The muffled voice of international students

Counseling psychology has historically been in a notable position to not only consider, but also advocate for multicultural diversity issues embedded within larger societal contexts. The growing emphasis on social justice orientation in counseling training programs allows for a careful consideration of the gaps in our awareness and understanding of the unique issues that international students struggle with.

Prior to moving to the US I remember hearing, time and time again, from friends and family who had moved to the US for graduate education, “Being an international student is nothing less than a full-time job.” I did not comprehend the full meaning of that statement until I moved to the US as an F-1 student (student visa status allowing for full time study) more than two years ago. The stressors are not simply due to acculturation, language barriers, and homesickness. Being an international student often entails legal paperwork and visa considerations. I quickly discovered that, in addition to all the other stressors, I needed to make absolutely sure that there were no mistakes in any of the documents I completed. Jeopardizing my visa status could lead to potential visa cancellation and an inability to complete my graduate program. It also became clear to me that the special challenges faced by international students are often poorly understood.

Among counseling psychologists, there seems to be a theoretical recognition of the differences between international students and racial/ethnic minorities. In practice, however, the two groups are often cobbled together. For example, research for racial and ethnic minority people are assumed to benefit international students as well. While there can be benefits of combining these populations, it is also important to note that this might prevent access to appropriate services. After all, the needs of international students might become blurred and sometimes invisible in this process.

Many a times literature and clinical lore will suggest that international students are resistant to therapy and seeking services. At some levels that is true and yet I believe that there must be way to reach out. Waiting for a resistant group to utilize therapy services might not be the most helpful option. A greater need for outreach and devising less threatening approach strategies might be necessary.

Most schools in the US will assign an international student advisor to each incoming international student. While the designated school advisor is supposed to be knowledgeable in the legal policies and procedures, they are often not aware of the unique features of each student’s program. Program policy procedures in most student handbooks have very limited coverage of what the course of study looks like for international students. Therefore, students may be placed with international advisors unaware of the student’s program with in a program that, itself, is not knowledgeable of or responsive to the student’s international status. It might be difficult for students to obtain help and clarity in situations where the rules and guidelines are murky.

More active approaches for educating the faculty and staff about the needs of international students are necessary to provide adequate support. International students are not citizens of the US and therefore do not have all the same rights. They legally do not have access to all the resources which is an important consideration that is often forgotten.  Here are a few main points pertaining to a graduate student’s international status and access to resources of which non-international counseling psychologists may not be aware:

  • Funding: International students are not eligible for federal loans. There are restrictions on the funding sources they can apply for.
  • Work Status: The number of hours a graduate student can work is limited to 20 hours per week on campus. The work must be closely related to the student’s field of study.
  • Study Status: The number of credits that a graduate student must be enrolled in range from 9 to 12 credits per semester (unless special accommodations are made).
  • Practicum Opportunities: Legally, an international student cannot work outside the campus (even if it’s a practicum or internship) unless the student obtains a temporary work permit or practical training permit from the university. Helpful terms to look up would be Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT).
  • Practicum Sites: There will be some sites that accept only US citizens (e.g. VA).
  • Scholarships: There are some scholarships that accept applications from only US citizens.
  • Visa: Some of the most common types of visa are F-1 (student visa), J-1(scholar visa), H1B (work visa).
  • English Competency: International students are required to demonstrate official fluency in English language before they can start classes or begin assistantships. This might not apply to students from countries where English is the first language.

My hope is that with more education and awareness about the challenges faced by international students, we can better prepare ourselves to support their graduate school experience. At present, much more needs to be done to support these students.


Urvi Paralkar (she/her/hers) is a first-year Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.  She completed her M.A. in Clinical Practices in Psychology from University of Hartford and her B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India.  Urvi is interested in studying tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty in the context of coping and multicultural counseling frameworks.

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