Opportunity vs Reality: International students and the American college experience

Nick Davini is a senior Anthropology major at the University of New Hampshire and Student Assistant for the UNH Anthropology Department. He recently shared his research and reflections on the experiences of Chinese students enrolled in the Navitas program at the University of New Hampshire. You can explore his findings below, or watch his webinar recording.

Every year, more and more Chinese students come to study in the US. There are currently over a quarter million Chinese students at American universities, which is a fivefold increase from the year 2000. The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is one of many US institutions internationalizing its campus to increase both student enrolments and international institutional partnerships.

Why are so many Chinese students seeking an education in the US? According to the BBC, the main reasons are China’s growing middle class and the demand for a more flexible Western education. Admittance into a good school in China is largely based on a standardized entrance exam. The test is hugely competitive, and an individual’s score determines what they can study in college. American schools are competitive as well, but offer much more variation in career opportunities. Since many Chinese families have benefitted from economic growth in the last few decades, they have the financial means to send their children to study in reputable American universities.

But once they arrive, international students don’t always do so well. Many Chinese students have a hard time acclimating to Western universities despite having a good work ethic.

What support do international students receive?

Adjusting to college is difficult enough for domestic students, so you can only imagine how much more strenuous the transition would be in a foreign language and culture. This is exactly what founder of Navitas, Rod Jones, recognized when he saw international students struggling in Australian universities. Many of them were intelligent and driven, but clearly needed more support while entering Western colleges. Thus, UNH began its partnership with Navitas in 2010, as part of the UNH Strategic plan to internationalize the campus.

As an overview, Navitas is a program that recruits international students to prepare them to enter the University. Students take English courses, practice learning skills, and earn discovery credits for their prospective majors. The program also connects the students with University resources such as Health Services and Counselling. After spending an average of three semesters in the program, the students matriculate into one of the colleges at UNH.

After seven years with UNH, Navitas has already shown positive results. Based on a recent report:

  • nearly 100% of the students are satisfied with the program;
  • past Navitas students are performing strongly with an average GPA of 3.23;
  • In terms of academic achievement, 92% of students are either currently enrolled or have completed a degree at UNH.

Are there remaining issues in their student experience?

Despite these glowing statistics, some students continue to face academic challenges. Students most frequently report having issues with group work and classroom involvement. Chinese students are not accustomed to questioning their professors in class, and can feel shy being put on the spot. And with group work, team members sometimes don’t involve the Chinese students very much, believing them incapable of completing projects in English. As graduates of the Navitas program, however, they have proven to be capable students, and may just need extra time to process information, or have something repeated.

Beyond academics, there is a general lack of cross-cultural connection between Chinese and American UNH students. It’s not hard to see that Chinese students tend to separate themselves from other social groups on campus, both in public and in dorms.

The desire to connect with non-Chinese students is there, though. Preliminary interviews have shown, that many Chinese students would like to have relationships with domestic students.

Why do we have a social divide?

Part of the explanation for the social divide is logistical:

  • First, Nesmith Hall, where the Navitas program is housed, is located near the edge of campus, adjacent to the train tracks. Navitas students conduct a large part of their daily activities there, away from other academic buildings, limiting their contact with other students. Students also struggle to make it to the dining halls between classes, since Stillings and Philbrook halls are equally distant.
  • Another challenge is presented in admissions. Navitas students are admitted in August, January, and May. The students admitted in August come in with the rest of the UNH freshmen, who are most open to forming friendships at this time. By January, most students have already formed friend groups, and by May, most of the other students are gone for summer break.
  • The third logistical challenge is housing. All Navitas students live in UNH housing for their first two semesters, and have the chance to form friendships with students from many different countries. Preliminary interviews revealed that some Chinese students consider living with domestic students one of the best ways to befriend them. But the process of placing students in housing is not as simple as requesting a domestic or international roommate. By the time Navitas students are enrolled and have Visas, UNH Housing only has about six weeks to place them in rooms. They reserve a number of rooms in anticipation of Navitas students, most of which are located in a handful of dorms that accommodate school vacation housing. Ideally, students can request to have a roommate from a different country, but when Housing is short on time and space, sometimes they just need to find an open bed.

Cultural issues can help explain the larger remaining factors of the social divide as well:

  • After all of the work done by UNH Housing to place the Navitas students in a room and to match them with a roommate, students may still face discrimination. Multiple sources report that when international students are paired with domestic students, the domestic students sometimes request a different roommate. This kind of incident implies reluctance on the American side of the division to be open to international students. Some American students are more than a little close-minded, and go out of their way to insult the students. Navitas students sometimes report being victims of bias incidents, most often in the form of offensive words written to, or shouted at them.
  • Another clear division of Chinese and American students on campus is seen in the recognition of Chinese stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes include smoking habits, an expensive designer fashion sense, and a high socioeconomic status. While these tropes are seen on campus, they do not apply to all Chinese students. Many Chinese Navitas students don’t come from money, and struggle to pay for out-of-state tuition just like many other domestic students at UNH, especially since they don’t receive federal aid.
  • Finally, on the most fundamental level, the cultural barrier is partially due to discomfort. I can attest to the exhaustion of speaking a second language, as I studied abroad in Spain last spring. A major goal of studying abroad is to practice a foreign language, but at the end of the day, it’s comforting to speak your native language with people who share your background. What these students undertake by entering the Navitas program and studying at UNH takes courage and endurance, and they deserve reprieve from the cultural pressures they face.

What can we do to improve the student experience?

There are some clear logistical improvements that could be made. When it comes to addressing the social dynamics, however, the solution is not as apparent. With that in mind, I would like to share a piece of advice that one of the Navitas student support officers swears by. When she helps prepare UNH Resident Assistants (RA’s) to engage with international students, she suggests: ask them about their culture. After that initiative is taken, the students often become excited to talk about their home and their customs.

Without meaning to, we operate under the assumption that international students come to UNH to learn how to be American college students. What we seem to forget is that we have an obligation as faculty, employees, and fellow Wildcats to learn from them as well. Navitas is leading international students to success in many ways, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the UNH community to follow through and engage our international members. Because as a University that values inclusiveness, are we not bound to resolve this divide on a personal level?

Click to explore Q&A from the webinar:


To learn more about Nick Davini’s research, watch the recorded presentation here or please get in touch!