International Students in the United States: What Hinders Interactions with Domestic Students

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This study explores the perspectives of international students on the barriers that hinder them from obtaining more friends who are domestic students. While most international students start of their freshman year with high hopes of befriending many domestic students, forming friendships with American students can be challenging for them. Therefore, this study sought to understand why there is a lack of cross-cultural interactions among international and domestic students at the University of Kansas. The study reveals that holding all other factors constant, international students who are more familiar with the English language typically have more domestic student friends than compared to those who are less comfortable and fluent in conversing in English.

1. Introduction

1.1 Motivation  

In the last decade, there has been a large increase in the number of international students in the United States. In fact, on November 13, 2018, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) reported on Open Doors 2018 that the number of international students in the United States has reached a new record of 1,094,792, increasing by a 1.5 percent over the prior year (Morris 2018). Despite the increase in diversity among campuses, Ward and Masgoret (2004) indicated that overall international students would prefer more interactions and friendships with domestic students especially outside of the college setting. While most universities have been trying to encourage cross-cultural relationships, it can be quite a challenge due to many different factors such as language and cultural differences.

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In 2017-2018, the University of Kansas has hosted about 2182 international students from as many as 111 countries such as China (41%), India (10%), Saudi Arabia (6.5%), South Korea (3.8%), and Japan (2.4%) (International Student Services 2017). The University of Kansas has also been taking small steps to encourage the integration of international students; their most recent effort being the merge between the international and domestic student orientation. Despite the efforts of the university to become a more inclusive institution, I noticed not only from my own observations but also from word of mouth by other international students that the results haven’t been as fruitful as was expected, because most international students have a high tendency to interact amongst each other rather than with domestic students for social activities. This study is intended to identify whether or not this is true and if so, does being more fluent in English lead to an increase in interactions between international and domestic students. 

1.2 Contribution  

   Previous literature and studies that have already examined the challenges of international students who are studying in the United States. However, most of the researches were done using the qualitative approach. Therefore, this research will contribute to the pool of knowledge using a different approach – the quantitative approach – to examine international students in relation to their relationships and experiences with domestic students.   

1.3 Literature Review  

According to Brown and Daly (2004), they designed a questionnaire to understand the attitudes and interactions of international students and domestic students. They found that although both groups had overall positive attitudes towards each other, interaction frequencies were still low for cross-cultural interactions. Both groups reported having more friends and spending more time socializing within co-ethnic student groups and when they did interact with people from different backgrounds, it would mostly be for academic purposes rather than social activities.

Schreiber (2011) studied the perceptions and interactions of domestic students with interactions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln by designing a qualitative case study for the seniors at the university. The study found that most of the contact between both groups was only in class, at work or in an academic setting, rather than a social setting, mainly due to language barriers. Similar to Brown and Daly’s (2004) findings, Schreiber’s (2011) findings also showed that most domestics students had positive perceptions of international students and would like to learn more from them, but none took the initiative to actively participate in any opportunity that facilitated contact between domestic and international students.

A great deal of literature has already shown that the lack of English language proficiency is one of the greater barriers experienced by both domestic and international students when it comes to interacting with one another. Furthermore, most of the studies in the literature were qualitative and mostly reported on general statements that were made during interviews with the international students. Therefore, my contribution of this study is different in the sense that I will be using a different approach by presenting 3 different models to analyze my results using estimations from a statistical software rather than just reporting the verbal responses of the international students.

2. Data

In order to gather the necessary data, a survey was developed via Google Docs and was used as my data collection instrument. The sample used in this study consisted of international students currently enrolled at the University of Kansas. A total of 10 international student leaders received the survey via email and were encouraged to forward the survey to international students at their respective organizations. Out of all the students who received the survey, 39 students responded without any missing data. The survey examined the background information of the students, such as their age, enrolment status as well as their country of origin. Based on their country of origin, I could obtain the total number of students from the same home country from the university’s International Student Services website. The survey also contained questions that examined their English language proficiency. Additionally, the survey also included questions related to their involvements in campus organizations as well as the number of times they felt racially discriminated while studying in the United States.

