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Voices of the Global Community


Tara Pylate, University of Memphis
Donna Menke, Mid-Plains Community College

Donna Menke.jpgTara Pylate.jpgThe number of international students in the United States has grown tremendously over the years, from around 145,000 in 1970–71 to over a million in the 2018–19 academic year (Enrollment Trends, 2019). This increase is partly due to globalization as well as other social and political efforts to internationalize U.S. higher education. This substantial increase has far-reaching implications for advising professionals who are often among the first college representatives welcoming international students.

The continued influx of international students at American higher education institutions demands a better understanding of the motivation, background, needs, expectations, and challenges of these students which can only be achieved through adequate training for academic advisors. Academic advisors play a vital role in international students’ studies (Bista, 2015; Charles & Stewart, 1991). They serve as an overall support system for students, familiarizing them with both institutional and governmental policies and procedures as well as degree requirements, introducing them to academic and cultural norms, assisting them in defining their academic and professional goals, helping them choose degree plans and courses, providing emotional support, and linking them with other resources and networks as needed (Bista, 2015; Saha, 2018; Weill, 1982; Zhang, 2018).

International student advisors go beyond simply fulfilling routine functions and often serve as both friends and allies to their advisees (Weill, 1982; Zhang, 2016). They are seen by international students as crucial supporters, ranking closely behind family and friends and international support offices (Zhai, 2004). In addition, advisors play a valuable role in the lives of their international advisees by motivating and empowering them, aiding in their transition from their home countries (Saha, 2018). Consequently, students’ relationships with their advisors are frequently seen as critical to their academic success. In fact, research has shown that closer advisor-advisee relationships resulted in higher persistence and a greater sense of belonging among international students (Mataczynski, 2013; Saha, 2018; Zhai, 2004; Zhang, 2016, 2018). 

Despite these important aspects of academic advising, the literature suggests that many advisors still lack sufficient knowledge and skills for effective advising. For instance, studies have found that advisors were not only unknowledgeable about educational requirements in foreign students’ home countries and basic immigration rules and regulations, but also had little support from their institutions with no opportunities to advance their own intercultural literacy (Zhang, 2015, 2016). Identifying the right theoretical foundation is a good starting point for improving academic advising. Intercultural Communication Competence (ICC) Theory is appropriate for helping academic advisors lay the groundwork for their time with international students.

Intercultural Communication Competence

Building from the work of Zhang (Zhang, 2015; Zhang & Dinh, 2017), ICC can serve as a framework for academic advisors working with international students. Chen and Starosta (1996) define ICC as the ability to “interact effectively, appropriately, and meaningfully across different cultures” (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). ICC consists of three main domains: Intercultural Sensitivity (affective domain), Intercultural Awareness (cognitive domain), and Intercultural Adroitness (behavioral domain) (Chen & Starosta, 1998, 1999). A successful training program will include each of the three areas.

Intercultural Sensitivity. The affective domain focuses on one’s motivation toward intercultural communication. According to Dai & Chen (2014), the “willingness to learn, appreciate, and even accept cultural differences . . . to bring forth a positive outcome of interaction” is inherent in intercultural sensitivity (pp. 20–21). Academic advisors must be welcoming of students with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Intercultural sensitivity is perhaps the greatest quality that international advisors should display. The Intercultural Sensitivity Scale (ISS) can help advisors develop a baseline for their readiness to learn about and embrace students from other cultures (Chen & Starosta, 2000). This includes undertaking an honest examination of one’s personal biases. Intolerance to different sociocultural backgrounds and/or ethnocentric views are extremely counterproductive to international academic advising and could even cause irreparable damage to the advisor-advisee relationship (Charles & Stewart, 1991; Zhang & Dinh, 2017).

Empathy is also a key component of intercultural sensitivity (Chen & Starosta, 1997). Zhang (2015) found that international students required more patience and understanding from their advisors than domestic students. Similarly, Kim (2007) recognized that compassion was necessary for advisors to display when working with South Korean students. Effective advisor training will allow advisors to develop empathy and safely examine their own prejudices as well as put them in their advisees’ shoes to better understand their challenges and needs (Zhang, 2015).

