What are International Students?
An international student is a student who is pursuing education in a program outside of their home country. UNESCO defines this more specifically as:
“An internationally mobile student is an individual who has physically crossed an international border between two countries with the objective to participate in educational activities in a destination country, where the destination country is different from his or her country of origin.”UNESCO, 2005 as cited in Migration Data portal, 2020
By this definition, there were over 5.3 million international students worldwide in 2017, with the majority of these students enrolled in programs in six countries: USA, UK, Australia, France, Germany, and the Russian Federation.
International students face unique experiences and challenges on top of those that may be common to all students pursuing their educational goals. These experiences can add additional stressors that affect wellness and mental health. Culture Shock and Homesickness, Isolation, and Independence, Making Connections and Building Community, Navigating the US HealthCare System, and balancing Responsibility to Family back home may all require additional effort, flexibility, creativity, and support systems.
International Students in the United States
According to the Open Doors data (2020), for the last five years, international students have made up between 5-6% of the total US Student population, and are enrolled in institutions across the United States. Over 1 million International Students are in the US each year enrolled in an academic program or undertaking OPT (Optional Practical Training), temporary employment permitted under their student visa.
Students come from countries all over the world, though the most recent data shows that 53% of International students came from China or India. South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico round out the top ten places of origin for International Students.
US Students Studying Abroad
Nearly 350,000 U.S. students studied abroad in 2018-2019. While some of the specific challenges for students abroad may be different than those for international students in the US, some are very similar:
- Differences in educational systems
- Cultural and language differences in the host country
- Culture shock and homesickness
- Making connections
- Finding community
- Navigating resources
- Mental and physical health supports
Why do I feel this way?
Being an international student can involve a lot of emotions and new experiences! Navigating a new academic program, working towards personal and professional goals, finding friends and mentors, and meeting basic needs like food, housing, and transportation all involve learning new things. Not to mention navigating cultural and language differences! You may be feeling excited, overwhelmed, worried, unsure, grateful, lonely, connected, confident, confused, isolated, happy, scared, encouraged, or even many conflicting emotions at the same moment or on the same day. There is likely a level of tiredness or exhaustion and stress just from encountering so much new all at once.
Being away from your home community, friends, and family may also bring a complex set of emotions. You may be feeling proud, lonely, grateful, conflicted, or feel your attention pulled in two places at once, which can be challenging. Many international students also feel pressure to succeed in their studies and career path to honor their families and communities back home, or that they can’t share their struggles or challenges because of the opportunities they have been given. If this is how you are feeling, please know you are not alone. There are resources available on your campus to help you through this big transition.
Build your Social Support Network
Moving through hard things is always easier when you have people you can talk to and spend time with who understand what you’re going through. Continuing to invest in friendships and social networks in your new community can help boost your mental health and resilience to other challenges.
Use your Mentors
Your Academic Advisor, International Student Advisor, Program Coordinator, and peer mentors can help give perspective and ideas about how to balance these pressures and have resources to support you in meeting your goals and feeling secure.
Seek support and information from other international students who have experienced and worked through similar challenges. They may have unique perspectives, additional support to offer, and experiences and lessons learned that may be helpful.
Reach out to a mental health professional
Most universities and colleges have University Counseling Centers that can help match you with a counselor that would be most helpful to you. You can ask to see or be matched with counselors based on gender, nationality, and languages that they speak if you’d like.
Bradley, G. (2000) Responding effectively to the mental health needs of international students. Higher Education 39, 417–433. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1003938714191
Forbes-Mewett, H., & Sawyer, A-M. (2016). International students and mental health. Journal of International Students, 6, 3: 661-677.
Liu, C. H., Stevens, C., Wong, S., Yasui, M., & Chen, J. A. (2019). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depression and anxiety, 36(1), 8–17. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22830
Migration Data Portal. (2020, June 9). International Students. https://www.migrationdataportal.org/themes/international-students
Mori, S. C. (2011). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of Counseling & Development. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb02571.x
Open Doors. (n.d.). All Places of Origin: International Student Data From the 2020 Open Doors Report. Retrieved on September 22, 2021, https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/all-places-of-origin/
Open Doors. (n.d.). Enrollment Trends From the 2020 Open Doors Report. Retrieved on September 22, 2021, https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/enrollment-trends/
Open Doors. (n.d.). US Study Abroad Data From the 2020 Open Doors Report. Retrieved on September 22, 2021, https://opendoorsdata.org/data/us-study-abroad/all-destinations/