The data set consisted of 39 respondents ranging from 19 to 27 years old. The participants indicated their nationality as Malaysian (28%), Chinese (21%), Vietnamese (13%), Japanese (10%), Korean (8%) and Taiwanese, Nigerian, Indonesian (5% each), as well as Indian and Peruvian (3% each). The sample consisted of students who have studied at the University of Kansas for a range of 3 months to 8 years. The students reported having from as much as 2 to 45 domestic student friends, with the mean of 11.05 and standard deviation of 9.36. Further, 25 out of 39 students reported being actively involved in 1 to 3 university campus organizations, 19 students reported to have experienced racial discrimination ranging from 1 to 10 times during their stay at the United States. Students also reported having a mean of 5.4 out of a scale of 1 to 10 in regard to their fluency in English.


   In my research, I started my model with the assumption that depending on how comfortable and international student feels about speaking in English, the number of domestic student friends they have should change accordingly. I drew this prediction from Unruh (2014) who in the author’s research, found that one of the most prominent challenges for international students is the language barrier where those who were less fluent in English were having more trouble integrating into the lifestyle community in the United States. This relation can be specified as follows:


DomStud= β0+ β1Eng

where DomStud represents the number of domestic student friends and Eng represents English language familiarity.

In order to measure the full effect of English language familiarity on the number of domestic student friends, I also drew from other predictions from Almurideef (2016) as well as from Wadsworth, Hecht, and Jung (2008) that showed how other factors affected international students. A set of five control variables were then introduced: age, number of students from the same home country, involvement in campus organizations, number of years in school, and racial discrimination. Hence, the following model was created:


DomStud= β0+β1Eng+β2Age+β3NumStud+β4Inv+β5YrsSchool+β6Disc

where Age represents the age of the student, Numstud represents the number of students from the same home country, Inv represents the number of campus organizations that the student is actively involved in, YrsSchool represents the number of years of schooling, and Disc represents the number of times the student has felt racially discriminated. In this model, the actual effect of an increase in English language familiarity can be seen taking into account other factors that affect the number of domestic student friends that an international student has as well.

The expected sign for Eng and Inv are positive because the more comfortable international students are with speaking in English and the more campus activities they participate in, the chances for intercultural relations would increase, and hopefully, lead to more understanding and interaction between both international and domestic students. Next, the expected sign for Age and YrsSchool are also expected to be positive but with diminishing effects as in most cases, the older the student, the longer they have been in school. Thus, during their first few years in school, students are expected to be more interested in initiating intercultural friendships than compared to older students who are more likely to continue their existing interactions rather than forming new relationships. On the other hand, the expected sign for Disc is expected to be negative because the higher the number of racial discrimination cases that a student experiences, the student becomes less willing to initiate conversation with domestic students out of fear or annoyance from being stereotyped.

Moreover, as mentioned previously that in most cases, older students tend to have stayed at school longer. Bearing this in mind, an interactive term of multiplication of Age and YrsSchool should be included to examine how older international students would act given how long they have stayed in school. This results in the following non-linear model regression:


DomStud= β0+β1Eng+β2Age+β3NumStud+β4Inv+β5YrsSchool+β6Disc+β7Age*YrsSchool

where Age*YrsSchool is the interaction term between the respective age and years of schooling by a student. The expected sign of this interaction term should be negative due to the diminishing properties of the interaction patterns of students who have stayed in school longer.

4. Results

   The data used to carry out my analysis was retrieved from the survey that was completed by 39 undergraduate international students from the University of Kansas and was analyzed using STATA. I started the analysis by running a regression on all of the 3 models to identify the status of all the variables. The estimates are given in Table 1 below.








1. Intercept







2. Eng







3. Age





4. NumStud





5. Inv





6. YrsSchool





7. Disc





8. Age*YrsSchool



Summary Statistics













Notes: Standard errors are given in parentheses. Significant levels are given as follows: ‘****’, ‘***’, ‘**’ and ‘*’ represent 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent, and 20 percent significance levels respectively.

