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International Students’ Sense of Belonging—Locality, Relationships, and Power

All US colleges and universities strive to create a sense of campus community. Traditions, campus organizations, and friendships build a sense of connection that lasts well beyond the college years. But what does it mean for international students to belong? When I ask this question of campus leaders, they share a few common sense aims: campuses need to help international students adjust to campus life, help them build friendships with US students, and foster inclusive classroom contexts that support academic success. Although these are worthwhile goals, they do not fully capture what it means for international students to belong. Research from different disciplinary perspectives challenges our commonsense notions of what “belonging” means for international students. Belonging has been explored from different disciplinary perspectives in terms of locality, relationships, and power. These vantage points illustrate the complex and multilayered nature of international students’ sense of belonging.

Belonging and Locality

The question that international students are asked most often is, “Where are you from?” The most common response would be for the students to simply share their national identity, or they might choose to share where they live (Des Moines), where they grew up (Bangkok), and where they were born (Lamphun). The question, “Where are you from?” might allow a US student or staff member to locate the student’s home country on a map, but it fails to fully capture the international student’s identity. Anthropologists have long recognized that the study of belonging is inseparable from the study of identity. Although country-level data may be useful for understanding trends in global student mobility, country-level data are a limitation in understanding what it means for international students to belong. Narrative research on international students illustrates how this emphasis on national identity fails to grasp students’ sense of belonging.

This point is powerfully illustrated in Taiye Selasi’s 2014 presentation, “Don't ask where I'm from, ask where I'm a local,” at TEDGlobal. Asking someone where they are local, instead of where they are from, is not meant to minimize the role of one’s home country in shaping a person’s identity, as much as it is meant to recognize that identity is shaped by experience, and our experience is both local and multiple. In Selasi’s words, all people are “multi-local”—we feel at home in multiple places. A multi-local perspective allows a more complex image of our lives to emerge. From this vantage point, it is just as problematic for US students to see themselves as “from” the United States as it is for international students to see themselves as “from” their home countries. The overemphasis on nations overshadows multilayered aspects of identity and experience that are the core of a person’s sense of belonging.

International students often articulate how study abroad leads them to question their national, geographic-bound sense of belonging. International students describe negotiating multiple national, regional, city, or university-based identities that continue to shift and recombine. They might identify with the global nature of science, multiple cities where they have lived, and the neighborhood community where they grew up. Many international students do not experience themselves moving from one nation to the next, but rather experience a sense of simultaneous multi-locality in a way that transcends categorization by country; they develop what is called a transnational identity (Gargano 2009). The adjustment they experience is not to the United States per se, but to a more complex, more ambiguous, and more temporal sense of identity that spans national boundaries. Colleges are a place within which international students explore, affirm, and negotiate their multi-locality and sense of belonging.

In her personal memoir included in the essay collection Crossing Customs: International Students Write on US College Life and Culture, Lai Heng Foong (1999) describes this deep transformation of identity and a growing sense of multi-locality:

I said that I belong nowhere but I think it is more accurate to say I try hard to feel I belong everywhere. I tend to seek out what I find appealing in different cultures that I am exposed to and gradually incorporate those qualities into my own personality. I believe that one’s identity can be formed and reformed and that who I am is constantly in flux. In a dynamic process of change, I no longer feel exclusively bound by culture, nationality, or background. (209)

Another example of multi-locality is illustrated in Jennifer M. Phelps’ (2016) study of international graduate students. The students in the study describe the in-betweenness they navigate:

Where do you feel you belong in the world? . . . I belong in the world (laugh). Yeah, at this point, I’ve lived in so many different places. I’m not very fond of this notion of belonging to a nation-state. . . . In any case, I just see myself as a human, you know? I’m part of this human population on the planet. Yes, I have, I can point to [home state], the U.S., [state where the student lived for several years], Japan, Taiwan, the PRC, I mean, I have to point to all these places in order to construct an identity for myself. (10)

It is important to note that difficulties that international students encounter in this process are not something to be avoided; they are often viewed as necessary and important aspects of the exploration of a more complex global identity and sense of belonging in the world. The stress that is associated with this negotiation produces a renewed sense of relationship to people and issues that cross local, national, and global boundaries.

Belonging and Relationships

International students establish and negotiate their multi-locality through an evolving set of relationships with others. Whereas anthropologists recognize that belonging is inseparable from identity, evolutionary psychologists have argued that the “need to belong” is a fundamental human motivation. They argue that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships” (Baumeister and Leary 1995, 497). Large-scale studies have demonstrated that a sense of belonging enhances international students’ academic performance and increases cross-cultural interaction between international and host students (Glass and Westmont 2014). Researchers have moved beyond studies about the lack of significant interpersonal relationships to efforts that identify specific curricular and cocurricular programs that foster a sense of belonging.