Intercultural Awareness. An understanding of international students’ unique needs falls under the cognitive area of ICC. In this domain, advisors must show patience, cultural understanding, and consideration to students’ distinctive needs (Charles & Stewart, 1991; Zhang, 2015). Cultural dissimilarities can make the advisor-advisee relationship more difficult and can be one of the biggest hurdles advisors face (Charles & Stewart, 1991; Zhang, 2015). Advisors should not only be aware of their advisees’ culture but possess a self-awareness of their own culture and the differences which exist between the two (Dai & Chen, 2014). Here, Hofstede’s (2010) national culture score can be a useful tool to understand the cultural dimensions of an advisees’ country and minimize confusion.

Zhang and Dinh (2017) found that students’ different communication styles, unfamiliarity with American academia, and unrealistic expectations of advisors were major obstacles for the advisor-advisee relationship, emphasizing a need for developing a deeper and more holistic approach to international advising. Advisors must acknowledge that each of their foreign students have a unique background which requires individualized advising (Chow, 2015). Students attribute bad advising experiences to their advisor’s lack of understanding of their cultural backgrounds and past experiences (Zhang, 2016, 2018). Therefore, opportunities to expand on this knowledge are imperative. Additionally, stereotypical generalizations of students from certain countries and/or regions must be pushed aside (Weill, 1982). Congruent to this is the notion that the advisor-advisee relationship is not a one-way street but requires the engagement of both parties. As the integration of students in their new social environment demands curiosity and broadmindedness, advisors can contribute to the advising experience with hospitality, impartiality, and respect (Zhang, 2015; Zhang & Dinh, 2017).

Intercultural Adroitness. Proficiency in intercultural communication is addressed in the behavioral aspect of ICC. Advisors must often deal with students using a variety of techniques to facilitate clear communication (Zhang, 2015). When one can successfully communicate with an individual from a different cultural background using accurate messaging, interaction, and flexibility as well as suitable levels of self-disclosure, they have achieved effective intercultural communication (Chen & Starosta, 1996). Chen & Starosta (1996) described this domain as “the ability to get the job done” (p. 367).

According to Zhang and Dinh (2017), “[Intercultural communication] skills take on increased importance when academic advisors interact with students who come from different cultural backgrounds, speak nonnative languages, or transfer from overseas education systems” (p. 33). One of the earliest studies to look at both international advisor and advisee perceptions found that the greatest problem pinpointed by both students and advisors as a hindrance to effective communication was insufficient English language skills (Hart, 1974). More recent studies have confirmed this observation. The significance of English language barriers on the advisor-advisee bond should not be underestimated, as good communication is a critical component of this relationship (Harrison, 2009; Heisserer & Parette, 2002). This observation highlights the need for better communication. For instance, to overcome language barriers, advisors are directed to keep their language simple and clear, exercise caution with humor which could easily be misunderstood, and utilize more open-ended questions which require more elaboration and help better understand the perspective of the advisee (Saha, 2018; Zhang, 2016; Zhang & Dinh, 2017). Advisors should ask thoughtful questions and be mindful of differing cultural customs and beliefs (Lowell, 2016).

Nonverbal communication may also be misinterpreted due to cultural differences. Cases of nonverbal miscommunication have been shown to be high among student populations from Southeast Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Japan, impacting students’ perception of acceptance (Alexander et al., 1976; Zhang & Rentz, 1996). Advisors can improve their relationships with their advisees by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their own communication style (Zhang & Dinh, 2017). Communication skills can be enhanced through role playing common scenarios. Furthermore, senior international students can provide additional assistance and information for advisors on culture-specific communication behaviors.


Academic advising will remain an important area as the internationalization of higher education persists, drawing students globally to institutions in the U.S. and further diversifying American academia. This article advocates for thorough and continued professional development for academic advisors working with international students, because true cultural competence is rarely obtained through a one-day training. When applied effectively, ICC can enrich the practice of international academic advising.

Tara Pylate
Graduate Student, Higher & Adult Education
University of Memphis
[email protected]

Donna Menke
Area Director of Advising
Mid-Plains Community College
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Pylate, T., & Menke, D. (2020, December). Advising international students using intercultural communication competence. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]


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