie Grasgreen, “At Home on Campus, Not in Country,” Inside Higher Ed, April 6, 2011)

See also my post, “Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

[photo: “CSUN BBQ 19,” by Parker Michael Knight, used under a Creative Commons license]


24 thoughts on “(Too) Many International Students in the US Have No Close American Friends

  1. Thanks for posting about this (and including my article!). Your approximations from the graph were pretty spot on – it’s actually 30%, 51% and 19%. And I hadn’t seen the Ohio University study, so I’m looking forward to checking that out!


      1. Really glad you’re enjoying reading our stuff. I just saw your most recent post and was so pleased to read your kind words about what we’re doing. Insight and candor is our main goal, and all the students are really brave in revealing things about their lives, even when those things are controversial or unpleasant (my favorite articles are the ones where I read the draft and actually wonder whether they’ve gone too far! We always pull it back to a publishable place, but that means they’re onto something good).

        Would love to chat sometime if you’re interested. Drop me an email – jstahl@voanews.com.


  2. It was true that when I studied in the US, my close friends were all international students. In my case, the few American friends I had were either very intercultural sensitive or outgoing. For “regular” American classmates of mine, they did not have the need to make new friends in graduate school. I felt they were pretty content about their social life already…..


    1. Thanks for adding your perspective. It is true that some Americans are more motivated than others to pursue (or be open to) cross-cultural friendships.


  3. I concluded when I was a foreign student in Turkey years ago that the onus is generally on the foreigner to reach out – and for the reasons stated by mixingupblog. Americans are generally quite friendly and so are Turks. But deep friendship requires effort and common ground. I made friends by learning Turkish (even though my classmates spoke English) and by adapting my interests to those of the circles of friends. I was also helped by the fact that there was no international office. I had to ask my Turkish classmates when I needed information. I do think it’s a shame that many students do not make an effort with quiet foreign students. As a sophomore I befriended a shy student from Japan sitting alone at lunch. Now we are as close as siblings.


  4. Good blog. Our family is having a reverse issue; we are American but I have so far raised my daughter in a number of European countries. Due to family circumstances I have sent her to a school she went to in Kindergarten in the USA; where at 9th grade they can board. The school has a long time relationship with Asian countries whose parents send their daughters to go to school to be ready for American Uni.

    My daughter feels excluded at times. The Asian girls, while not unkind, would rather eat lunch with their own ethnicity. The American girls already had a clique going. My daughter didn’t fit in. This was stressful; as after being in British, French and International schools it was the first time she felt this exclusion. Certainly an eye opener and leveled the playing field for understanding. But i don’t wonder if some of it is simply that they would rather mix with their own.


    1. That’s quite a transition for your daughter, and for you. Making relationships outside the box of our “rathers” certainly takes effort. I hope that your daughter is the recipient of some of that effort.


  5. What a poignant yet important post now in the light of the Boston Marathon explosions. Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been quoted as saying “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”


    1. Great post. I shared Judy’s thought when reading it and immediately thought of that quote one of the bombers is supposed to have said. So many lonely, lost sheep out there. Also makes me think of Bill Hybels book and DVD series,”Just Walk Across the Room” about making a conscious effort to reach out to individuals and notice that one person in need even in a crowded room. This was how Jesus lived during His earthly ministry; seeking to befriend the friendless and reaching out in love.


  6. I think this is common of all people who move from one culture to another. Friendships take time, not to mention people with common interests who are willing to befriend the foreigners. But it’s very important to befriend foreigners because we never know who they will turn out to be when they return to their country (president, missionary, terrorist). Your actions towards a foreigner can change the course of history.


    1. Yes, cross-cultural interaction offers such great opportunities to make a difference. Too bad we often don’t take advantage of it. Thanks for your comment.


  7. I was about to leave this page without making a comment, believing that I really have nothing “intellectual” to contribute and just as I was about to leave, I realized that this very same reasoning of “having nothing worthwhile to contribute” is precisely why so many people remain in their lonely cocoons. I was a foreign student once. First in high school and then in university. It was harder to make friends in high school but I made the effort and others did too. In university, I never thought to hang out with other foreign students, my objective and determination was always to learn the culture I was in and to get to know the people of that culture. Perhaps where I was, people were friendlier, kinder and took an interest to learn about other cultures so I ended up fitting in and made really great friends and best friends. However, I can also see how culture can impede people from getting to know one another. Aside from language difficulties, the other factor is how people perceive things. For instance, South East Asians would never want to be a bother to anyone. Or due to false modesty they would think that they had nothing worthwhile to contribute or that to ask for help would be to impose themselves on someone. From a western point of view, it would be, “Well, if they need help, they should ask. If they want to get to know me, they just have to show interest. Maybe they would prefer to be with others who speak their language.” The difference in cultural ways of thinking make it difficult to truly become friends if both parties don’t realize that they are actually thinking from two opposite perspectives.


    1. Thanks, Adeline, for contributing something very worthwhile. It’s great to get your input on this. It sounds as if you’ve had a lot of experience in cross-cultural relationships in your life. We all really do need to step outside our normal suppositions and points of view.


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