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Why Aren’t Americans and International Students Becoming Friends?

Yesterday we learned that American students like having international students on campus. Only 10% of the American students who took our anonymous survey (a survey designed to find out what Americans really think about their international classmates) told us that they wouldn’t want more international students at their school.

» Read part 1 of this series, in which we explore what Americans had to say about international students

Click for full-sized image
Click for full-sized image

But what we didn’t discuss yesterday is that this positive attitude towards international students isn’t necessarily translating into friendships.

Although 85% of American students who took our survey reported having at least one international friend, only about 50% said they have more than two international friends.

The international students in our survey had a slightly different experience. 75% said they have more than two American friends. But 10% told us they have no American friends at all.

And that may be an optimistic estimate. A recent study by Baruch College professor Elisabeth Gareis found that more than one in three international students have no close American friends.

Why the separation?

Some American students in our survey acknowledged they don’t do as much as they could to get to know international students.

“When I was a student I didn’t make an effort to get to know international students because they weren’t in my classes or in any of the organizations I was in,” said a graduate from the University of California, Berkeley.

Randy from the University of Kansas explained, “I am a natural introvert, which may have made communication between myself and other international students even more difficult.”

Whose Move: American students discuss friendships with international students

And several international students said that they feel more comfortable hanging out with other international students than with Americans.

“Most of the international students in my social environment are from Asian countries and thus they are brought up in a similar culture to me and I find it easier to communicate with them,” said one international student at Oberlin College, adding that “we are used to live our lives in a more similar way compared to Americans.”

The plot thickens

But here’s something interesting – for the most part, each group told us they are the ones trying to make friends, and it's the other group that's not doing enough.

Do Americans make an effort to get to know international students
Do Americans make an effort to get to know international students

80% of the Americans in our survey said either that they make an effort to get to know international students or that making friends with international students doesn’t require any special effort.

Fewer than half of their international classmates agreed.

“When they’re in their own country and there’s a minority outsider who they’ll have to put particular effort into getting to know, I think most of them just don’t bother,” said one international student at Oberlin College.

Tara from the University of Southern California said her American classmates have “no interest to know how [international] students struggle to live here.”

Americans, on the other hand, complained that international students keep to themselves and make it hard to reach out.

“At my school, international students stick together,” said Laura at the University of Central Oklahoma. “There’s always a group of two or more in my classes and they rarely try to talk to us, so we sort of just leave them alone. It’s like they don’t want to make friends with us.”

Kristin from Southern Illinois University said that “getting to know international students can be difficult – while international students are in the same classes as American students, the international students have a tendency to group together.”

“As someone who has studied abroad, I understand this tendency,” she added, “but it can still make breaking into their group of friends slightly daunting.”

» See all comments from American students

This video of a conversation between our blogger Thuy, from Vietnam, and American classmate Alex illustrates the tension over which side needs to put in more effort:

Answering the burning question

The obvious question is, if Americans and international students both think the other group isn’t putting in their fair share of the effort, who’s right?

I’m not sure we can answer that, but our survey turned up one illuminating result.

Among the 80% of Americans who told us they try to get to know international students, a whopping 42% said that making friends with foreign students doesn't require any special effort.

International students didn’t exactly agree that extra effort isn't required – only 19% of them had the same response.

In fact, international students seemed much more aware of the barriers created by cultural differences than their American counterparts. Many international students wrote comments about overcoming (or failing to overcome) specific differences between American and international students.

They are “more about self and less about give and take” said one international student of American students. “[We] aren’t open and outgoing like them,” said another.

» More about the cultural differences international students notice most

Americans, by contrast, often said that they make friends from among the people they encounter during their day, whoever they might be.

“They are just like other students to me,” said one Oberlin College student. “I had never really thought of them as a separate category than everyone else. They blend in so well.”

“I get to know people who are around me, regardless of whether they are national or international,” added a Princeton University student.

For Americans, perhaps, an international student is just another type of student in a sea of types of students.

So the correct question may be not who needs to put in more effort to relate to one another, but rather, how to reconcile these two views of how much effort is actually required.

Or we could all just take the zen approach of Vikram from the University of Chicago.

“Some people like making international students their friends, some don’t. Simple,” he said.

“Some might want to know international students to know more about different cultures, while some are content being ignorant. That’s fine, though. Everyone should be free to choose his/her own way in living life.”

Read the rest of this series:
Part 1: The Truth - Americans Reveal What They Really Think of International Students
Part 3: Americans are Self-Centered but Friendly
Raw comments: 60+ Opinions from American Students About Their International Classmates