Impact of Difficulty in Adjusting and Adapting on International Student Attrition—By Dan Sheffield


Raj graduated from an International Baccalaureate secondary school in Mumbai. He was at the top of his class. He was accepted into a top level university in the United States – he had all that they were looking for! Raj arrived in Boston in late August and leapt into “frosh week” activities. By December his grades reflected his academic struggles. By reading week in his second semester he was only attending classes periodically. He failed all of his April exams. In May he was back home, with no plans for returning.

This real example is not unusual. 20-25% of international students fail to complete the undergraduate program into which they were accepted. To understand this phenomenon there are a variety of factors that need to be considered. Amongst a variety of factors, those which continually rise to the surface include, 1) difficulty in adjusting and adapting to the new environment and 2) the consequences of social isolation, precipitated by seeking to meet familial expectations of academic performance. This article will explore difficulties in adjusting and adapting, which has implications for social isolation factors as well.

Difficulty in Adjusting and Adapting

The challenge of international study is initially, and perhaps naturally, centered on academic performance. After all, the student has met the application qualifications that are based on academic standards and language comprehension assessments. Academically, perhaps even intellectually, the student is on equal ground with other students in her program. Academic performance, however, rests on a foundation of psychological and socio-cultural congruence. That is, if the student is not disturbed by psychological dissonance or has developed adequate coping mechanisms, she can concentrate on her academic studies. If the student is functioning in a social and cultural environment that responds to acquired understandings and social skills, she can concentrate on her academic studies. Difficulties emerge when those normal conditions are no longer the case, as in a student studying in a setting that is complicated by an international displacement alongside unknown social and cultural expectations.

Making Sense of the Difficulties

Psychological adaptation for international students requires the development of adequate coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. A major geographic move and loss of family are at the top of all research on causes of stress. An international student is dealing with both of these factors, coupled with the inexperience of early adulthood (often ages 17-23).  

Interestingly this inability to cope in the early stages of transition to another culture is often referred as “culture shock.”

However, in order to make sense of this time period, we need to separate social and cultural challenges from the inner psychological responses that are, in fact, normal for anyone making a move and losing family. This phenomena is just as real when a student moves from their home town to a city in another region of their own country to study. A life move has happened and family has been left behind. Rather than culture shock, the international student is actually experiencing “change or transition fatigue.”

Inability to cope with the stress of “change fatigue” produces lack of concentration, loss of interest, lack of energy, irritability, emotional outbursts, increased absence from class, social isolation and increased alcohol and drug use. Academic capacity is not sufficient to counter the impact of this psychological dissonance – other resources must be brought to bear on the situation. If adequate coping mechanisms are not developed, students will withdraw from their academic programs.

Three responses have been found helpful in developing coping mechanisms which aid the psychological adaptation of international students:

  1. Opportunities for short experiences (in advance of a major move) that develop and stretch coping mechanisms, such as international travel, extended time spent away from home and family, and involvement in group activities with previously unknown participants.
  2. Awareness and understanding of what may emerge in the normal adaptation and adjustment process. Advance understanding allows students to identify their ensuing experiences as “normal” and therefore able to seek out help in a timely manner. This allows for positive re-framing of experiences as they emerge.
  3. The development of meaningful relationships which provide a sounding-board for processing change. Building friendships with roommates or fellow classmates is very significant because they are experiencing similar phenomena and are able to help project objectivity.

This is particularly challenging however, when culturally-based understandings and acquired social behaviors contribute to communication barriers and misunderstandings, thus creating further isolation.

Socio-cultural adaptation for international students requires the acquisition of cultural understanding and accompanying social skills and behaviors for bridging the differences between cultures. All human beings have been shaped by the unique set of beliefs, values, thought processes, communication systems and social behaviors in which we have been socialized during our formative years. Culture is the total way of life of any group who have common ground through a kind of collective programming – what Geert Hofstede refers to as “software for the mind.”

When an international student meets with students and faculty who have been shaped by a different cultural software, he has to decide to acquire knowledge and understanding, coupled with regular engagement, in order to develop skills in moving back and forth between the various points of reference.

Early in the international student’s experience – during his first semester – many of his challenges relate to “change fatigue.” He is only beginning to recognize that the cultural differences may also be more significant than originally imagined. The student is, in fact, “unconsciously incompetent.” He doesn’t know that he is continually missing cultural markers, thus promoting consistent misunderstandings.

