A Comparison of Psychosocial Factors Between International and Local Students on US Universities

Winner, Crow Writing Contest 2022
By Jose R. Tafolla, University of Arizona

The differences between students that are completing University abroad in another country (International students) and the ones that choose to attend a University in their homeland (Local students) are a topic of controversy; usually, the points of view tend to differ on which type of students have the most difficulties completing their careers and more often, international students are the ones that are said to have a harder time adapting to a whole new world completely covered by the uncertainty of having to approach new situations, possibly in the need of learning a new language, in a country that they may not know as well as their own. With those stereotypes in mind, researchers conducted several studies to determine if that characteristic (international v. local) made a difference in the students’ life. That is the premise which converges the paths of the six literary pieces that will be analyzed on this literary review. The purpose of this literature review is to compare different sources of controversy, which at the same time analyze the differences between those two before stated populations, seeking to answer my research question: What are the emotional/psychological differences among international and American university students?

Local students: The breakpoint

In places where higher education is standardized and seen as (often the unique) way to success, local students are grown with the mindset of getting into college, they are prepared to attend the University of their preference and they usually work their way towards getting into it, Local students have the resources, information, and advice necessary at the reach of their hand.

With all those resources their journey becomes “easier” and when the breakpoint comes, when they get into university, they are prepared to overcome most of the difficulties that may be present. Healthwise, they have access to a familiar-for-them healthcare system, more than likely they know at least how to get the required medical attention whenever they need it as well as psychological and health advice. In Misra et.al’s (2004) study, those factors are considered when presenting their hypothesis: “We hypothesized that international students will perceive higher academic stress and exhibit greater reactions to stressors than American students” (p. 134) This is something that many of us could believe to be true, considering the many advantages that local students have and the support that they can receive, not only from educational institutions but also from the benefits of having familiar environments and possibly, having family and friends at easier reach, something that could serve as a support during especially hard times. 

International students: The setbacks

Being an international student compromises a lot of effort, if changes are present in the life of a domestic University student, having to cross borders by ground, sea and air involves also getting into a most-of-the-times, unfamiliar place; usually far away from family or any friends and commonly with a new language to learn. Those setbacks are very general and start becoming more worrying when you start to consider things like the economic situation, the need for scholarships, the lack of knowledge about the medical services, discrimination, and racism, which are precursors of many other disadvantaging situations in the lives of international students. Msengi et al. (2011) make a good job listing some of the deficiencies that must be addressed when instructing international students: first, their findings indicate that “that the longer the international students stay in the United States the more likely their physical health and the overall status is likely to decline” (pp. 72-73). The authors of this study indicate that based on their findings, seminars and orientation programs delivered to international students should deliver information about lifestyle in the United States and include a focus on “Behavioral matters such as food, exercise, health care, social and communication skills, selfcare, and time management” it also emphasizes the importance of the relationship student-university-staff (Msengi et al, 2011, p. 73). Another example of such disadvantages is mentioned on Hasihim’s (2012). Making emphasis in sport participation he presents the following data: “Sport activity is a common component of campus extracurricular activities However, merely offering the opportunity to participate does not always lead to actual participation […] (there are) college students who did not participate in sport. More significantly, the numbers of non-participants were higher among the minority and international students” and he adds: “International students’ non-participation in campus activities, such as sports, is often due to perceived, rather than actual barriers they are confronting” (p. 198). Personally, I think that the distinction between perceived and actual barriers is important to make and the fact that something is perceived as a barrier should be considered as a problem itself: it is important that institutions do not think of perceived barriers as the International student’s fault. Instead, there could be multiple factors that precede a student’s attitude towards those types of activities, as mentioned in Mugan’s (2006) response: “The use of vast generalizations made about international students must be cautioned […] it is imperative that each student be treated as an individual and be assessed on a case by case basis with the cultural context in mind” (p. 99). The biggest mistake that we can make when assessing a global student is to generalize, especially when talking about barriers and needs since those earlier mentioned are not equal for everyone and do not affect everyone the same.

