Friendship with host nationals is a central predictor of the overall sojourn satisfaction of international students.
International students who make friends with host nationals have stronger language skills, better academic performance, lower levels of stress and greater life satisfaction. Friendships also aid overall adjustment and improve attitudes towards the host country.
Well-integrated international students, in turn, are more likely to participate in the classroom, thus enriching domestic students’ educational experience and advancing international perspectives.
The benefits of friendship between international students and hosts extend beyond the students’ sojourn. International students often fill influential leadership positions after returning home and can play an important part in fostering productive relations with the former host country.
Unfortunately, a significant number of international students have difficulty making friends with host nationals.
In a recent study, 38% of 454 participating international students studying in the US had no close American friend and were unsatisfied with this lack of contact.
Broken down into home regions, the percentage of students without host-national friends was highest among students from East Asia (52%) and lowest for students from northern and central Europe (16%) and Anglophone countries (10%).
In addition, the host region affected friendship numbers and satisfaction levels. Students attending college in non-metropolitan areas fared better than students in metropolitan areas, and students in the south of the United States fared better than those in the northeast.
A number of factors influence friendship development across cultures. Cultural similarity plays a role, as does intercultural competence, language proficiency, motivation and the level of identification with one’s native culture.
A potential deterrent – especially in large universities and metropolitan areas – are existing networks of compatriots and other international students. These networks provide a safe environment and readymade support for the students’ transition experience. The side effect can be a reduced need for engaging with host nationals.
Non-receptivity on the part of the hosts can further diminish the students’ drive for pursuing friendships. Negative attitudes can arise, for example, when a large influx of international students is perceived as a disadvantage for local students or a threat to their culture.
This situation is not new. A lack of meaningful contact with host nationals has been one of the uppermost complaints of international students for some time and in a variety of countries.
What has changed is the level of competition to attract international students. Students increasingly consult student satisfaction surveys in order to choose environments that are academically as well as socially optimal.
What can institutions do to promote contact between international and domestic students?
A number of measures suggest themselves, including short-term events to support contact initiation, long-term endeavours to provide opportunities for relationship development, and training measures for international and domestic students as well as faculty.
Examples of short-term events are orientation programmes with ice-breakers for domestic and international students, and bonding activities (such as camps, hikes and bike tours) for new students at the beginning of the academic year. Institutions should also offer frequent extracurricular social activities throughout the year (for example, field trips, film festivals, ethnic dinners, sporting events, parties).
Long-term measures include mixed residential facilities, pairing international and domestic students in peer mentoring programmes, weekly mingling opportunities (for example, international coffee hour, conversation clubs), and the creation of internationally focused student organisations (for example, intramural soccer, model United Nations, culture club).
Domestic participation in some of these activities could be encouraged by providing incentives (for example, making active engagement part of scholarship or honours programmes). Likewise, leaders from organisations for students from the more culturally distant countries (for example, Chinese student organisations) could be involved in the planning of intercultural events so that their social influence encourages their peers to participate.
Training for international and domestic students as well as faculty and staff can be provided in the form of classes and workshops on intercultural and oral communication (especially as it relates to friendship initiation and development). Projects could include video productions, social media and blogs on a variety of themes.
In addition, pedagogy workshops for faculty could focus on how to integrate international students in the classroom (for example, how to reach students with diverse learning styles, encourage participation in a culturally sensitive manner, and design effective mixed-group or buddy projects).
These measures have been tried in various institutions with positive effect. It should be noted, however, that many are unresearched. Further studies should determine what is successful in specific contexts.
Some universities have hired cross-cultural consulting firms to provide advice and launch public relations campaigns for showcasing their initiatives.
Even in the most favourable environments, accountability also lies with the students themselves. Students interested in host-national contact need intercultural and language proficiency. Although population density may pose distractions, students can make a conscious effort to avoid self-segregation even in metropolitan environments.
Likewise, domestic students should reach out more. It may help if institutions involve domestic returnees from study-abroad programmes in their efforts to internationalise.
Colleges worldwide are the prime location for intercultural encounters. Considering the far-reaching positive effects of friendship between international and domestic students, it is crucial that institutions provide the infrastructure that enables students to meet and to build relationships. Students should take advantage of the opportunity to establish a global network of friends.
* Dr Elisabeth Gareis is an associate professor of communication studies at Baruch College-City University of New York.
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