By Tang T. Heng, EdD

How international educators engage and conduct research with international students is often driven by theories, personal or established. They may have had positive experiences as international students themselves, driving them to assume that all international students can have positive experiences. Or, they may be attracted to certain theories—for example, neoracism—which then subtly or overtly shape the programs they create for or research they initiate around international students. Using the popular U- or W-shaped theory as an example, this article critiques how theories frame international educators’ work with international students. It concludes by arguing for greater reflexivity and diversity in the personal and established theories they use and to question assumptions when working with international students.

Culture Shock: U- and W-Shaped Perspectives on International Students’ Experiences

It is well established that international students face various challenges in their educational sojourns abroad. Much literature documents the culture shock students face—the disorientation they experience when encountering different cultures (i.e., values, behaviors, and norms)—when they arrive in a new country (Oberg 1960). International students’ consequent cross-cultural adjustments are often theorized as U-shaped (Lysgaard 1955), where students start off feeling positive, dip into a crisis mode that forms the trough of the “U,” but eventually recover and adjust to the new environment with a high level of satisfaction. This theory has been subsequently refined to consider multiple experiences of culture shock with repeated highs and lows, forming more of a “W” (Zeller and Mosier 1993). These U- or W-curve theories of international students’ experiences continue to be popular. Research and discussions on international students’ experiences, as well as supports established for them by international offices, draw heavily on this body of work.

Assumptions Undergirding Theories

While useful in projecting international students’ experiences, these theories contain assumptions of which one needs to be cautious, as there are other perspectives that might be overlooked. To begin with, U- and W-curve cross-cultural adjustment theories appear to assume that the ideal outcome is either integration or adjustment—that the students’ goal is to integrate into their new environment, often by giving up a part of themselves. The theory implies that the host culture is to be desired and prioritized over international students’ home culture, suggesting that adjustment should be one-, not multi-, directional.

Second, the theory does not account for the complexities of international students’ identities and experiences in the contemporary world where, aided by advances in telecommunication, mass media, transportation, and infrastructural connections, international students find themselves navigating multiple ways of being, both temporally and spatially. For instance, a student may speak to her parents in Korea in the early morning, attend classes and participate in project discussions with U.S. peers thereafter, socialize with Thai or Nigerian dormmates in the afternoon, and end the evening watching Korean dramas online. How, in such a case, might “integration” be determined? Specifically, how would they fit into the U- or W-curve adjustment theory? And, can there be international students with a strong sense of satisfaction toward their sojourn despite not being “integrated?” How, then, should students be supported in their transition?

Besides overlooking how external conditions contribute to international students’ experiences, focusing on the quality of experience—honeymoon, shock, isolation, recovery—and their satisfaction, may cause individuals to focus too much on the issues of the students and omit reflection on why these problems exist in the first place. Or, one may be lulled into assuming that the problems international students face chiefly lie with themselves, without questioning how external communities, including the host culture, contribute to the problems. Studies have shown that some international students’ crises stem from host communities’ discrimination toward students (Heng 2017; George Mwangi, Changamire, and Mosselson 2019). COVID-19 has further fanned the flames of xenophobia, as evident in the rise of discrimination against international students, particularly those from East Asia (Koo, Yao, and Gong 2021; Mittelmeier and Cockayne 2020). As such, we need to look for other ways of seeing and knowing international students..

Reasons Behind, Not Just Quality of, International Students' Experiences

Examining the reasons behind—not just the quality of—international students’ experiences or satisfaction is critical to understanding them and, therefore, determining how they can be supported. Yet, simply saying that Chinese students’ education in China ill-prepares them for their studies in the United States is inadequate. Worse, relying on stereotypes, like Chinese students engage in memorization and surface learning, perpetuates erroneous and incomplete understanding of them (Ma 2020).

In my research on Chinese international students’ experiences and changes in U.S. higher education (Heng 2018a, 2021), I found that students’ challenges were associated with a complex interaction of educational, cultural, and societal reasons. Beginning with the assumption that individuals are shaped by the various contexts they are in—one tenet of the hybrid sociocultural theory used in my research (Heng 2018b)—I probed students more deeply to identify reasons behind their challenges by asking them how the Chinese or U.S. context shaped their issues.

Students explained that they found academic writing, for instance, a challenge in the United States. They associated subjects like language and humanities with memorization but not math and science. Pedagogically, students argued that their teachers in China did not have the luxury of engaging them in extended Socratic discussion in language and the humanities as class size averaged 50 students in coastal cities and could go up to 70 in inland cities. Content-wise in history courses, students argued that with 4,000 years of Chinese history to study, acquiring foundational knowledge of events and figures left them with less time for analysis and argument. Coupled with standardized examination formats with well-defined right and wrong answers and writing tasks that privilege narrative (not argumentative) formats, students explained their struggles in the U.S. educational system were not due to a lack of ability but lack of exposure. Further, students observed that because of China’s lower and rapid economic development status, their focus in China had always been around practical or material aspects of life as opposed to psychological and philosophical needs. Thus, they had little practice with critical and divergent thinking necessary for U.S.-style academic writing.

