The opportunity to study abroad, take classes, and further one’s education in another country can be exciting and liberating.
But studying abroad also comes with significant challenges. Those of us working in residence life can create intentional spaces to soften the landing for our international students, while also offering unique opportunities to our domestic students. One such opportunity is an international-themed LLC.
An international LLC, or Living Learning Community, enables international students to connect with each other, interact with domestic students, and receive targeted support catered to their unique experiences.
Creating a successful community requires planning and foresight. Considering some of the following tips from my own experience in launching such communities may assist you in crafting a community that meets the needs of your incoming student population.
People may say that an international LLC would consist of, well, international students. But in my experience, limiting your community and your focus in this way does a disservice — both to the international students you seek to serve and to the broader campus community. Sure, international students should be a big part of your focus — as you are likely seeking to offer them deeper support than they might get when assigned to housing randomly — but focusing on them alone takes away opportunities that might also be appealing to your domestic students.
Most international students I know have said that one of their main goals for studying in the US is to make American friends and learn about American culture. But despite this, I often observe “clumping” — a phenomenon whereby international students, regardless of housing placement, find other international students (from their home country or nearby countries) to socialize, study, and eat with the majority of the time. This is understandable, as studying abroad can be a lonely, isolating experience. Seeking comfort in the familiar is something most people do at times of uncertainty or high stress.
Concurrently, from working in residence life, I’ve also seen a lot of inhospitable behavior from domestic students who are assigned as roommates to international students. The domestic students might complain about smells from food preparation, express frustration with different cultural norms, or even outright refuse the placement of an international roommate. These behaviors often stem from a fundamental unwillingness to be open to new cultures, ideas, and experiences. While not completely unexpected (I’m looking at you, Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development), this mindset is certainly not welcoming to an international roommate.
What I Did
I had these concerns in mind when I first considered launching an international LLC as a resident director. I ultimately decided that my suite-style community would consist of a mix of international students and domestic students, the latter of which I specifically sought out via an application process.
I would place international students on the same floor or area as each other, but not in the same room, and often not in the same suite. For domestic roommates, I looked for students who had studied abroad themselves (and were otherwise attuned to the unique challenges of studying abroad), had spent significant time abroad for another reason, or were a child of immigrants and, thus, might be more sensitive to cultural differences. I also looked for students who either planned to study abroad in the future or who did not feel that they’d ever be able to feasibly study abroad, but were nonetheless looking for a unique cultural experience.
By seeking out these individuals, rather than placing international students with random domestic peers, I found welcoming roommates who were excited to live with international students, share American culture, and likewise learn about the lives and cultures of their new roommates.
In terms of the international students, I was careful not to select students all from one country or area of the world. I chose a broad spectrum of the nationalities represented within the incoming international student population in hopes of giving my LLC a vibrant array of perspectives.
When the international students arrived for check in, I got to see my plan play out. I didn’t hear of a single roommate conflict, and nobody asked to switch rooms. And though I observed the international students spending a good deal of time together — including moving as a group to experience social life on campus and in the surrounding city — I also observed them including their domestic roommates in their plans. So although international students found other students from their home country to connect with, it wasn’t their primary social group.
Putting students together in the right living circumstances can go a long way in creating successful roommate pairings and a vibrant community. Your efforts should not stop there, however. You will want to consider what unique programming opportunities are possible for you and your RA staff.
One of the first programs to consider is a group tour of campus, with stops at places international students will need to get to know — like the international student affairs office, ID card office, the library, the bursar, campus eateries, and other popular student hangouts.
Another program that was highly successful, given that my students lived in suite-style housing with kitchens, was a simple trip to the local grocery store. But instead of having domestic students drive their roommates, every participant learned how to find and navigate the local bus system to the closest grocery store, which had a large international foods section. And to lighten the load, our staff met them at the grocery store with the university van so that students could buy as much as they wanted for their first big shop without having to carry it all back on the bus. After the trip, the students were provided with written instructions, maps, and bus schedules, so they could repeat the experience again later if they wanted to.
As your international residents become more comfortable in their surroundings and confident with their language skills, you might consider hosting an event during which they share elements of their culture with the larger residence hall or even the entire campus community. Such an event can speak to the fact that students are no longer outsiders struggling to keep up with their classmates, but instead, they’re content experts presenting on areas that they excel at or have more knowledge in than their domestic peers.
As you launch your community, try to put yourself in your international students’ shoes. Imagine what it must feel like to arrive on campus in a new country. Doing so can help clue you into the types of programming and support systems that your students need.
For more tricks and tips on how to design and launch an LLC, check out this post I wrote that applies to LLCs of all types!