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For International Students, a College Experience Shaped by Support, Careers, and COVID-19

For international students who traveled across the globe to attend a U.S. college or university, the COVID-19 pandemic upended nearly every aspect of their higher education experience. Indeed, in a recent survey, 81% of international students said the pandemic had a moderate-to-significant impact on their college experience.

Conducted by Hanover Research on behalf of the Global Alliance for International Student Advancement (GAISA), the International Student Experience Survey queried 134 international students currently enrolled at a U.S. institution. Administered online in May and June 2021, the surveyed aimed to better understand how international students experience life and studies at U.S. colleges and universities, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected that experience.

Nearly 75% had to take their courses online instead of in person, and 32% said their academic performance declined because of the pandemic. In such a tumultuous environment, it’s more important than ever that universities understand the unique needs of international students and how to support them. Below are a few key findings from this survey—and some recommendations for how colleges and universities can better support international students.


Travel Restrictions, Longer Graduation Timelines, and a Significant Mental Toll

While the impact of COVID-19 has been throughout higher education, international students have faced particularly significant challenges. For instance, 31% of respondents were forced to remain in their home countries because of travel restrictions and 6% had to enroll in a different institution entirely. Being physically present was just one issue, however. The mental toll on international students was also significant. Among respondents, 28% felt they were unable to succeed at their institution, and another 24% said it will now take them longer to complete their program than expected.


Altered Outlooks on Careers, Universities, and the United States

Survey respondents indicate that their perceptions of both their future career prospects and the United States have, on average, declined. For 38%, perceptions of their future career prospects grew more negative, while 37% say their perception of the United States has become more negative. This is a contrast to the 23% of respondents who have an improved perception of their future career prospects and the 29% who have an improved perception of the U.S.

However, when it comes to international student perceptions of their university, their outlook has, on average, become more positive. 36% of respondents report that the pandemic has improved their perception of their university compared to the 23% who report their perception of their university has worsened.


Better than Expected, with Room for Improvements (Like These)

Despite the pandemic and all of its challenges, respondents generally reported that attending an institution in the U.S. exceeded their expectations. For example, 60% of respondents reported that:

  • The academic quality of their institution was much or somewhat better than expected
  • The state-of-the-art equipment, facilities, and technology were much or somewhat better than expected
  • The wide variety of programs available in the U.S. were much or somewhat better than expected

Still, there remains room for improvement when it comes to providing adequate support to international students pertaining to career support, student services, and campus life. Here are three recommendations based on the survey results.

1. Improve tailored career support for international students.

Nearly half of international student respondents cited the quality of academic institutions as the top reason they decided to pursue education in the U.S., while 45% said their top reason was the job prospects. However, 28% of respondents said the job prospects after graduation are much or somewhat worse than they expected. Meanwhile, only 54% of respondents said that they feel like the advisors at their institution understand the unique needs of international students.

With so many students coming to the U.S. because of potential career opportunities, only to have institutions fall short of their expectations, it’s critical to provide more tailored career support to international students.

2. Ensure that support staff understand the unique needs of international students and where to appropriately direct that support.

When it comes to student services, 77% of respondents use international student services and 73% use academic advising, making these the top services accessed by international students. Meanwhile, 73% of respondents rated their universities’ tutoring or writing centers as the most useful, with financial aid services coming in next at 69%. Mental health counseling services, on the other hand, are used by only 30% of international students, with only 55% citing it as useful.

With these stats in mind, institutions should continue to prioritize running high quality, effective writing, tutoring and financial aid centers, which rank among the most used areas of student services. It’s also crucial to work on improving the services that international students find less useful or supportive, such as mental health counseling. After all, 45% of respondents said they would like their institutions to provide mental health and emotional support counseling specifically tailored to international students’ needs.

3. Look for ways to build greater social support for international students on their campuses.

While 73% of respondents cited feeling welcome at their institution (and slightly more than half said that campus life was much or somewhat better than expected), there are still areas that need improvement. Only 59%, for instance, feel that they are engaged in student life, and only half of respondents believe their institutions have events and activities that celebrate their home culture.

The survey respondents had some suggestions on how institutions can build greater social support for them. For example:

  • 55% of respondents would like their institution to help them connect with domestic students
  • 56% of respondents would like to see their institution get international students involved in social activities on campus
  • 43% would like to see their institution hold events that celebrate cultural diversity
  • 42% would like the faculty and staff to be educated on cultural diversity.


How does your university track against the results of the International Student Experience Survey? Read the full report to find out.


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