Enhancing the Well-Being of International Students

Perspectives from a Community College

by Catalina Novac, Ph.D., Northern Virginia Community College

Enhancing the Well-Being of International Students
International Week flag parade on Mason's Fairfax campus

Many international students choose to study at George Mason University. These students enrich our community in diverse ways. They also face the distinctive well-being challenges of adjusting to a new culture. Helping our international students overcome those challenges can strengthen their success.

Of the 4.6 million students worldwide enrolled in colleges and universities outside of their home countries, 1.1 million are enrolled in the United States (Zong & Batalova, 2018). According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $39.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, partly because 67 percent of international students in the United States receive their funding from sources in their home countries (Open Doors Report, 2017). In 2017-2018, more than 455,000 jobs in the United States were held by international students (NAFSA, 2018). The financial resources they bring with them and living expenses they incur provide significant value to the U.S. economy. They also bring diversity -- of customs, cultural norms, and viewpoints.

Although traditional four-year colleges and universities are the destination of most international students, quite a few are enrolled in two-year community colleges. Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), for example, enrolls 7,714 students from outside the United States (NOVA Fact Book, 2018). Due to its location, NOVA  is also one of the most diverse community colleges in the United States, with students from more than 180 countries. Many of these students transfer eventually to George Mason University, which is ranked as one of the nation’s top institutions for diversity (U.S. News & World Report, 2019).

Students from other countries face a number of challenges. I know from personal experience because 20 years ago I moved from Romania to the United States to pursue my Ph.D. in social psychology. European at heart, raised and educated in a communist, totalitarian Romania where the educational system was strict and rigorous, I viewed education as the only “way out” of an oppressive environment. In addition, I have spent more than 20 years advising students, the past four years of which I’ve spent advising international students at NOVA. I know these challenges both first-hand and from my work with other international students. When we move from one country to another and from one culture to another, we leave behind families, friends, and our cultural routines. We go through a series of challenges that bring stress and anxiety the minute we land in the United States: scrutiny at the port of entry, stress related to the legal issues of maintaining student visas, technology concerns, language barriers, housing, roommate issues, and financial concerns.

I experienced these challenges and obstacles during my process of acculturation. Leaving behind loved ones hurt the most. I learned that “Hello, how are you?” can be simply “Hello” and not an invitation to describe how you’re feeling; that my written sentences were too long; that, when visiting a friend, you call first; that it’s okay to talk about your achievements; that some people value distance (arm span from the beginning to an individual to another), and the list goes on.

Because I am a social psychologist, I think it is important to have a theory of human development that is supported by research to guide my work with students. I had the privilege to study with leading motivation psychologist Richard Ryan, who, along with my professor Edward Deci, developed Self-determination Theory (SDT) and have conducted research on it for over 40 years. SDT proposes three universal psychological needs that must be satisfied for optimal psychological health, effective functioning, and an enhanced sense of well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Autonomy is the need to be in control of our own behavior and lives. Competence is our need for achievement, skill, and mastery. Relatedness is the need for a sense of belonging and meaningful relationships with others. SDT also differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is derived from external sources (grading systems, evaluations, awards, respect, etc.) while intrinsic motivation comes from within ourselves, our values, interests and mores. Social environments that promote these three needs and that promote intrinsic motivation will yield the most positive psychological, developmental, and behavioral results.

Psychological well-being diminishes soon after people move from one culture to another. The first months in an international student’s life can be socially and psychologically difficult. For this reason, colleges and universities need to have orientation programs that enhance their adjustment, help them to successfully complete their short-term and long-term goals, and provide them with access to resources needed to explore new opportunities, such as key people in academic advising areas, tutors, community resources, host families, friends that will sustain students’ objectives, and support networks for international students. Students who adjust well and identify with the new culture experience less stress, whereas students who identify with both home and host culture experience the highest stress. 

The satisfaction and the support of the three psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness and competence) are essential components for promoting life satisfaction and psychological well-being in all aspects of an international student’s life (succeeding in school, completing a degree, transferring to a four-year institution, finding a job, etc.).

Autonomy: The Need to Act and Experience Freedom within One’s Own Actions

International students are faced not only with academic challenges but also with legal obstacles (such as maintaining 12 credits in their fall and spring semesters to maintain their immigration status, not being able to drop below full-time enrollment, not being allowed to register for more than one on-line class toward their requirements, etc.). Some may feel pressure from their parents to succeed and finish degrees as soon as possible, or to enroll in career programs that students do not actually wish to pursue. This may thwart their need for autonomy and diminish their well-being through anxiety, difficulty focusing on school work, etc. The quality of a student's motivation may depend on the quality of their relationships with instructors and counselors and how involved those instructors and counselors are in supporting student’s needs.

Relatedness: The Need to be Connected to and Experience Caring for Others

When advising students, I try to create an environment that guides them to healthy interactions with peers and involvement in activities that foster academic and personal success and helps them avoid unhealthy social engagements that may lead to unhealthy emotions. Some students may have difficulty making friends in the United States because of cultural differences and as a result may feel lonely and unmotivated. Students who have family and friends here seem to perform better than those who do not.

Competence: The Need to Experience Mastery

Instructors, counselors, and other members of the academic community can promote student’s sense of competence by providing relevant feedback, structure, and encouragement (not criticism). Additionally, they can foster students’ feeling of competency (how they perform relative to themselves not to others), by providing them with challenges, and opportunities to enhance learning, such as academic centers offering free tutoring, assistance with homework assignments, free legal counsel, and referrals to outside legal resources. In my work with students, I try to understand their experiences and their perspectives by listening and providing empathy. I try to help them develop a greater sense of competence by helping them set short-term and long-term goals and develop plans to attain them. Studies show that students who are more involved with setting their educational goals are more likely to reach them.

Well-being is enhanced by self-determined behavior and the social and cultural conditions that promote it, including the needs for personal autonomy (with an environment where choice is an option), meaningful connections with peers, family and friends, and competency. If these needs are not fulfilled, students become frustrated and disengaged. These needs nourish  the development of a healthy sense of well-being and help promote personal and academic success.

How could support for these psychological needs help international students achieve their academic and personal goals? By developing a deep understanding of students’ interests, the value of the activity, the rationale supporting students’ feelings of agency (such as finding out what success means for each student), a strategy can be created that will help them achieve their goals. Walking them through the process, deciding what goals (personal and academic) they want to accomplish, and how to develop a plan for achieving their goals (e.g., set up a calendar for the semester, develop a plan of study for the years in school, work with an advisor and decide which courses to take each semester, get support at the resource centers), would help them learn how to systematically solve the problems that may act as barriers to achieving these goals and support them in taking control and responsibility for their lives.

My encouragement to the international students is to embrace the college experience (academics and extracurricular activities), engage with those who are here to assist you, and invest in yourself because it will likely lead to your success. Your story can be an inspirational story -– like those of millions of other international students who have studied in the United States.

Catalina Novac was born in Romania and received her Ph.D. degree in developmental psychology from the University of Rochester. She has worked in education for 28 years as a faculty member, counselor, administrator, researcher, and policy analyst for several universities, the U.S. Embassy in Romania, and the World Bank. She currently works as a senior international student advisor in the Office of Education and Sponsored Programs at Northern Virginia Community College.