Bridging worlds: navigating cultural challenges of UF’s international students

By Paige Falk,

From mental health to cultural accommodation, international students at the University of Findlay have a variety of obstacles to negotiate that are different from the American college student.

With roughly 600 international students at EF, 271 of those students come from India, which far outpaces other countries of origin with the next closest being 40 from Ghana, according to the UF Office of Institutional Research.

International graduate student Sharmina Akter is one of 17 students from Bangladesh at UF. She says culture shock has affected her stay in the U.S. Particularly those related to the collectivistic culture of Bangladesh versus the individualist culture of the United States.

“At home, if my neighbor is sick, we immediately know okay we didn’t see them this morning, and we will go check on them,” Akter said. “Here, no one knows. When I first came here, I was in a shared house; I didn’t even know who was living in the next room.”

The tendency to keep to oneself has been a major adjustment for Akter.

“I’m not happy with that, I definitely feel like it is hard to go from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.” Akter said. “I feel a big sense of disconnectedness.”

This sense of disconnectedness could play into mental health issues among international students, which carries another cultural difference.

U.S. culture maintains a relatively positive view on mental health disorders and treatment. This could complicate students coming from countries where there is a stigma surrounding mental health, like India for example. Mental illness carries a significant social stigma in Indian society, leading to discrimination and social exclusion for individuals with mental health problems, according to research published by DMIHER.

Bangladesh has very similar attitudes on mental health, according to Akter.

“Mental health is very taboo to talk about in Bangladesh,” Akter said. “Counseling is really important here, and you can tell that mental health is taken seriously.”

Jodi Firsdon, the director of counseling services at UF, says they take into consideration the cultural differences when working with international students.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of issues where international students have their reservations about what should and shouldn’t occur with their mental health,” Firsdon said. “We do see a pretty good amount of international students, but I can honestly say very few cases [are because of] adjusting to a new culture situation. It’s usually more people who have pre-existing mental health conditions.”

Akter isn’t the only international student who feels disconnected. Hibari Suzuki, an international student from Japan, says she is simply just lonely.

“I am interested in the students here from the U.S., but it doesn’t seem like they are too interested in us,” Suzuki said. “A lot of international students come here to interact with U.S. students, but there are not many opportunities to communicate with them or become friends with them.”

Christopher Caldwell, senior Director for International, Intercultural and Service Engagement, states that the Buford Center for Diversity and Services tries to host a minimum of one interaction-oriented program every month but does not necessarily see the amount of campus events as the reason for this disconnect.

Caldwell sees factors like COVID-19 and the growing rates of living off-campus as issues that could accompany the disconnect between domestic and international students.

“It is far easier to maintain close friends from early childhood than to engage on college campuses,” Caldwell said. “So, when domestic students already have their friend groups off-campus and are disinclined to engage due to circumstances beyond the university, there are roadblocks to provide successful connections between domestic and international students.”

Caldwell says that he would love to host more events if the time, space and staffing allowed for it. However, offering options on how to build relationships is key in his eyes.

In a study conducted with UF international students, 66 percent of respondents feel that the staff and professors here are even more approachable than their home country counterparts and make them feel comfortable expressing their concerns.

Caldwell says UF does try to be as accommodating as possible to grant these wishes true for the international students.

“In the past year or two, cultural accommodation questions have come my way,” Caldwell said. “A lot of Indian and Bangladeshi students requested supplies to play cricket matches, and we supplied them with materials for this. We want to be able to be responsive; if we have enough time and resources, we will.”