Sense of Belonging Among International Students: A Theoretical Exploration

24 May 2024

Sense of Belonging Among International Students: A Theoretical Exploration


As the world grows more interconnected, one of the main characteristics of higher education systems across the globe is the mobility of international students. According to research data, the number of international students in Western higher education institutions has grown significantly (Ammigan, 2019; Chen & Zhou, 2019; Wang, 2016). However, amidst the pursuit of academic and cultural enrichment, international students often encounter challenges in developing a sense of belonging in their host communities. This blog explores the academic, environmental, and social factors influencing international students’ sense of belonging in Western higher education institutions and shares relevant strategies for enhancing their sense of belonging.

Academic Factors

Tinto (1975) suggests that students who experience a sense of academic integration are more likely to stick with their studies and succeed academically.

Language Barriers. Language levels affect international students’ academic performance. According to Wang (2016), the biggest challenges to international students’ academic progress are speaking and writing in English. As a result, it is difficult for them to participate in group discussions and communicate in class with their peers and teachers. They struggle with writing assignments three or four times more than native students (Wang, 2016).

Cultural Differences. Cultural differences have a broad and profound impact on the academic experience of international students, which in turn affects their sense of belonging. Students who study abroad must constantly acclimatize to new learning environments and academic systems, which affects how successful they perceive their studies to be and how they perceive their belonging (Cena et al., 2021). Furthermore, cultural differences can also affect international students’ performance in class. According to Gebhard (2012), attending seminars where students are expected to pose and respond to questions and discuss issues presents significant challenges for international students, especially those from Asia.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors have a significant impact on international students’ sense of belonging, including the campus and community environment.

Campus Environment. Campus culture is one of the most important aspects to consider when helping students feel like they belong (Cooper, 2009). International students’ sense of belonging can be enhanced by encouraging diversity, providing abundant opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges, and offering specific projects and activities to support the integration of international students. On the contrary, students may be less able to fulfill their desire for connection on campuses lacking an inclusive atmosphere, which can lead to a lack of community among students and less academic achievement (Slaten et al., 2014).

Community Environment. In addition to the campus environment, the acceptance level of the community where international students reside also affects their sense of belonging. International students’ sense of belonging is positively impacted by cultural traits, such as the friendliness and talkativeness of host learners toward newcomers, as well as the familiarity of the surroundings (Cena et al., 2021). However, negative attitudes, such as feeling out of place, might result from the lack of diversity in the neighbourhood, and the lack of exposure to intercultural skills in a small town (Cena et al., 2021).

Social Factors

According to Tinto (1975), social integration plays a vital role in fostering student perseverance by giving them a feeling of belonging, support, and attachment to the school.

Social Interaction with Students. Social interaction with local students greatly affects the sense of belonging of international students. The main barriers to developing meaningful relationships with students in the host society are communication and English language barriers (Guo & Guo, 2017). Additional factors that affect interaction with local students include a lack of shared interests or a difference in lifestyle between international and local students (Guo & Guo, 2017).

Social Interaction with Teachers. Teachers play a crucial role in shaping the sense of belonging for international students. Chen and Zhou (2019) found that international students from better-organized classrooms felt more like they belonged at school, and those who cultivated stronger ties with their teachers received more assistance. However, building a relationship with an instructor can be challenging for many international students (O’ Keeffe, 2013). Some participants expressed dissatisfaction with the dynamics between teachers and students as well as a lack of interactions with them outside of the classroom (Wang, 2016).

Strategies for Fostering Sense of Belonging

In 2019, Garcia et al. created three measuring models—academic, social, and socio-academic integration, which were utilized to connect the sense of belonging construct to perseverance and retention. They suggested that community colleges should strive to provide more social and academic support to enhance the socio-academic integration of international students, thus increasing their sense of belonging and academic achievement. For example, student services and faculty can assist in evaluating written assignments and offer safe venues for students to discuss their oral presentations with staff and faculty members (Garcia et al., 2019). Moreover, colleges need to cultivate an international culture by integrating a variety of international programming targeted at all students, not only those from other countries (Garcia et al., 2019).

Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Environment. Creating a diverse and inclusive environment is significant in promoting international students’ sense of belonging. First, schools should embrace multiple values. Developing and promoting shared values within a diverse campus community while also acknowledging and honouring differences is one strategy institutional leaders may use to foster a sense of belonging (Cooper, 2009). Second, schools should try to internationalize the curriculum. College administrators, deans, and department chairpersons should think about creating curricula that promote racial and cultural understanding, welcome diverse viewpoints, address contentious subjects, and boost social confidence (Maestas, Vaquera, & Zehr, 2007). Instructors ought to be encouraged to design courses which highlight the advantages of diversity (Ammigan, 2019; Maestas, Vaquera, & Zehr, 2007). Finally, schools should empower students with more rights, allowing them to become part of the campus culture. Institutions should eliminate deficient and authoritative viewpoints and increase international students’ agency by including them in key decision-making processes (Heng, 2017).

Providing Comprehensive Support. In addition to creating an inclusive environment, higher education institutions should also provide comprehensive support. Firstly, counseling services can be offered. Han et al. (2013) emphasized the value of the connections between advisors and students, as well as the need to raise awareness of mental health and counselling services for international students. Secondly, academic support should be provided. As a proactive measure to assist students at the start of their studies, students should work closely with academic services throughout the semester to identify frequent difficulties and address them through improved programming and initiatives (Ammigan, 2019). Lastly, educational institutions should organize various activities. It is crucial that new international students receive assistance from the minute they arrive on campus, including transportation from the airport, orientation sessions, and other friendly activities (Ammigan, 2019).


In conclusion, the sense of belonging among international students is influenced by a multitude of academic, environmental, and social factors. By implementing comprehensive support systems and embracing diversity, institutions can cultivate an atmosphere where all students feel valued and supported in their academic journey. Moving forward, higher education institutions must continue refining their strategies and initiatives to ensure that international students thrive within their educational communities.


Ziying Peng, University of Windsor


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