The most common stumbling blocks to good intercultural understanding are:

  1. The assumption of similarity, rather than difference. While most cultures will find some common ground on which to base initial engagement, it is the differences that will have the most long-lasting impact. The international student who assumes, “this person, this teacher, this assignment” is just like a similar person or situation I might encounter in my own cultural context, is already losing ground in understanding what is going on.
  2. Language comprehension. A student’s ability to pass a language examination for university application purposes may not actually be sufficient to understand or communicate appropriately with someone raised in a differing cultural environment using that language.
  3. Non-verbal misunderstandings. If communication is up to 85% non-verbal and most of our non-verbal communication tools are profoundly shaped by culture, then understanding the vocabulary and syntax of a second or third language may not be sufficient for what “actually” was communicated or “meant” in any given exchange. Furthermore, common cultural etiquette guides help develop understanding of gestures and body language. However, knowledge of how time and space are used from one culture to another, or how status affects interpersonal relationships, takes much longer to make sense of. Everyday life, in class and outside, is navigated through non-verbal cues – many of which the international student will miss completely.
  4. Stereotypes and Preconceptions. Since human beings are shaped by cultural frameworks, it is like we are viewing the world around us through a particular lens, or way of seeing. Every new encounter is viewed through that cultural lens; that is, preconceived or built around stereotype. Many experiences of international students are impacted by preconceptions of what they “think” is happening.
  5. Tendency to evaluate. Human beings naturally discern, or evaluate, all the experiences we encounter. Good, bad, indifferent. The challenge is that good and bad are largely determined by our cultural software. When we have an experience we tend to evaluate it on the basis of our culturally constructed frameworks. Since those “lenses” don’t give an accurate view of the experience from the other’s perspective, our evaluation may be premature. We need to understand the other’s perspective as “missing data” from our own evaluation.
  6. High anxiety. All of the foregoing stumbling blocks contribute to anxiety or stress about many intercultural experiences. Tension is common in intercultural exchanges because of uncertainties and ambiguity. Often, pre-encounter anxiety creates additional misunderstandings.

For the international student, these communication stumbling blocks are an underlying, every-day set of circumstances. They are unavoidable. Needless to say, any one of them has the potential to contribute to declining academic performance. Combined with the challenges of psychological coping, it is no wonder that many international students struggle during their first months of study. Failure to pay attention to the socio-cultural challenges often results in greater social isolation, contributing to depression and students dropping out of their programs.

Three responses have been helpful in developing resilience in the face of socio-cultural challenges:

  1. Development of international mindedness (or global mindset, cultural intelligence) during secondary school years. Students who gain an understanding of cultural construction and how they have been shaped by their own culture will have a framework for making sense of the new cultures they encounter.
  2. Acquisition of knowledge and understanding regarding the culture in which the student will be immersed. Using the cultural framework gained in #1, students can research and investigate the cultural beliefs, values and behaviors of the culture in which they will be living and studying.
  3. Personal motivation to learn and press beyond existing knowledge and experience. The student with an inquiring, curious, approach to life in general will enter into relationships across cultures with confidence.

The difficulties in adjusting and adapting to a new cultural environment have direct impact on student success rates. These challenges should not be minimized. The surprising fact is that 75-80% of international students actually succeed in meeting their academic objectives and graduate. They do so because they have found the appropriate internal and external resources to aid them during this period.

The development of adequate coping mechanisms and cultural frameworks help to make sense of this often overwhelming period in the student’s life. Providing opportunities for growth and development in these areas is incumbent on parents of students considering international study, as well as the secondary institutions that recognize many of their students will pursue studies internationally.

Sources: ; (accessed July 30, 2015. (accessed July 30, 2015)

Colleen Ward, “Psychological Theories of Culture Contact and Their Implications for Intercultural Training and Interventions,” in Handbook of Intercultural Training (3rd ed.), ed(s). Dan Landis, Janet Bennett, Milton Bennett. London: Sage Publications, 2003.

Edward Dutton, “Toward a Scientific Model of Culture Shock and Intercultural Communication,” Journal of Intercultural Communication, Issue 27, November 2011 (accessed July 30, 2015).

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (3rd ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

LaRay Barna, “Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication” in Milton Bennett (ed.) Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, Intercultural Press, 1998.