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Jinglin Guo, Western Oregon University

Test ImageThe number of international students who enrolled in colleges and universities during the 2014 to 2015 academic year in the United States was 974,926, and in the past ten years, this number has increased by 300,000 students (Institute of International Education, 2016).  The increased presence of international students means academic advisors must be aware of the unique issues facing international students in order to support and ensure success across the range of students they serve.  Not knowing where to find help is one of the main reasons why international students face challenges on and off campus.  When international students are asked why they do not seek immediate help when they encounter problems, most students will answer that they do not know where to go to seek help.  Also, many international students never ask or speak out because they do not want to share feelings of insecurity (Wanning, 2009).

At Western Oregon University (WOU), one of the main duties as an international learning specialist (a position which supports international students in transitioning into the university) is to help international students acculturate to American higher education.  At WOU, most international students are required to take a 10-week orientation course designed to help them understand American higher education rules and expectations as well as assist them in adapting to American life.  From my experience of teaching new international students, most have academic problems and challenges due to culture shock.  First-generation international students especially may not know where to find useful resources or how to do things that most domestic students find to be simple (Pedersen, 1995).  The same advising applied to domestic students may not work well for international students.  Understanding international students will help advisors find more appropriate ways to serve them.  The following six strategies can help advisors working with international students.  

Build Trust.  For advisors trying to help international students, the first priority is creating an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable sharing their true concerns.  International students may be shy when confronted about missing assignments or other problems that might embarrass them.  Advisors need to create trust with students or students may think that speaking out will make things worse and stop talking to advisors.  The advisor toolkit for building trust includes non-judgements, authenticity, and transparency.   

Listen.  When international students start to tell their stories, it is crucial that advisors listen and let them finish without interruption.  When international students feel they miscommunicate with advisors, the most common reason is “my advisor never listens to my explanation.”  Those students also say they do not want to talk with the same advisor again.  Sometimes advisors may hear unverifiable reasons such as “my computer crashed” or excuses like “I felt tired so I didn’t go to class.”  But it does not matter if advisors decide to believe excuses or not, what matters is that advisors listen to the student first.  Listening to international students shows that advisors support them and care about everything they experience.

Communication.  Most international students come from a different educational system, which has different academic requirements than American institutions (Hyun, 2014).  When international students first engage with a new academic environment, they are confused and have lots of questions, but they may not know the terminology or concepts to express these concerns.  In these cases, advisors need to build international students’ academic language.  Some students face language barriers or do not know how to communicate with professors and domestic students (Lipson, 2008).  When international students try to explain their questions, advisors can list and write down options.  In this manner, international students can gain a broad academic vocabulary to better express themselves.  For example, if students ask about courses, advisors may list different categories of courses, such as major courses, minor courses, or core curriculum.

When communication is an issue, advisors may be asked the same question repeatedly.  International students easily forget what they have heard in an unfamiliar academic environment, and they may need to confirm that they understand and/or have been understood.  To help students retain information, advisors can encourage students to take notes during advising in order to move information from short term memory to long term memory (Takač, 2008).

Challenges can be overcome for student’s learning and adjustments if advisors are patient in helping students learn new rules and methods.  Miscommunication between students and advisors  happen frequently, and advisors need to offer selections and prompts to guide international students to ask for what they need.  Usually international students know what they want, but they do not know how to ask.

Sensitivity.  Some international students face great challenges using English and these make them feel defeated, afraid to make mistakes, and humiliated when asking for help.  Because of this, slight reactions can be very hurtful.  One international student who I worked with felt hurt because her team partner (a domestic student) could not understand her writing.  That international student stopped doing work for the class since she thought she would not get a good grade and was never willing to work with the same partner again.  Explaining to students that using a second language to study abroad is not easy and that mistakes are a necessary step in language learning is reassuring and builds self-confidence.  Advisors can suggest that the student think another way: if domestic students needed to finish this class in another language, how many of them could do it well?  Advisors can encourage international students and help them feel comfortable by acknowledging their feelings and trying to be positive.   

Advising Styles.  Most international students want advisors to tell them how to do things with details, so advisors should clarify their main function as guides, where students take personal responsibility (NACADA, 2003).  Since international students feel insecure when they enter a new environment (Pedersen, 1995), advisors need to point out how to do things step-by-step during the first advising session.  Over time, students will become acclimated to the American advising style, but advisors can show them the way.     

Importantly, advisors need to give international students credible answers and responses when encountering something new.  For example, in one criminal justice course, the class discussed whether a police officer should ticket a friend.  One international student said “no” and did not believe the professor or the class when they argued against him, creating distrust in the classroom. When cultural perspectives clash in the classroom, an advisor can explain American culture and laws to the student.  After that, the student can better understand his class’s reaction and begin to trust the professor.  Different cultures have different values, laws, and customs, and advisors must help students navigate differences to succeed in the American education system.     

Encourage Students.  According to data from 2014-2015, 63.5% of international students come from Asia (Institute of International Education, 2016). The biggest difference between Western and Eastern education is that “silence” is a general characteristic of most Asian students.  For them, talking with professors can be a daunting task.  Often, students at risk of failing are referred to advisors by instructors.  Those students often have the same question: “why did my instructor not point out my mistakes until I had missed the deadline?”  Students do not often check with instructors about their assignments.  They feel strange when they do not receive feedback from instructors, but they choose to wait.  Obviously, “no news is good news” does not work well in American contexts.  That is part of the culture shock students experience.  International students think that things are okay if professors never contact them, but they have no idea that professors are too busy to point out mistakes for every student on time.  Advisors can encourage international students to break their silence by starting discussions and communicating with professors during office hours to make sure they are on track.

Working with international students is complicated and often requires more patience than working with domestic students.  Advisors may encounter many different problems such as culture shock, communication misunderstandings, and insecurity among students.  Advisors not only advise students on academic related topics, but also care about students’ cultures, reactions, and values.  Knowing how to better advise international students will not only bring more benefits to international students, but also bring deeper learning to domestic students, the campus, and community.

Jinglin Guo
International Learning Specialist
Academic Advising and Learning Center / International Student Academic Support
Western Oregon University
[email protected]


Hyun, J. (n.d.).  4 big differences in American and Asian education norms. Retrieved from http://www.realclear.com/world/2014/05/01/stark_differences_in_american_and_asian_education_6735.html  

Institute of International Education. (n.d.). International students in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/Services/Project-Atlas/United-States/International-Students-In-US

Lipson, C. (2008). Succeeding as an international student in the United States and Canada. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

NACADA. (2003). Paper presented to the task force on defining academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Definitions-of-academic-advising.aspx

Pedersen, P. (1995). The five stages of culture shock: Critical incidents around the world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Takač, V. P. (2008). Vocabulary learning strategies and foreign language acquisition. Clevedon, NY: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Wanning, E. (2009). Culture Shock! USA: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Tarrytown, NY, US: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.

Cite this article using APA style as: Guo, J. (2016, December). Advising from the heart: Six strategies for working with international students. Academic Advising Today, 39(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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