How does university support improve international students’ well-being?

According to the Open Doors 2014 report, published by the Institute of International Education, there was an 8.1% increase in international students studying in the US from 2013 to 2014. There are 231 US institutions that host more than 1,000 international students. This number is also continuously increasing.

Focusing on the steady increase of international students in the US, many scholars from various academic disciplines have intensively studied multifarious phenomena uniquely relevant to these students, such as cultural adjustment.

Nevertheless, there has been little research on the potential role of university support, even though international students are largely reliant on their host universities for various purposes.

Therefore, our study, titled “Roles of University Support for International Students in the United States”, published in the Journal of Studies in International Education, focused on the effects of university support on international students’ psychological well-being.

University support

With regard to university support, international students largely depended on their host universities in the following ways.

Firstly, in terms of residential status, the right of residence for international students is fully determined by the university. That is, academic admission to a host university is the strongest determining factor for an international student’s visa status (F-1 visa) in the US.

In addition to the host university’s support for international students’ residential status, it is not uncommon for the host university to provide international students with tailored introductory orientations to help them adjust to the new educational environment.

Secondly, international students are largely reliant on the host university for financial support. This is mainly because these students are not allowed to work for financial gain at off-campus sites. Thus, various assistantships and scholarships offered by the host universities (eg teaching assistantships, research assistantships, international scholarships) are the most important source of financial support for these students.

In other cases, international students need to find other on-campus jobs to earn money, even though most of them are short-term jobs.

Thirdly, the host university serves as the main source for building new interpersonal relationships (eg with domestic students and instructors). Buddy programmes that connect international students with domestic students are a typical example of how the university supports international students’ creation of social relationships.

Furthermore, through student clubs, international students can build new relationships with peers from their own country or students of similar cultures, who come to serve as crucial sources of social support.

Asian cultural values

In this way, the host university is one of the most fundamental and influential sources of social support for international students.

With regard to university support, a successful case can be found in a women’s support group for Asian international students, which was established by Western Michigan University. WMU designed a programme that emphasised Asian cultural values and supported a forum that focused on specific issues unique to Asian female students. This programme was particularly helpful in offering social support on sensitive issues.

As such, university support plays an important role in improving international students’ lives in the host institution and society. Therefore, our study proceeded to scrutinise how international students’ perception of support from their university would potentially impact their psychological well-being in terms of stress and school-life satisfaction.

Social identity

Furthermore, in order to dig deeper into this issue, we looked at the social identity or self-categorisation stress model that mainly addresses the relationship between social support, social identity and emotional outcomes including life satisfaction and psychological stress.

This model particularly considers social support as a mediator connecting social identity to psychological outcomes. Social identity is deeply related to one’s perception of belonging to a group or organisation and ultimately improves one’s perception of support from the group or organisation.

With regard to university identification, international students have very limited sources for feeling a sense of belonging and oneness with an institution – they include student groups, immigrant communities, the university and so on.

Because of these limited sources, international students tend to show more active academic engagement. Considering that university identification is a significant outcome of academic engagement, it can be reasonably argued that there is a significant association between university identification and university support.

Accordingly, our research analysed the potential effect of university identification on university support, which ultimately increases school life satisfaction and reduces psychological stress among international students.

For this study, we collected online surveys from 131 international students enrolled in a large public university in the US. The majority of participants were graduate students (73.8%) and male (57.3%).

Similar to the Institute of International Education’s 2014 report, the two major countries of origin of international students in the US were China (29.8%) and India (21%). The average length of residence in the US was 2.8 years.

Through a path analysis, we observed that 1) university identification positively affected university support, 2) university identification improved school-life satisfaction, 3) university support reduced psychological stress, and 4) university support increased school-life satisfaction.

These findings have the following academic and practical implications. Firstly, unlike previous studies focusing on interpersonal support, our research examined and found significant roles for university support in improving two dimensions of international students’ psychological well-being.

These findings provide scholars with a further understanding of an important but previously disregarded factor that strongly influences the state of international students’ psychological well-being.

Moreover, these findings with regard to psychological well-being can be applied to research on psychological health among college students in general.

Obstacles to identity

Next, the study findings show that university identification is a crucial issue in the daily lives of international students. Unlike domestic students, international students often experience difficulty in fully engaging in diverse relationships with domestic students as well as with other international students.

Even in the classroom, international students often experience limited interaction with classmates and instructors. These limited interactions become obstacles to creating a university identity.

Nevertheless, previous research has seldom examined the issues related to international students’ university identification. Therefore, this finding provides practitioners with evidence that suggests the importance of developing more programmes that can support international students’ active interactions with students and instructors which can ultimately strengthen students’ sense of a university identity.

Although our study has academic and practical implications, future research needs to delve further into the cultural backgrounds of international students.

In other words, students with different cultural backgrounds tend to show unique behavioural patterns in interacting with people in academic settings.

For instance, compared to students from less hierarchical Western countries with a strong emphasis on individualism, international students from Far Eastern countries – like China and Korea, which are characterised by a more hierarchical culture – are more likely to be hesitant about interacting with domestic students and instructors.

Therefore, it is worth thoroughly analysing the role of the cultural backgrounds that bind international students’ communicative activities with regard to their sense of university identification.

Dr Jaehee Cho is assistant professor in the School of Media and Communication at Chung-Ang University, Korea. Hongsik Yu is a researcher in the School of Media and Communication at Chung-Ang University, Korea. This article is based on their study published in the Journal of Studies in International Education.