Seeking Support

U.S. university counseling offices help international students adapt to campus life.

By Carrie Loewenthal Massey

July 2018

Seeking Support

Students of Kansas State University in Manhattan “pet-away” their stress with the help of Purple Paws and the university’s counseling services. (Photograph by Olivia Bergmeier/Courtesy Flickr)

Studying in a different country can be a life-changing experience and the highlight of a student’s time at a university. But along with the adventure and exploration inherent to studying abroad comes a lot of adjustment, which can be overwhelming.

“The challenges international students face vary,” says Jihad Aziz, director of University Counseling Services at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). “Some common issues students may face at VCU are related to language barriers, homesickness, dealing with stereotypes, adjusting to how the U.S. views and deals with issues of race and gender, finding connection with other students, and adjusting to the U.S. system of education…not to mention adapting to dietary changes.”

While these are common, Aziz says, the university recognizes that “each student’s experience is different, and it would be a mistake to assume that all international students struggle with the same issues.”

To meet the unique needs of international students, most universities in the United States have counseling offices, which provide an array of mental health services. At Virginia Commonwealth University, students are seen the same day they seek services, says Aziz. “We meet with them and then make a recommendation about possible treatment options, such as individual therapy, group therapy or, if necessary, a community referral,” to a provider outside the university.

The counseling office at the university works closely with the VCU Globe office, which provides primary support for international students, addressing practical concerns like opening a bank account and helping navigate the academic world.

“We recognize that therapy in its current U.S. format may not be appealing to some international students, so we try to find ways via outreach to provide support. We are aware of their unique needs and try to work closely with the programs that help support their success at VCU,” says Aziz.

A similar partnership between university offices exists at The University of Iowa, where international students can turn to both the International Student and Scholar Services office and the University Counseling Service office for support. While the student and scholar services office conducts programs to orient and engage international students in the community, the counseling service office focuses on their emotional health. International students can participate in conversation groups or seek more formal counseling.

The University of Iowa offers counseling services and group health workshops to its students to create a healthy environment on campus. Photograph by Ben Lewis/University of Iowa

The University of Iowa offers counseling services and group health workshops to its students to create a healthy environment on campus. Photograph by Ben Lewis/University of Iowa

“Any international student can come to the conversation groups,” says Kathleen Staley, a staff psychologist at The University of Iowa’s counseling service office. “They can practice English and get to know people. It’s supportive and caring.”

Apart from the conversation groups, it also has counseling groups. These are open to all students—international and American students are integrated—and focus on specific social and emotional goals. Students can stay in them for as long as they like: A few students have participated in their counseling groups for years, says Staley. Brief individual counseling, for 8 to 10 sessions, is available as well.

“When someone comes to counseling services, we do an initial assessment. We meet to see what’s going on and what will be the best treatment modality. Sometimes, we know right away that someone needs open-ended, long-term therapy. There are a lot of private therapists in the Iowa City area and we have a case manager who helps students access them. Sometimes, people do brief therapy here and then want more or they see someone in town and want to do more, so they do a group here,” explains Staley.

All services of the counseling office at The University of Iowa are free for registered students and, in some cases, international students can receive therapy in their languages. Currently, there are therapists who can work in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

While counseling offices definitely help international students deal with the culture shock of coming to the United States, they also help with something perhaps less anticipated—what Staley has experienced herself and calls “reverse culture shock.”

“Thirty years ago or so, I was in the Soviet Union for five weeks. It was the most marvelous experience. When I came home, I had great difficulty adjusting back to U.S. culture. I was angry, depressed, sad and couldn’t cope. A woman in the international office here said, ‘I know what’s happening to you…it is called re-entry adaptation,’” recounts Staley.

Based on her experience, she tells international students they might have a similar reaction when they return home. They might feel they’ve changed and grown while their friends at home haven’t. They might also find it hard to understand that they had a really positive experience abroad and no one wants to hear them talk about it in detail.

Aziz says the Globe office at Virginia Commonwealth University provides primary support to international students returning home, and the university counselors also work with international students who are undergoing a treatment to help make their transition back home smooth.

“Some issues may be related to re-entering a culture they may not feel as connected to, finding mental health services and support when mental health struggles may not be seen in a positive light, or addressing issues of safety,” he says. “These are just a few examples of the kind of support we offer international students returning home.”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.


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