(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]