The above example points to the multilayered reasons behind students’ challenges that are identified when we begin to appreciate sociocultural differences across contexts. By probing into the wide host of reasons—for instance societal, cultural, educational, historical, and political reasons—educators arrive at a much deeper understanding of the spectrum of international students’ issues. It allows international educators to empathize with where students are coming from and prevents judging them for what they lack against subjective benchmarks. It also deepens the kinds of supports educators can provide for these students.

To be clear, this article does not argue that sociocultural theories transcend U- and W-curve theories. Instead, it argues for a more nuanced appreciation for the affordances and constraints of various theories and more reflexivity (i.e., greater awareness of the assumptions one may unwittingly have of international students and what can be done about it).

Greater Reflexivity in Engaging and Researching with International Students

How then can this abstract argument be translated to practice? For one, we can begin by asking ourselves what assumptions we make of international students around, say, their ability, motivations, values, and behaviors. We can also ask the following:

  1. What assumptions do we make around what international students lack? What assumptions do we make around what we think international students need to have or how they need to behave?
  2. Where do our assumptions come from? 
  3. How does our culture or position of power play a part in the assumptions we make?  
  4. How do the programs or research designs we create manifest these assumptions (or not)?
  5. How can we address these assumptions in the work we do moving forward?

Being reflective about our own assumptions is an important first step in improving engagement with international students.

Next, we can engage international students more actively in program and research designs by “involving students in conversations with them, not about them” (Heng 2018a). International educators should involve international students throughout teaching and program management processes with opportunities to offer continuous feedback to improve the quality of curricula and programs and students’ engagement with them. Programs that directly engaged international students have been found to be effective in addressing their needs (Blasco 2015; Guo and Chase 2011).

Finally, being more aware of sociocultural nuances and inclusivity when crafting student experiences can likewise enhance success. For instance, faculty members, recognizing that some international students may have had less experience with Socratic seminars, could provide students with guiding questions prior to the class so that they can prepare ahead. Class groupwork can also be explicitly engineered to include students from different backgrounds (e.g., gender, nationality, linguistic) within each group. Organizing nonalcoholic events has been found to enhance all—not just international—students’ participation (Karimi and Matous 2018), giving an example of how inclusivity can be promoted at the graduate-student level.

Moving Ahead

COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine higher education. In that reimagination process, we would do well to ask why we rely on certain personal or established theories, contemplate the affordances and constraints of various theories, and reflect on our (deficit) assumptions about international students. Greater reflexivity, in combination with sensitivity toward reasons behind—not just quality of—students’ experiences can enhance our understanding of and engagement with international students. Actively involving international students in decision-making or paying attention to sociocultural nuances are some initial examples of inviting behaviors. Further, creating opportunities for all agents touched by the internationalization process (e.g., international students, peers, faculty, and staff) to participate in diversity trainings or dialogues can enhance mutual understanding. Only through enhanced reflexivity and active involvement of all agents can we rebuild a different way of relating with international students that is more inclusive and equitable.



Blasco, Maribel. 2015. “Making the Tacit Explicit: Rethinking Culturally Inclusive Pedagogy in International Student Academic Adaptation.” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 23, 1:85–106.

George Mwangi, Chrystal A., Nyaradzai Changamire, and Jacqueline Mosselson. 2019. “An Intersectional Understanding of African International Graduate Students’ Experiences in US Higher Education.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 12, 1:52–64.

Guo, Shibao, and Mackie Chase. 2011. “Internationalisation of Higher Education: Integrating International Students into Canadian Academic Environment.” Teaching in Higher Education 16, 3:305–18.

Heng, Tang T. 2017. “Voices of Chinese International Students in USA Colleges: ‘I Want to Tell Them That…’” Studies in Higher Education 42, 5:833–50.

Heng, Tang T. 2018a. "Chinese International Students' Advice to Incoming First-Year Students: Involving Students in Conversations With Them, Not About Them." Journal of College Student Development 59, 2:232–8.

Heng, Tang T. 2018b. "Coping Strategies of International Chinese Undergraduates in Response to Academic Challenges in US Colleges." Teachers College Record 120, 2:1–42.

Heng, Tang T. 2021. “Socioculturally Attuned Understanding of and Engagement with Chinese International Undergraduates.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication.

Karimi, Faezeh, and Petr Matous. 2018. “Mapping Diversity and Inclusion in Student Societies: A Social Network Perspective.” Computers in Human Behavior 88:184–94.

Koo, Katie K., Christina W. Yao, and Hee Jung Gong. 2021. “‘It Is Not My Fault’: Exploring Experiences and Perceptions of Racism Among International Students of Color during COVID-19.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication.

Lysgaard, Sverre. 1955. “Adjustment in a Foreign Society: Norwegian Fulbright Grantees Visiting the United States.” International Social Science Bulletin 7:45–51.

Ma, Yingyi. 2020. Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Mittelmeier, Jenna, and Heather Cockayne. 2020. “Global Depictions of International Students in a Time of Crisis: A Thematic Analysis of Twitter Data during COVID-19.” Social Science Research Network (SSRN).

Oberg, Kalervo. 1960. “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Practical Anthropology os-7, 4:177–82.

Zeller, William J., and Robert Mosier. 1993. “Culture Shock and the First-Year Experience.” Journal of College and University Student Housing 23, 2:19–23.

Tang T. Heng, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Curriculum, Policy, and Leadership Department in the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research examines how difference, or diversity, is perceived and negotiated when people or ideas move across borders.