  The estimate in column (i) of Table 1 contains only the coefficient of interest to form the following regression equation:


DomStud= 4.423+2.86Eng

For this model, the estimated coefficient on English language familiarity is 2.86 which implies a 2.86 increase in domestic student friends when an international student moves up an additional step on the scale of 1 to 10 with regards to how comfortable they feel about conversing in English. Therefore, we obtain a positive and statistically significant coefficient estimate in the 1% significance level, a result which is consistent with the previous assumption that the expected sign of Eng should be positive. Here, the R2=0.28

which implies that English language familiarity can explain 28% of the variance in the number of domestic student friends. Therefore, there are still many other factors that can cause an international student to have an increase or decrease in the number of domestic friends. However, for a single variable, the R2

for this model is reasonable.

  The model in column (ii) introduces a set of 5 variables to control for other factors that also affect the dependent variable. Including these 5 control variables, the effect of Eng on DomStud can be seen in the following regression equation:


DomStud= 18.564+2.044Eng+0.958Age+0.002NumStud+2.074Inv0.521YrsSchool1.478Disc

For this model, holding all else constant, the estimated coefficient on English language familiarity is 2.044 which implies that when an international student moves up an additional step on the English Familiarity scale, the number of domestic friends they have increases by 2.044 people. When controlled for other factors, this coefficient shows a small decrease from 2.86 to 2.044 which proves once again that there are other factors need to be accounted for to obtain more accurate results. Regardless, the coefficient estimate remains positive and statistically significant at the 5% level. The R2

increased from 0.28 to 0.44, showing that this model is a better predictor of the actual change in domestic student friends.

We also see that holding all else constant, when an international student actively participates in an additional campus organization, the number of domestic friends increases by 2.074 people and when an international student experiences an additional racial discrimination case, the number of domestic friends decreases by 1.478 people which is consistent with previous predictions as the coefficient estimate on Inv is positive and statistically significant at the 10% level, while the coefficient estimate on Disc is negative and statistically significant at the 5% level. The effect of having more students from the same home country is small compared to the other variables and is also statistically insignificant even at the 40% level. However, the variable was not dropped to avoid omitted variable bias. However, for the number of years of schooling variable, a negative and statistically insignificant – even at the 50% level – estimate was obtained. This differs from the predictions made previously, implying that unlike the diminishing effects of Age, holding all else constant, the number of domestic friends immediately decreases by 0.521 people for every additional year of schooling.

The specifications in column (iii) includes the interaction term Age*YrsSchool to control for effect of a change in years of schooling depending on the age of the student. The addition of the interaction term forms the following regression: DomStud= 66.422+1.488Eng+3.36Age+0.003NumStud+3.023Inv+12.779YrsSchool1.478Disc0.617Age*YrsSchool


The addition of the interaction term attenuates the Eng coefficient from 2.044 to 1.488, holding all else constant, and raises its standard error from 0.837 to 0.913, but the coefficient is still statistically significant at the 10% level and still shows a positive impact on the number of domestic student friends. There was a slight increase in R2

from 0.44 to 0.48, implying that with this non-linear model, the independent variables can explain up to 48% of the variance in the number of domestic student friends. Therefore, this model provides a stronger estimate than compared to models (i) and (ii). The estimated coefficient of the interaction term is consistent with previous predictions, being a negative and statistically significant estimate on a 20% level.

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  Unlike in model (ii), the coefficient estimate on YrsSchool is positive and statistically significant on a 20% level. This becomes consistent with the prediction that the effect on DomStud should increase while showing diminishing effects as Age and YrsSchool increase. Moreover, with the new model, Age is statistically significant on the 10% level, Inv is statistically significant on the 5% level and Disc is statistically significant on the 1% level. However, the effect of NumStud remains small and statistically insignificant at the 30% level but is once again kept in the regression to avoid omitted variable bias.

