International students who attend graduate school in the United States recognize the many advantages of our graduate education system and arrive with appreciation and energy to accomplish great things with their faculty and peers. At the same time, these students experience significant challenges that go beyond adjusting to living, learning, and working in a foreign language, and vary depending on the background of the student — whether he or she is new to graduate study in the United States or has experience in this system.
Students and mentors alike will benefit from understanding that no matter where a student is from, there are cultural, educational, and social norms to be learned in graduate school.
Despite their abilities and accomplishments, international students can feel less competent in the early stages of their programs. Lack of linguistic proficiency or lack of knowledge about the U.S. academic system can be hurdles to overcome in the initial stages of a research or teaching assignment. Most international students have experienced very different classroom communication patterns. For example, in the educational systems of East and Southeast Asia students are passive in interactions with professors, whose authority goes unquestioned. International students can be taken aback when U.S. students speak up without being called upon or challenging their professors' views.
Interaction in graduate seminars can seem unnecessarily competitive to international students, who fear that if they do not exhibit these same behaviors, professors will judge them as less capable or less intelligent. Finally, many international graduate students come from countries in which only a small number of high school graduates are admitted to university, so the different level of preparation of first-year undergraduates in the United States can be a new challenge for international teaching assistants.
When international graduate students arrive on campus, they need to demystify three cultures: the U.S. culture, the culture of the university, and the academic culture in their departments. They discover that policies in graduate departments can be quite different from those in their home institutions, or are opaque or difficult to interpret. For instance, some may find it hard initially to understand why they can accept teaching or research assistantship "work" but are not permitted to work off-campus. On a subtler note, international graduate students might rely on different assumptions about how faculty members and graduate students should relate to each other. Many East Asian graduate students, for example, have reported sensing a kind of interpersonal "coldness" from some U.S. faculty who, while informal and jovial with students during seminars, remain distant regarding students' personal or family lives. In other countries, the faculty-graduate student relationship often extends beyond academic discussions and may include various types of non-academic interactions with students and their families.
In moving far away from families and friends, many international students can feel a great sense of displacement. Those who are new to this country and who bring their partners and children with them worry about how well they or their families will adjust to life in the United States. Even for students from countries with a large number of fellow nationals studying at UNL, uncertainties about how to socialize with Americans can raise stress levels. After a while, some students may begin to wonder about how they will be accepted at home when they return with different dress, talk, and behavior. In essence, they worry about becoming foreigners in their own countries.