Preparing Foreign Students for Studying in the U.S.

Categories: Global Mindset, Global Teams
Guest Post by Daniel B. Kerr, CPA, Ph.D.


The number of foreign students attending US colleges and universities increased by 7.1% in 2015-16, bringing the number to 1,043,839. This marks the tenth consecutive year the number of foreign students has increased, according to the November 2016 Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education.

There are now 85% more foreign students studying in US colleges and universities than there were a decade ago. The largest number of foreign students come from China (31.5%), India (15.9%), Saudi Arabia (5.9%), and South Korea (5.85%). These students come from a very different cultural context than their US classmates.

Several researchers (Hofstede, 2001; Marquart & Engel, 1993; Trompennars & Hampden-Turner, 1998) have described culture as having many layers, much like an onion. It is what is at the center of the “onion,” that which we cannot see when encountering people from other cultures, that has the biggest impact on behavior. The outer layers of culture include symbols (e.g., words, gestures, pictures), heroes (persons, real or imagined that serve as role models), and rituals (e.g., ways or greeting, social and religious ceremonies). The inner layer is formed of values and underlying assumptions that are not easily understood by others and are most resistant to change. These values are taught to the young, and most children have their basic value system established by the age of ten (Marquart & Engel, 1993). Faculty teaching students from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea will be peeling very different onions than those grown in the US.

Hofstede (2001, p. 234) observed that the relationship between individuals and groups is established in children’s minds early on through their upbringing, reinforced through schooling, and “very visible in classroom behavior.” For example, in a “collectivist classroom,” individual initiative is discouraged, learners associate according to pre-existing in-group ties, and learners will generally not speak up in large groups. This is in marked contrast to an “individualist classroom,” where individual initiative is encouraged, students associate according to tasks and needs, and learners are expected to speak up in large groups. In contrasting the learning preferences of individualists and collectivists, Traiandis, Brislin, & Hu (1988) encouraged teachers encountering both types to investigate the beliefs, attitudes, and values of individualists and the attributes of groups of collectivists. “Among individualists, one is what one does; among collectivists, one is what one’s group does.” (Traiandis, Brislin, & Hu, 1988, p. 274).

Other cultural differences are likely to come into play in the classroom as well. For example:

  • How high a pedestal do foreign students put their professors on;
  • Is it appropriate to disagree with the professor in class?
  • What is the appropriate level of risk; is it ever appropriate to share an opinion without first having done extensive research?
  • Is it appropriate to ask questions in class or give negative feedback to a disruptive or lazy classmate?
  • How can I work with fellow students on a project when I have no relationship with them outside of class and they are not interested in spending time getting to know me?

Recent research by The Georgetown Consortium Project shows that it is not the amount of knowledge one has about cultures, the time spent engaging with people in country, or even learning a new language that increases a person’s cultural competence. It is the intentional, persistent and focused attention on a person’s self-reflection on their learning –over time – that leads to greater understanding and competence. Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart®, an online cultural intelligence tool, provides an invaluable resource for foreign students to reflect on their own cultural orientations and learn how to navigate the cultural gaps they will likely encounter studying in the US. Faculty can use GlobeSmart to better understand the cultural orientations of individual students and/or student teams working together on projects. United States students can leverage this powerful cultural intelligence tool to prepare to work or study abroad or work and study with students from other countries. GlobeSmart currently has over 1,000,000 users in more than 180 corporations and universities worldwide.

The Country Skills section of GlobeSmart includes specific recommendations for establishing credibility, communicating effectively, bridging cultural gaps, managing conflict, driving performance and other relevant topics. GlobeSmart provides a robust and unique learning experience and increases the user’s confidence when working with others who have a different cultural background. In addition to the United States, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea, the platform includes a wealth of information on cultural norms in over 95 countries. The GlobeSmart platform is designed to cater to a variety of learning styles and provides collaboration and networking opportunities to promote peer-based learning.

The cornerstone of GlobeSmart is the GlobeSmart ProfileSM (GSP). It helps students and faculty understand their own preferences and tendencies for interacting with others, and allows for comparisons with other individuals and groups as well as with other countries. It is meant to start discussions about the impact of culture on the user’s preferred style of engaging with others. The GSP includes five key cultural dimensions rooted in Hofstede’s model that will most likely manifest themselves in the classroom and in the workplace. Users complete a 40-question survey and get a personalized report that illustrates their placement on a spectrum of five dimensions:

Once the psychometrically validated assessment is completed, users receive a personal report that analyzes their preferences and gives suggestions for overcoming cultural gaps they may have with those who have different preferences. Users can also compare their personal preferences to the cultural norms in the country where they plan to study, work or travel, as well as to other individuals or teams they work with. GlobeSmart certification is also available for student advisors and/or faculty who want to coach students on their GSP Profiles and the cultural gaps they will likely experience studying in a foreign country.

Faculty, deans, administrators, students and other interested parties are free to explore the power of GlobeSmart by signing up for your free account.


About The Author

Daniel Basil Kerr
Intercultural Solutions Consultant

Daniel Basil Kerr is an intercultural solutions consultant and an adjunct faculty member at the College of Business at Stony Brook University. He partners with clients to develop cultural competence and inclusive workplaces. Dan is a CPA (New York) and holds a Master’s Degree in Accounting from the CW Post School of Accountancy and a PhD in Business Education from New York University.

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Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture’s consequences (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Marquardt, M. J. & Engel, D. W. (1993). Global Human Resource Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Traiandis, H.C., Brislin, R., & Hui, C.H. (1988). Cross-cultural training across the individualism-collectivism divide. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 12, 269-289.

Trompenenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in global business (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and R. Michael Paige (2009). The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 18, 1-75.