Social scientists have explored international students’ sense of belonging from multiple perspectives. Social capital is one useful perspective to understand how belonging relates to the size, composition, and density of international students’ social networks in college. Social capital is the capacity of individuals to access resources by virtue of their membership in networks, which may be characterized by size (how big the network is), density (how interconnected the network is), strength (the strength of connections among network members), and composition (who is in the network). From a social capital perspective, the value of a college degree is more than the knowledge and skills gained through formal study; it also includes a network of relationships that the student develops in college and maintains after graduation. Relationships provide access to resources during and after college. The resources accessible via these relationships include everything from help in studying for an exam, to a ride to the store, financial assistance, emotional support, or career connections.

Researchers focused on international students emphasize the importance of both bridging and bonding social capital for international students’ sense of belonging (Phua and Jin 2011). Bridging social capital builds connections across heterogeneous individuals and fosters the exchange of ideas, information, and sense of inclusion, whereas bonding social capital provides emotional support but typically exists among more homogenous individuals (see table 1). Bridging social capital involves larger, less dense, compositionally diverse networks where connections among members are more informal. Bonding social capital exists in denser, less compositionally diverse networks where connections among members are stronger and more sustained.

Table 1

Type of Social Capital Bridging social capital
builds connections across heterogeneous individuals and fosters the exchange of ideas, information, and sense of inclusion
Bonding social capital
provides emotional support, but typically exists among more homogeneous individuals
Cocurricular Organizations Build Different Types of Social Capital
  • professional or major-based organizations
  • service, volunteer, or community organization
  • leadership-building programs and events
  • ethnic organization composed of members from a student’s own cultural heritage

Leadership programs and ethnic-based campus organizations generate bonding social capital and contribute to international students’ sense of belonging. International students who participate in campus organizations related to their own cultural heritage have larger networks composed of friends from other cultures. Likewise, international students who participate in leadership-building programs had more diffuse, more compositionally diverse networks. Major-based and service organizations generate bridging social capital, which is advantageous for securing jobs and sense of inclusion. International students who participate in major-based organizations have larger, less dense, more diverse networks. Likewise, international students who participate in service, volunteer, or community organizations have less dense, more compositionally diverse networks.

Both qualitative and quantitative studies highlight that faculty members are the gateway to greater out-of-class involvement among international students. Faculty who demonstrate an openness to diversity in class foster a sense of belonging that makes it significantly more likely for international students to interact with peers out of class (Glass et al. 2017).

Belonging and Power

Belonging is not just about multi-locality and relationships; political scientists remind us that belonging involves geopolitics and power (Mueller 2009). As US student enrollments have stagnated, international student enrollment has doubled in the past ten years, coinciding with the rise of economic nationalism in the United States. The most recent Open Doors data indicate that US colleges and universities hosted over one million international students in 2016–17, with just over one-half of students coming from China (33 percent), India (17 percent), and South Korea (5 percent). The same report anticipates international student enrollment will decline due to uncertainty about the US social and political climate (Institute of International Education 2017). The recent #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign at many colleges and universities helped counteract this growing concern and communicate campuses’ commitment to inclusivity to international students.

International students’ sense of belonging is shaped by the restrictions they are subject to, including legal, political, and social restrictions. The subtext of the question, "Where are you from?" is often “Why are you here?” With the rise of economic nationalism, international students have become tokens of how globalization has affected the US economy. This is powerfully illustrated in interviews I conducted with international students, such as this interview with a sophomore from India:

It was right in my sophomore year, we had a conversation [with some students from the United States]. Suddenly, a lot of people got involved, and they said, “Come on, you internationals who come here, you take our jobs and because of you, we are going jobless!” They see us as job snatchers; the people who are eating their bread. What I want to tell them is how to compete with international students, because everybody sees us as job snatchers. They tell us we are stealing their jobs. That is not the case, and most of us go back to our countries. (Glass, Wongtrirat, and Buus 2015, 96)

A consistent theme in the literature is that international students experience discrimination based on culture, national origin, and relationships between countries. This neo-racism, discrimination or prejudice based on nationality and ethnicity impacts their sense of belonging (Lee and Rice 2007). Students from the Middle East, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa experience far greater difficulties at US institutions than students from Australia, Canada, and Western Europe. Students from China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia are much less likely to report that they are part of a close and supportive community of colleagues and friends, and international students overall are less likely to report this than US students (see figure. 1).

