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Does being an international student mean you have to be lonely?

January 9, 2013

Does being an international student mean you have to be lonely?


Image a derivative of Lee J Haywood

Image a derivative of Lee J Haywood


The article in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication resulted in several articles highlighting and in response to the surprising and saddening finding that 40% of the 454 international students surveyed by Dr. Elisabeth Gareis, associate professor with Baruch College’s Department of Communication Studies, did not have close American friends. About half a year has passed since the article was first published, so it is a good time to revisit the topic and ask the question, does being an international student mean you have to be lonely?


First of all, it might be helpful to review exactly who the survey respondents were in the research mentioned above:

 228 were male

 226 were female

 Studying at either the undergraduate or graduate level; in the U.S. for 3 years or less

 Studying at 10 public universities

 Universities located in New York City, rural/surburban parts of the Northeast, and rural/suburban areas of the South

 134 were from East Asian countries; almost 30%


Not only did 40% of international students participating in the survey have no close American friends, it is important to note that according to Dr. Gareis, the very same 40% also indicated that they “would have liked more meaningful interaction with people born here.”

If these international students wanted to be friends with their American peers, why were they not successful? Dr. Gareis’s article provides some insight: “More than half of students who were less than very satisfied with their American friendships felt that the main problem lay with the Americans.”


The study designated ‘American factors’ and ‘internal factors’ to categorize reasons why international students responding to the survey found it difficult to make close American friends.

American factors: Attributes of Americans or U.S. culture that are barriers to friendship, such as disinterest in other cultures, superficiality

Internal factors: Attributes of international students that are barriers to friendship, including low levels of English proficiency, shyness

 Overall, 46% of international students surveyed pointed to internal factors as reasons for difficulties in making American friends. However, that number is higher when looking at East Asian students alone. 78% of East Asian students attributed their problems to internal factors.

 As for American factors, 32% of survey respondents believed that superficiality was the reason for their lack of American friends, while not being open-minded or interested was thought to be the reason by 25% of the international students.


Clearly, both sets of factors are weighty issues, as made evident by the article highlighting two additional findings:

 Surveyed international students who were most likely to have 3 or more close American friends were from countries where English was the spoken language. Conversely, students who were from East Asian countries where English is not the first language, were most likely to have no close American friends.

 The pool of international students surveyed in the article could be broken down in terms of region. The highest levels of satisfaction and number of students with close American friends were in the South. The Northeast region was next in rank, and the New York City area was last.


Image a derivative of patrickeasters

Image a derivative of patrickeasters


International students experience complete English immersion upon arriving on campus, so it is easy to imagine the relief one may feel when meeting a fellow countryman. Even among students who are proficient in English, an accent or the use of unfamiliar phrases could be perceived as “different” or “foreign” by American students. As one international student put it, “Nobody wants to sound stupid and often people keep their mouths shut afraid of embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong things. This can come across as being anti-social… everybody is a little ‘anti-social’ to some extent. People just like the familiar.”

American students on a quickly internationalizing college campus also seek out the familiar, so it is possible that the efforts are one-sided. Expectations for incoming international students to acclimate to the host culture are so high that it may work against them. Having made the decision to study in the U.S., international students are expected to become “American”—an extreme version of this could be an “either make the change or leave” mentality on the part of American students. Thus, with international students being asked not only to initiate friendships, but to also acclimate to the American culture, these expectations can quickly become a burden: “Many international students respond to the ‘adjustment fatigue’ by sticking to their own.”

Do the regional differences in the number of close American friends and levels of satisfaction mean that the American students attending public universities in the South are actually friendlier to international students than their Northeast and New York City counterparts? Due to very limited access to the full article by Dr. Gareis, that is difficult to determine. However, comments responding to a follow up article in Inside Higher Ed guessed that regional cultures, i.e. the friendly nature of Southerners, or the heavily evangelical Christian population, are reflected in the regional differences. It might also be helpful to note that with the exception of Florida and Texas, the greatest numbers of international students in the U.S. are in the Northeast states, a region where many large cities are concentrated. Perhaps international students are still somewhat novel on campuses in the South, and international students are less likely to leave campus on the weekends for other destinations, due to the distance and isolation of the campus from metropolitan areas.



So, does being an international student mean you have to be lonely? The results of Dr. Gareis’ findings may not apply to the general international student population in the U.S. The pool of students surveyed is so small—454 students responded to the survey—that it is difficult to say that this particular pool of students attending public universities in just three regions of the U.S. is representative of all international students.

Obviously, it is hoped that the answer to the above question is “no.” There is a trend of increasing numbers of international students on U.S. college campuses, so odds of there being another student from your home country are pretty high, and in general, even international students from another country may be more easily able to empathize with you.

As for making American friends, try to fight the ‘adjustment fatigue’. While it is incorrect to say efforts need not be continued to acclimate to the American campus culture and learn how to be friends with Americans, but the first few weeks are crucial. Student orientation and the weeks following are when cliques and social circles are established, so it is especially important that you explore opportunities on campus to make friends. It is recommended that international students do not choose an international dormitory/residence hall, as this is the student population from which first-year friendships are formed.

Another tip for international students attending schools located in rural or suburban areas would be to avoid taking weekend trips away from campus the first semester. It is difficult for anyone to become close friends with someone who is constantly away and not interested in participating in social activities on campus.

In addition, if you feel as though an American student is not responding to or recognizing your efforts to be friends, do not take it personally! Apparently, there is a tendency among American students to be less aware of barriers created by cultural differences, but also to believe that no special effort is required on their part to be friends with international students.

Lastly, all international students may find it easier to navigate the customs and norms of a rather complicated culture—that of American college students—by observing their American peers. The ways in which American students differ in how they approach their peers, professors, and their studies, extend invitations to parties, find certain topics acceptable or taboo, eat their meals, etc. may surprise you! Discover the differences and embrace the similarities!


Related links:

Voice of America blog: The Student Union

New international student mentoring program bridges relationships with domestic students



Jaschik, Scott. “Friendless in America.” Inside Higher Ed, June 14, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2012.

National Communication Association. “Many International Students Have Close American Friends, Survey Says.” Natioanl Communication Association, June 14, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2012.

Obst, Daniel. “Trends in International Student Enrollments in the United States: The Global Context.” Washington International Education Conference, January 25, 2011. Accessed January 7, 2012.

Stahl, Jessica. “Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?” The Student Union, June 19, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2012.

Tan, Julien. “Why are Asians at University so Anti-Social?” Huffington Post Students United Kingdom, August 10, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2012.

Van Niekerk, Andrea. “40% of foreign students in the US have no close friends on campus: The culture shock of loneliness.” Quartz, November 28, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2012.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2013 6:58 PM

    Thanks for including my article! One of the things I found out from the many comments I got on that piece is that this is by no means unique to America. In every country there’s a tendency for separation between the native students and the foreign ones [link: And in a way it’s understandable – people seek out other people like them.

    One of the things I heard from American students is that when they do form friendships with international students, it’s through clubs or organizations. Shared interests. This was my own experience in college as well – I got to know several international students because we were doing activities together and the friendship just naturally formed. So one tip for international students looking to meet more Americans is to get involved in extracurricular activities.

  2. Carys permalink
    March 5, 2013 6:14 PM

    I am thinking of doing my Masters degree in the US and I am currently doing my Bachelors in my home country of Wales in the UK, what I have discovered is that most Asian students basically keep to themselves and talk in their native language, whenever someone who is not Asian speaks to them they become cut off and look like they are not interested, this may be different with other places but this is what I have noticed at my University.

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