5. Discussion

  This study was based on the results from 39 international students from the University of Kansas. Therefore, this small sample size may have reduced the chances of obtaining a more accurate significance among the variables to understand the nature of the intercultural relationships. Furthermore, conducting similar researches at different universities in the United States would be helpful as different locations could influence different results. The population of international students at the University of Kansas is relatively smaller than compared to universities located in larger cities. Therefore, the rate of racial intolerance and tension may differ, thus playing a larger role in its affect on the relationships than compared to language barriers. Although 5 different control variables were introduced in this model, the R2

was only 0.44 which means that there are other independent variables that were not included that can explain about 56% of the variance in the number of domestic friends.

 There are various university policy implications that can be drawn from the results. Universities need to obtain different perspectives from international students themselves before making a big decision. For example, the University of Kansas decided to merge the international student and domestic student orientation with the intention to provide more opportunities for contact between both parties without carefully considering the concerns of different international students. For one, surrounding an international student who is not fluent in English with domestic students could be too overwhelming for them. Therefore, in understanding international students better, specific programs and activities can be implemented to better foster and facilitate interactions between international and domestic students.

 Based on my findings, we see that the more competent and comfortable the students are in speaking English, the more domestic friends they have. Thus, universities can provide better resources for international students to practice speaking in English with not only their professors or student leaders but also with other domestic students. In terms of racial discrimination, the university can develop specific activities that cultivate open-mindedness among both parties to increase tolerance when interacting with diverse others. Furthermore, since the number of domestic friends is seen to have a diminishing effect as time passes, the university should work towards the integration between international and domestic students early on, as freshmen. With this in mind, the efforts of the University of Kansas to merge orientations shouldn’t be dismissed as unfruitful, however rather than merely merging both orientations, the university should work towards ensuring that they train their orientation leaders to facilitate their members in such a way that both parties feel comfortable around each other and are willing to have meaningful interactions despite language and cultural barrier. In doing so, both domestic and international students with hope, will continue to maintain such interactions throughout the rest of their time at the university.

6. Conclusion

This study explores the interactions of undergraduate international students at the University of Kansas, concentrating on how certain factors, particularly the familiarity with the English language, affects the number of domestic friends that an international student makes during their time at the University of Kansas. The survey used in this study consisted of several questions such as their demographic information as well as their involvement and experiences on campus. There were 39 completed responses that were analysed using STATA. I presented 3 different models to examine the robustness of this conclusion. In all 3 of my models, English language familiarity is positively correlated to the number of domestic student friends. These results are consistent with a number of prior researches on international students, showing that language barriers do hinder the interactions between international and domestic students. However being proficient in English isn’t the only factor that affects these interactions, the number of domestic student friends also increases when students are involved in more campus organizations and experiences less racial discrimination. Based on my findings, rather than merely focusing on increasing opportunities for contact between international and domestic students, universities should actively try to break language barriers to encourage meaningful interactions. However, this may not hold for all universities as universities at different locations may have different factors that contribute to this issue. Therefore, universities should work towards better understanding international students at their respective universities and in doing so, better facilitate the integration of international students into their community.


  • Almurideef, Raja. 2016. The challenges that international students face when integrating into higher education in the United States. PhD Theses, Rowan University.
  • International Student Services. 2017. “University of Kansas – International Student Services Fall 2017 Nationalities of Students.” International Student Services at the University of Kansas. Fall. Accessed 28 November, 2018.
  • Morris, Catherine. 2018. Number of International Students in the United States Reaches New High of 1.09 Million. Press Release, Washington, D.C.: Open Doors 2018. Accessed 28 November, 2018.
  • Schreiber, Sondra T. 2011. Internationalization at Home? Exploring Domestic Students’ Perceptions of and Interactions with International Students at a Large Midwestern Research Institution. PhD Thesis, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • Unruh, Susan. 2014. “Struggling International Students in the United States: Do University Faculty Know How to Help?” Athens Journal of Education.
  • Wadsworth, Brooke Chapman, Michael L Hecht, and Eura Jung. 2008. “The Role of Identity Gaps, Discrimination, and Acculturation in International Students’ Educational Satisfaction in American Classrooms.” Communication Education 64-87.
  • Ward, Colleen, and Anne-Marie Masgoret. 2004. THE EXPERIENCES OF INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS IN NEW ZEALAND. New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington.




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