Figure 1. US and International Students’ Response to the Survey Item, “I feel I am part of a close and supportive community of colleagues and friends.”


Neo-racism exists across a spectrum of acts—from more subtle acts (e.g., being overlooked or misunderstood), to more overt acts (e.g., being stereotyped or excluded), to the most threatening acts (e.g., being threatened or mistreated). International students experience neo-racism in their day-to-day experience when a professor skips them during first-day-of-class introductions; when peers do not invite their contributions in a study group or ask invasive questions about their country or religion; or when they see social media posts like, “I’m not racist, but one thing I did not miss was all the Asians” (Redden 2012).

It is not surprising that students who experience more intense forms of neo-racism lack a sense of belonging. Research demonstrates that students from non-European countries, especially East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, perceive more barriers to cocurricular participation than their Western European peers. Students who report these barriers also report significantly less social adaptation and sense of belonging (Glass, Gómez, and Urzua 2014). Cultural events, leadership programs, and community service organizations have been shown to enhance international students’ sense of belonging and buffer against experiences of neo-racism.

It is important to not just recognize the negative effects of neo-racism; campus leaders must strive to invite the full participation of international students in the campus governance and decision-making processes that shape the exercise of power at the institution. A sense of belonging cannot be equaled with a sense of community alone; belonging involves political participation where international students act as citizens of the campus to collectively advocate for their own interests to shape policy and budget decisions. From a political perspective, international students who belong are those who are allowed and encouraged to participate in campus politics, as the interests of international students are often lost among all of the priorities that vie for resources and the attention of campus leaders.

As US colleges and universities strive to create inclusive campus communities, research highlights how multi-locality, relationships, and power shape international students’ sense of belonging. Research on international students challenges campus leaders to reflect upon campus diversity, equity, and inclusion anew. As the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (2016, 6) urges: “Diversity without inclusion is only a metric. Inclusion recognizes and embraces the need for all members of the institutional community to have a sense of ownership in the institution and a place of belonging.”


Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. 2016. Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Baumeister, Roy F., and Mark R. Leary. 1995. “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation.” Psychological Bulletin 117 (3): 497–529.

Foong, Lei Hung. 1999. “Finding Solace in the Familiarity of Myself.” In Crossing Customs: International Students Write on US College Life and Culture, edited by Jay Davis and Andrew Garrod, 191–209. New York: Routledge.

Gargano, Terra. 2009. “(Re)conceptualizing International Student Mobility: The Potential of Transnational Social Fields.” Journal of Studies in International Education 13 (3): 331–46.

Glass, Chris R., Peggy Gesing, Angela Hales, and Cong Cong. 2017. “Faculty as Bridges to Co-Curricular Engagement and Community for First-Generation International Students.” Studies in Higher Education 42 (5): 895–910.

Glass, Chris R., Edwin Gómez, E., and Alfredo Urzua. 2014. “Recreation, Intercultural Friendship, and International Students' Adaptation to College by Region of Origin.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 42 (3): 104–17.

Glass, Chris R., and Christina M. Westmont. 2014. “Comparative Effects of Belongingness on the Academic Success and Cross-Cultural Interactions of Domestic and International Students.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 38: 106–19.

Glass, Chris R., Rachawan Wongtrirat, and Stephanie Buus. 2015. International Student Engagement: Strategies for Creating Inclusive, Connected, and Purposeful Campus Environments. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Institute of International Education. 2017. Open Doors 2017: Report on International Educational Exchange. Washington, DC: Institute of International Education.

Lee, Jenny J., and Charles Rice. 2007. “Welcome to America? International Student Perceptions of Discrimination.” Higher Education 53 (3): 381–409.

Mueller, Richard E. 2009. “Does the Statue of Liberty Still Face Out? The Diversion of Foreign Students from the United States to Canada in the Post 9/11 Period.” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 39 (1): 15–43.

Phelps, Jennifer M. 2016. “International Doctoral Students’ Navigations of Identity and Belonging in a Globalizing University.” International Journal of Doctoral Studies, no. 11, 1−15.

Phua, Joe, and Seung-A Annie Jin. 2011. “‘Finding a Home Away from Home’: The Use of Social Networking Sites by Asia-Pacific Students in the United States for Bridging and Bonding Social Capital.” Asian Journal of Communication 21 (5): 504−19.

Redden, Elizabeth. 2012. “’I’m Not Racist . . . But.’” Inside Higher Ed. October 16.

Selasi, Taiye. 2014. Taiye Selasi: Don’t Ask Where I’m from, Ask Where I’m a Local, TED video.

Chris R. Glass, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Leadership, Old Dominion University

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