Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

International Students Struggling to Make Friends in the U.S.

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 @ 08:37 AM

international students in the United StatesAlthough the future of the U.S. as a world leader is looking more and more questionable, American universities are still a major destination for international students.

Getting educated at a well-known university in the U.S. means a chance to put a good name on your resume, an opportunity to improve your English, gain professional credentials and learn how to communicate across cultures.

 It also gives you a certain status in your community and career field back home. If you had the chance, why wouldn't you take advantage of an opportunity like this?

But what is really happening when these students arrive and try to form "intercultural" friendships with American students? A lot of them are forming great bonds with local students and are learning a lot from the experience! For others, things aren't going so well.


The Stats:

international students and friendships

  • According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 in 3 international students (graduate and undergraduate) said they had no close American friends.


  • Students from China and other East Asian countries had fewer friends than European students.


  •  46% of students surveyed attributed this issue to factors like their own shyness but 54% said that American students are the major reason for the problem.



Can we blame it on the "cold" Northeast?

 international students and intercultural communication, cold NYCMaybe this is just about regional differences.

The study also found that international students in the Northeast of the United States were less happy with their bonds with American students than international students in the southern states like Georgia.

In addition, those who attended school on rural campuses were more likely to have made tight friendships than those who went to school in a city.

Sure, large cities like Boston and New York are known for being rather "cold" and "impersonal". It can be tough to make genuine connections with local people in these cities if you are a student or a professional. 


What is going on?


  • Does this go back to culture and cultural differences? As the United States is a very individualistic culture, we maintain a task-based view toward time and some consider friendships here very superficial. If you are a student coming from a more relationship-based culture, where your identity is closely related to your place within a group, that could present a real challenge.

 question mark

  • Should American students have more experience abroad? This a problem from both sides. More U.S. students need to study abroad and get international experience. If an American student has been to Japan or other parts of East Asia for education or even just short-term travel, there will be an automatic basis for conversation. There will be a place to start.


  • Is it about English skills? Do a lot of international students struggle to strike up a conversation with American students? They might have perfect English grammar but are they able to use and respond to idioms and expressions in everyday conversations? Does their fear of making mistakes inhibit their ability to start conversations?


What can we do?


Something isn't working. How can we create a better environment for intercultural exchange at universities where students from the United States and international students can really take advantage of and learn from this incredible opportunity? Some readers might claim that perhaps these students don't actually want to make friends with Americans. Fair enough. But some of them certainly do and it's not happening. American universities have an obligation to take a closer look at this. What can we do?

  • Intercultural training for university staff especially resident advisors, faculty, administrators, student support staff and teaching assistants
  • More in-depth orientation programs for international students
  • On-going coaching and counseling for students
  • English language training for international students, focusing on conversation skills and ability to interact, rather than grammar exercises
  • More encouragement for American students to participate in long-term and short-term travel, study and volunteer experiences, a university culture that is centered around building international and intercultural skills


Are you an international student? What do you think? Is this a problem? How can we solve this problem? Please leave your comment below.


 Learn more about life in the U.S.


Photo credit: izahorskyJanneke Hikspoors, Susan NYC,

Topics: United States Culture, Cultural Competence, Intercultural Communication

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