International Student Success: The Missing Piece

illustration of an article

At a recent Academic Impressions webcast on internationalizing the college campus, we surveyed 53 North American institutions of higher education to learn about their efforts and their most significant challenges in integrating international students into campus life. In other surveys over the past few years, international students themselves have cited this integration and acculturation as both key to their success as students -- and largely missing from their college experience. (For more information, read our April 2011 article "Supporting International Student Success.")

When we asked colleges about their efforts to assist in student success and integration, the results were revealing:

  • Three-quarters of those institutions surveyed indicated that they had put in place orientation programming specifically for international students, as well as providing writing center resources and staff trained to assist learners for whom English is a second language.
  • However, very few institutions offered other forms of support with integration into the campus community. Only one-third offered their students (whether international or domestic) training and development in intercultural competencies. Fewer institutions offered any coaching on intercultural competencies to faculty and staff.

Darla Deardorff, the executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), a research scholar in education at Duke University, and a lead researcher on intercultural competence, suggests that cultivating intercultural competencies among students, faculty, and staff is the key piece to effective integration of international students into campus life and the curriculum.

Cultivating Intercultural Competence: Myths to Avoid

Deardorff lists the following myths that often plague efforts to integrate international students into the campus:

  • Myth: That sending students abroad, by itself, is enough to develop intercultural competencies
  • Myth: That just bringing international and domestic students together will, by itself, enable them to develop intercultural competencies
  • Myth: That just addressing the issue in a one-hour training session, a one-day training session, or a few social events, will be sufficient for developing intercultural competencies

"This is the case because intercultural competencies go beyond just knowledge. They're about attitudes, skills, and both internal and external outcomes for how we perceive others and interact with them. Developing intercultural competencies is a lifelong process -- in fact, one that we need to continue to assist students in, as they become young alumni."
Darla Deardorff, AIEA

A further myth is that development of intercultural competencies need only be focused on students. If your institution is to support the academic success and persistence of international students effectively -- and if "internationalization" or globalization is a priority for your institution -- then your faculty and staff require development of intercultural competence, as well.

The Missing Piece

Deardorff suggests that the missing piece in developing cultivating competencies in students, faculty, and staff is most often reflection. After study abroad trips, service projects in which both domestic and international students work together, and after various learning experiences, it's critical to provide the necessary time and tools to aid students (as well as the faculty and staff involved) in identifying what they have learned and reflecting on its applicability to other areas of their lives.

Here are additional steps you can take to help students and faculty develop intercultural competencies:

  • Provide education around what it is like to live and work in a given region. For example, host a panel where alumni from a given region talk about hiring, career opportunities, and career challenges in that area.
  • Involve faculty in holding a symposium at your institution to create dialogue and space for discussing intercultural competencies.


View a free recording of our June 2012 webcast "The Internationalized Campus" to hear from experts Darla Deardorff (AIEA) and Gretchen Dobson (Gretchen Dobson Go Global) about critical opportunities during the undergraduate years to introduce programming that supports international students' academic success and persistence ... and invites them to engage with the institution in the long term, as international alumni.

Defining Intercultural Competence: Useful Resources

"What you may not realize," Deardorff notes, "is that there have actually been five decades of scholarly work done on intercultural competencies." Deardorff mentions that it is critical to review the literature on the issue and arrive at a clear definition of intercultural competencies for your campus -- rather than reinventing the wheel.

Deardorff's own research has resulted in the first research-based definition of intercultural competence, which is now used at many higher-education institutions and organizations globally to frame their development or training programs.

Here are several resources for digging deeper: