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June 15, 2012 8:24 PM Trouble Making Friends in America

By Minjae Park

The thinking behind U.S. colleges accepting large numbers of international students, at least ostensibly, is that American students will have much to learn from them, while those students—who fill spots that could go to American students—will also improve their English, encounter American culture and make American friends.

But a study published Thursday by the National Communication Association suggests cross-cultural exchanges are not happening quite like that.

Four in ten international students studying here had no close American friends and would like more meaningful interaction with U.S.-born students, says the study by Elisabeth Gareis, a communication studies professor of communications at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. Gareis surveyed 454 college students in the South and Northeast for the study, which will appear in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.

Respondents pointed to a number of factors, such as language barriers, lack of time to socialize, and different values and interests. But most students said the main problem came from the American students and cited “their lack of interest and—in case casual friendships did materialize—their unwillingness to engage in close and intimate relationships.”

Or, as one Korean student put it, “[Americans] don’t really want to be an Asian’s friend because we cannot speak English well. Some of them don’t even want to talk to me.” Asian students find it harder to make American friends than do students from Europe or English-speaking countries, the study says.

No doubt the blame lies, in part, with both sets of students. How hard are the foreign students dissatisfied with their friendships trying to fit in? And how welcoming and accommodating are the American students? One also wonders how students whose English skills are so limited as to hinder them from making any close American friends cope academically—and if they can’t, what does that say about the school that admitted them?

All of this matters because, as of 2008, 624,474 students—3.4 percent of all college students—were from other countries, according to the study. These students not only boost the U.S. economy through tuition and other spending—the Institute of International Education measures the impact at $21 billion—and can, provided they get a work visa, continue to contribute once they graduate. They also have the potential to advance “international goodwill,” as Gareis calls it, once they return home.

This international goodwill can play out on many different levels, but one easy example is to look at a list of U.S.-educated world leaders, such as Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More often than not these leaders perhaps left with favorable impressions of the United States; positive college experiences in the United States might have left permanently favorable impressions of the country. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, “I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.”

International goodwill is but one benefit of fostering friendships across nationalities on college campuses. As a result of such inter-cultural friendships, lonely international students could become less isolated and improve their English-speaking skills—thereby making it easier to make even more American friends. And American students could learn about countries they have never have visited and cultures they have never come across.

The study suggests colleges might have to do a little more than just throw students together for four years to make that happen.

Minjae Park is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • Kim on June 18, 2012 11:36 PM:

    I made friends from a number of other countries when I was at university, though both were fluent in English. Two of them, one from India and another from Ghana, have kept in touch and are good friends seven years later, though we live far apart now. They told me that I was the only American they knew who wanted to make friends with them at the university. That really seemed strange since they had so much to offer as friends.