Local students and problems they encounter

Local students do not have a career free of preoccupations and indeed, they often encounter problems that international students may encounter as well. There might be resources that are not available for them as local students, less opportunities as employers often see more interesting the curriculum of someone who has been abroad and more stress levels according to

Misra and Castillo’s (2004) study about stress levels among local & international students: “The results did not support our hypothesis. International students reported lower academic stress and fewer reactions to stressors than their American counterparts in this study” (p. 142). While this study suggests that local students may be more prone to stressors and being affected by them, the truth is that since the study was conducted with some limitations, there is nothing set in stone, and we cannot affirm that local students are more affected by stress. Instead, we could say something similar to what Zhou et.al’s (2008) claim in their paper about culture shock: “During cross-cultural contact, people perceive themselves in a much broader context – ‘little fish in bigger ponds’. This can lead to anxiety-provoking change in perceptions of self and identity” (p. 68). Such statement can apply to both international students and local students and can be used depending on the situation to explain why a population may be at risk of having higher stress levels. 

International students: The positive

Being an international student is not always as negative as some may think. It is a fact that being a global student will help you develop skills and abilities that others may not be able to acquire. There is a generalized need for global citizens and multifaceted employees; being international will allow you to train those skills without even actually working inside an enterprise or industry. In fact, even local students can be benefited in certain way of interacting with international students, as mentioned in the conclusion of Mugan’s (2006) response: “Finally, it is important to note that international students enrich the education of national students as the world in which we live becomes more and more global” (p. 115). Those benefits are one of the reasons why international students on many parts of the world choose to come to the United States to complete higher education. After all, when an international student looks behind to appreciate all the hardships that he had to overcome, all the sad moments that didn’t had someone to rely on, the happy moments that he didn’t had someone to share with, the time that he was not able to spend with family and loved ones and compares those with all the things that he acquired, makes every single moment to be worth it.

Convergent points

Both populations have some things in common, as it has been shown in both comparisons. In Misra & Castillo (2004) and Hashim (2006) there are some factors that both populations share, call them perceived or actual barriers, stress, stressors, or the way we react to them: “Although the literature indicates that international students tend to somaticize feelings of stress, results of this study indicated no statistically significant difference in physiological reactions between international and American students” (Misra & Castillo, 2004, p. 144). While there is not a statistically significant difference among populations, we should mention that culture, homeland society, environment and education at home can be determinant factors that could affect the way we react to stressors and their consequences. It is important to denote that the difference between statistical data and the reality is due to the small sample size that was selected for Misra and Castillo’s study, while in the meantime I personally doubt that the population selected was either representative or normally distributed. 


Therefore, it can be said that college affects both populations, sometimes in different manners, sometimes both are equally harmed. International and local students are different even among peers and given those differences there is not a small study that implies enough confidence level to generalize a statement to all the population of international students, local students, or both. More research may be needed to reach a conclusion if there is one that could be found. In the meantime, the only certain statement is that there are some factors that make everyone different and others that unite us; we must conserve the first ones as they make us who we are and appreciate the last ones as they can be the link between people.


Hashim, H, (2012). Perceived barriers to recreation sport participation in university students: A comparison between international and local students in the United States. Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, 20(1): 197-203.

Misra, R., & Castillo, L. G. (2004). Academic stress among college students: Comparison of American and international students. International Journal of Stress Management, 11(2): 132–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.11.2.132

Misra, R., Crist, M., & Burant, C. J. (2003). Relationships among life stress, social support, academic stressors, and reactions to stressors of international students in the United States. International Journal of Stress Management, 10(2): 137–157. https://doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.10.2.137

Msengi, C. M., Msengi, I. G., Harris, S., & Hopson, M. (2011). International students: A Comparison of health status and physical health before and after coming to the United States. International Education, 41(1): 59-100.

Mugan, R. F. (2006). A response to the psychological and physical health risks of international college students studying in the United States: An integrative program proposal. [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Hartford].

Zhou, Y., Jindal-Snape, D., Topping, K., & Todman, J. (2008). Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international students in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 33(1): 63-75. DOI:10.1080/03075070701794833