International students face unique mental health challenges

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Adam Zhang

A student walks into the Turner Student Service Building on Feb.21. The Counseling Center is located in the building.

By Haipei Wu , Staff Writer

When Tzu-An Hu came to the United States 14 years ago to earn his Doctorate, he realized building relationships with his American classmates was not as easy as it had seemed on TV.

Hu is now a counselor at the University Counseling Center, where his job revolves around helping international students who experience the same problems he once did.

Along with the stress native college students face, international students face additional challenges, as they deal with language barriers, discrimination and adjustments to a new culture.

“When I came here, I struggled with the language, I struggled with making contact, building relationships with American classmates and, of course, dealing with homesickness,” Hu said.  

Hu said he often felt apologetic when he couldn’t communicate well in English. As a counselor, he found many international students feel the same way.

“Maybe (because of) their values and cultural background, they don’t want to bother others,” Hu said. “They apologize because they assume they are bothering others.”

Hu said international students from cultures where class participation is not expected may feel extra stress in classes where professors or teaching assistants require active participation.

Hu said he never wanted to say anything unintelligent in front of his classmates, but he also didn’t want his professor to think he didn’t care about the class.

“I always feel like I need to say something that is smart, which, in a way, should prove I deserve to be here,” Hu said.

Nupur Sahai, another counselor in the center, immigrated to the U.S. from India seven years ago. Though it did not take a long time for Sahai to make friends, she said she understands the struggles international students face in adapting to a different culture and building a support group around them.

Sahai said in many cases, international students also lack sufficient awareness of mental health issues.

“Sometimes, it could also be that they, growing up, (have) a different conception of what health is,” Sahai said. “Depending on the cultural background of the student, there is often a lack of awareness of mental health.”

To help raise awareness for international students, Sahai said the center hosts a variety of outreach programs, including setting up information tables around campus at the beginning of each semester, hosting weekly dinner events and organizing a series of lectures on mental health topics.

“Helping students understand and giving them what they need is a big part of the work we do,” Sahai said. “We go out, and we talk to them. We don’t always wait for the students to come to us.”

Sahai said the Counseling Center’s endeavor to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health support is a constant effort.

“We create those unique opportunities for international students,” Sahai said. “A big part of our work is to help them build a support group in everyday life, but also to normalize the process of counseling.”

Jennifer Carson, wellness promotion specialist and stress management coordinator at the McKinley Health Center, said international students seem to have different stressors than native students; for example, parental stress, especially for those who come from Asia.

Carson said she gained a better understanding of the stressors after working with the Asian American Cultural Center.

“That experience definitely helped me to help them,” Carson said.

The University has the second-largest international student population across public schools in the country. Sahai said, counselors are provided with cultural-sensitivity training to help them understand the unique situations of international students. 

“When we talk to international students, the first thing we do is to find out what they need,” Sahai said. “One big thing of counseling is about helping people find their own answers.”

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Correction: The print version of the article attributed “The University has the second-largest international student population across public schools in the country” to Nupur Sahai, when the information was obtained through the University website. The Daily Illini regrets this error.