The transition from high school to university is often a challenging one that includes many adjustments. This transition can be especially challenging when an undergraduate or graduate student moves to another country and/or continent for their education. Studying in a foreign country presents many unique opportunities and rich experiences such as learning a new culture, sampling unique foods, and forging relationships that can last well beyond college and graduate school. However, when compared to a semester-long study abroad experience, there is far more to pursuing a full degree in a foreign country. For instance, this decision often means building a life for four or more years in very new environment with unique systems, immigration restrictions, and concerns about funding.

As someone born and raised in Zimbabwe who moved to the United States for my undergraduate education, and later my doctoral degree, I recall the rollercoaster of emotions, stressors, and periods of uncertainty that I experienced during my four years of college. While these challenging times were regularly interspersed with many rewarding and joyful moments that I truly cherish, I would not have made it to where I am today if it weren’t for the peers, faculty, and staff who took me under their wings and helped me navigate the journey. Although much needed work and discussion has been centered around mentoring students of diverse backgrounds, a group of diverse students that is often overlooked are international students—particularly students that are born and raised in foreign countries that have come to the United States for higher education.

A great deal of my mentoring came from other international students, faculty, and staff who encountered similar experiences to mine, and could therefore empathize with the challenges I faced and offer advice and perspective. However, as a faculty member that regularly mentors different cohorts of students across several spaces, I do believe that meaningful mentoring can and does also come from mentors that share different backgrounds than ourselves.

Therefore, this series of blog posts will discuss some of the challenges that international students encounter, some cross-cultural considerations that can be helpful for mentors, and the role of meaningful mentoring relationships for international students pursuing higher education in the United States. These discussions will be drawn from my own experience, as well as from testimonials from other international students, faculty, and staff, and the literature.

To begin this series of blog posts about recommendations and practices for mentoring international students, here are some initial thoughts:

  • It goes a long way for a faculty and staff mentor or advisor to remember exactly where their student is from. For example, the mentor that says, “My student is from Ghana,” instead of saying, “My student is from Africa.” Or repeatedly asking “Where are you from again?” Believe it or not…this does happen often! It’s important to remember where each student is from; asking several times or simply saying the student is from Central America can be demeaning.
  • Be mindful that a reason a student may have left their home country to pursue an education in the United States may be complicated and/or multifactorial, ranging from being in exile to coming from a background with the financial resources to do so.
  • Funding opportunities are a regular concern for many international students, particularly because of the citizenship requirement associated with many scholarships that restricts international students from applying to them.
  • Many international students feel anxiety and stress about what to do after completion of their undergraduate or graduate studies. Completion of their degree program often means the end of their student visa status and thus they must wrestle with the decision about returning home or finding another mechanism to legally stay in the country. Further, the ability to travel home may be difficult due to finances, political climate in their home countries, etc.

Attending to these practices will provide a foundation for the other considerations I’ll share in future posts on meaningful mentoring relationships for international students.

Titch Madzima is Associate Professor and Chair of Exercise Science at Elon University. He routinely mentors undergraduate research, has collaborated on multiple diversity and inclusion grant projects to support curricular and co-curricular innovations, and was recognized with the Elon College, the College of Arts & Sciences, Excellence in Teaching award in 2021. He serves as a seminar leader of the 2023-2025 Center for Engaged Learning seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite This Post

Madzima, Takudzwa “Titch”. 2023. “Perspectives on Mentoring International Students: Part 1 — Introduction.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 31, 2023.