Department of Educational Administration


Document Type


Date of this Version



Comparative & International Higher Education 7 (2015)


Copyright 2015 Christina Yao.


International student mobility is at an all-time high in recent years, with the United States (US) as the top destination of choice (Institute of International Education 2015). In 2014-2015, the US welcomed 974,926 students at institutions of higher education (Institute of International Education 2015). In that year alone, student mobility to the US increased by 10 percent over the prior year, which is a significant rate of growth. All signs indicate the trend of international student mobility to the US will not abate in upcoming years.

As a result of high student mobility, many US institutions are concerned with how to welcome and transition these students to their campuses. Much of the research and current reports (e.g., Andrade 2006; Rienties, Beausaert, and Grohnert 2012; Ward and Masgoret 2009) on international students tend to focus primarily on their integration to campuses in the US. While the idea of integration appears to be innocuous and harmless, the process of integration often includes the practice of “cultural suicide” (Tierney 1999, p. 82), leading to potential distress and conflict among international students. Thus, I argue that seeking to integrate international students through programmatic efforts causes more harm to students’ well-being and educational success; rather, the emphasis on fostering international student success should be through increasing students’ sense of belonging. The case against integration is especially salient for international students in the US because they enter into a unique cultural climate that is heavily influenced by societal and historical forces. Most recently, the racially charged events at institutions such as the University of Missouri-Columbia and Yale University indicate that higher education in the US is in a time of flux, particularly related to differences in culture and backgrounds. Due to the diverse culture of the US, a reconsideration of how we can better transition international students to living and learning at US institutions of higher education is required.

In this essay, I argue that US educators should seek to increase students’ sense of belonging rather than their integration to campus, which will provide an effective and culturally sustaining way to help international students’ transition. In the following sections, I provide an overview of concept of sense of belonging, including the problems related to integration. I follow that with making a case for using sense of belonging to examine international student experiences. Finally, I offer some suggestions for practice and research on how to conceptualize international students’ sense of belonging to campus.