Making Transitions Easier For International Students


There is a big upward trend in American higher education today: a growing influx of international students, particularly those from East Asia. There are currently over 700,000 international students at US schools, with around 370,000 at the undergraduate level and 329,000 at the graduate level. Those from the Asia Pacific countries make up 43 percent of the total.  

The influx of multinational students has enriched US university and college campuses, but has simultaneously created new cultural challenges for the students and school administrators, as cultural gaps continue to negatively impact international students’ post-arrival adjustment.

International students are prone to experiencing acculturation challenges and distress while adjusting to local laws, academic systems, communication styles, social etiquette, foods, healthcare, transportation, etc. If left unresolved, these challenges can negatively impact the students’ academics, sociocultural adjustment, health and psychological well-being, communication and engagement, and ultimately, retention rates. Indeed, “Poor academic performance is often indicative of difficulties in adjusting to university environment and makes dropout more likely,” according to a study by Weng, Cheong and Cheong (2010).

To address these challenges, US higher educational systems are initiating earlier cultural training to bridge pre-departure preparation with post-arrival adjustment programs in order to better influence cross-cultural management. As Margaret Pitts noted in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, “With a better understanding of Western academic systems and culture, students can develop more accurate expectations of likely adjustment issues and may develop more accurate methods for coping with cultural transition and adjustment” (2009).

We here at TMC, in collaboration with experts in the field of academic acculturation, recommend a specific course of action that educational institutions can follow to help their international students better adjust to their new environments.

This preparation involves:

  • Mandatory, for-credit pre-departure transitional courses. These courses should last around four weeks and include cultural, linguistic, academic and professional preparation. Here the Cultural Navigator can be of great use, especially the Cultural Orientations Indicator and Country Comparison Report.
  • Mandatory on-campus courses. These courses, which are given after the student arrives, include the topics of diversity, leadership, management and communications.
  • Continued support from university faculty and administration.

International students benefit in many ways from traveling to the US for their tertiary education, and the academic institutions benefit from increased diversity. Though the cultural transition can be very hard, with the proper preparation, the experience can be made much smoother, so that students can better focus on their academics.