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Working with International and/or ESL Students


An international student is a student who left his/her home country and moved to another country for academic study. International students do not have U.S. citizenship, and are not legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants or refugees.

SDSU has three types of International Students

  • International Degree Seeking Students – Traditional students who will complete a degree in the U.S. May eventually decide to immigrate to the U.S.
  • Intensive English Language Students - An IEL student speaks another language as his/her primary language and is initially here to acquire academic English Language skills. May eventually pursue a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
  • International Exchange Students – Attends SDSU for 1-2 semesters and returns to his/her home institution to complete degree.


  • International students face unique challenges – culture shock, “learning shock” (transition to a new academic environment) (1), language barriers, loneliness, homesickness, financial pressures, and changes in living conditions, food, and climate.
  • International students have great variation with English proficiency, background, financial means and goals (2).
  • Low English proficiency is a leading factor of dropping out of school (4).
  • Educational approaches vary across the world. Are students expected to sit quietly and listen to lectures, or be involved in an interactive classroom? There may be variations in peer interactions, as well as with professors.
  • International students contribute to the diversity of the campus community and offer different perspectives (3).
  • International students often place a high value on education and are eager to learn. They are hard-working, independent and resilient.

Strategies for Faculty/Staff

  • Be curious! A brief conversation, or asking about the student’s home country, can help students feel more comfortable. Make an effort to learn and pronounce students’ names correctly.
  • Ask open-ended questions. After explaining, ask the student to restate it in his/her own words.
  • Be explicit about your expectations. Norms such as class attendance, homework and punctuality vary. Explain what office hours are. Encourage students to utilize them.
  • Keep in mind that gestures vary across cultures. Students from some parts of the world may indicate agreement by shaking their heads side to side, which in the U.S. would indicate that they don’t understand or don’t agree.
  • Use the principles of universal design to present information in multiple formats. For example, if asking your class a question, include the question on a PowerPoint slide so students can hear and read the question.
  • Follow-up meetings with a brief email summarizing action items.
  • Encourage clubs or events that will connect students to campus and the community. International students with more connections to people from the U.S. report greater satisfaction and less homesickness (5).


  1. Xu, L. (2015). Transitional Challenges Faced by Post-Secondary International Students and Approaches for Their Successful Inclusion in Classrooms. International Journal for Leadership in Learning, 1(3), 1–28. Transitional Challenges Face by Post-Secondary International Students article.
  2. Farnsworth, B. (2018). Enhancing the quality of the international student experience. Higher Education Today. American Council on Education. Enhancing the quality of the International student experience.
  3. Leask, B (2009). Using formal and informal curricula to improve interactions between home and international students. Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(2), 205-221.
  4. Sheng, Zhaohui, Sheng, Yanyan, & Anderson, Christine J. (2011). Dropping out of School among ELL Students: Implications to Schools and Teacher Education. The Clearing House, 84(3), 98-103.
  5. Hendrickson, Blake, Rosen, Devan, & Aune, R. Kelly. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 281-295.

Working with International and/or ESL Students