The invisible challenges of international students

Younus Mirza (center, front row) with his students from Allegheny College.

College and Universities frequently espouse educating the “whole person” or the physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects of their students.  However, educating the “whole person” for international students may look very different than for domestic students since they face various obstacles and structural challenges that may be invisible to us.  These challenges may include their visa status, speaking American English or understanding the cultural norms of their peers.

Thus, mentoring international students will go much deeper than approving their classes or helping them figure out their major.  As Hannah Schell has described it, “this kind of mentoring entails careful listening and being attuned to what students are saying both verbally and non-verbally.”  International students may be especially quiet in class because they don’t know the right way to articulate something or because they don’t want to look “stupid” in front of their peers.  Advising sessions with mentors can therefore be critical for international students feeling at “home” within an institution and for them to explore questions of deeper meaning and purpose.  These sessions may be one of the few times that they are able to pause from their new reality as a foreign student and to think about their vocation and long-term goals.

Drawing upon a network of mentors may be especially important when it comes to our international students. Mentorship should not be solitary but include “an array of input from different mentors.  These include not only faculty and ‘official’ academic advisors, but also organizational advisors, coaches, departmental office managers, student life personnel, chaplains, and many others” (See “Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Mentoring”).   A faculty member may ask why a certain international student is missing class but a quick call to the director of international students may find that there is political unrest in the student’s home country.  A talk with the chaplain may reveal that the student recently lost a loved one or is feeling religiously isolated within the college’s small town.  A conversation with the student affairs may lead to learning that the student is having trouble making friends and does not fit within the American students’ party culture.

New book on this topic

In my experiences as a mentor, I have encountered students who have faced incredible obstacles in order to be in our classrooms.  These obstacles include living in a country with no immediate family, being a refugee from a war-torn country, or originating from a country that is now “banned.”  These students lack a support system that many of our domestic students have which can lead to depression, isolation and ultimately, them not graduating from our institutions.  While our institutions might excel at crisis management and successfully intervene when a student is facing an emergency, it is essential that faculty and staff continuously mentor our international students and help them with their vocational discernment. These students have sacrificed a remarkable amount to be within our campuses and are expected to give more time and effort to understand their surroundings and course material than our domestic students.  It is our obligation to help provide them the network of mentors that will allow them to succeed.

Further reading:

Creating a Culturally Inclusive Campus: A Guide to Supporting International Students by Barbara J. Hoekje and Scott G. Stevens. Published by Routledge in December 2017.


Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College; he delivered the opening plenary on these themes at the recent NetVUE gathering, “Mentoring Students of Color for Deep Purpose,” hosted by Elizabethtown College in March 2018. His essay, “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019).

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