Stressed-out international students get help
For the thousands of international students who land in Westwood each year to attend UCLA, things start out looking mighty fine — their peers are accomplished, their professors brilliant, the campus beautiful and the sun always shining.
"They’re excited. They’re looking through rose-colored glasses, and everything is awesome," said psychologist Stella Chow with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
, the primary provider of mental health and wellness services to all UCLA students. But for many international students, this is the honeymoon before homesickness seeps in, along with loneliness, depression and other stresses of adjusting to life in a new culture.
While all college students struggle, the problems that some international students struggle with are often compounded.
"Let’s say I’m an international student," Chow suggested. "My parents are sending me here, paying high international tuition, living expenses and all — and I’d better do really well. Yet, UCLA is so challenging, and I’m not doing well in my first quarter. Even though my English proficiency was good back in my home country, I’m facing new nuances in language and culture. And I’m struggling with making friends. So my chances of feeling isolated and stressed-out are high, at the same time that I’m feeling guilty about disgracing my family with their spending all this money for me to come here."
While many international students don't experience culture shock, Chow and her colleagues have helped hundreds of find their way past these rough spots to competence in navigating the campus and American culture, making closer connections with others and achieving academic success.
CAPS has historically had a multicultural focus, given the campus’s tremendous diversity, said psychologist Ancy Cherian, the center’s clinical director. "We’re always trying to reach out to underrepresented students and students who are facing unique challenges," she said, pointing to the center’s multicultural, multilingual counseling staff and wide range of services, from individual and group counseling to classes aimed at overcoming procrastination, improving study habits and cultivating stress-busting mindfulness. Among CAPS’ offerings is a weekly support group for international students where they can share personal stories and solve problems.
With the numbers of students on the rise, identifying their unique challenges has been the focus of research by UCLA Student Affairs, which oversees CAPS. A 2010 survey of 4,067 international graduate and professional students pinpointed academic challenges, difficulties in meeting and socializing with other students, developing English proficiency and acclimating to American culture — not to mention dealing with visas and other immigration issues.
"UCLA is a very competitive school where even local students have a hard time when they first come," said Chow. "We admit the smartest, most hard-working, high-academic-performance students … (including) international students who are top-of-the-line, really smart students in their own countries."
Chow noted that America’s educational system is significantly different from that in many other countries.
While many college students struggle, the problems that international students encounter can be compounded by language difficulties, worries about failing and falling into disgrace, loneliness and adjusting to a new culture.
"In the Asian culture, there’s a teacher-oriented or didactic learning style — the teacher up at the podium disseminating information, the students absorbing what’s been taught and not asking questions," said Chow. "In the United States, and particularly at UCLA, it’s more of a student-oriented learning style, which involves more interaction in the classroom. Students have to be more proactive in their learning … and they have to accomplish this in a 10-week quarter system."
As the challenges compound, said Cherian, students can become sleep-deprived, financially distressed, severely depressed, isolated and sometimes even suicidal. "They may no longer be contacting their families and giving them accurate updates about what’s going on."
Many international students have a hard time letting anyone
— CAPS counselors included — know what’s going on. During 2009-10, about 14 percent (5,241) of domestic students sought services at the counseling center while only 10 percent of international students (288) did.
Ironically, many of these students who don’t ask for help are most in need of it. A 2005 Student Affairs survey conducted in conjunction with the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center found that, among incoming freshmen, Asian as well as Asian American students were more likely to experience depression, feelings of being overwhelmed and other problems, but less likely to seek help in dealing with these problems, compared to students from other ethnic backgrounds.
"International students tend to wait longer to come in," Cherian said. In some cultures, asking for help carries the stigma of bringing shame to one’s family or being personally "weak."
International students who overcome this hesitancy and join a support group experience "a huge normalization effect," Chow said. "They learn that they’re not the only one experiencing something, be it sleepless nights or academic stress." They also share mutual support. "Every week they get to see each other, socialize, ask, ‘How are you doing this week?" or report, ‘I was able to do the homework. Do you need some help?’"
On the other hand, Cherian noted, "some international students don’t want others from their cultural background to know about the problems they’re having or that they’re seeking services," she said. "So we don’t automatically prescribe a support group for someone but strive to see what makes the most sense for this particular student."
International students also benefit from classes and workshops at the center that aren’t necessarily culture-based but bring them into social contact with students from a wider range of backgrounds, said Chow. "‘Fitting in’ is a big issue for these students. Research data tell us that most international students feel more acculturated, assimilated and comfortable when they make friends with both domestic and international students."
International students with more pressing problems such as severe depression can see staff psychiatrists, who can recommend and prescribe appropriate medication. And because these services are in-house, counselors like Chow sometimes offer to sit in with a student during a psychiatric evaluation to translate technical terms or simply offer emotional support.
To promote its services and demystify what counseling is, CAPS collaborates with the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars
. Chow, serving as liaison to this campus hub for international students, has helped incorporate a psycho-educational segment about the five stages of culture shock into Dashew’s new-student orientation sessions. She is also creating and leading a new series of Dashew workshops on, among other topics, navigating the American classroom, and dating.
"I hope that these workshops will get students to start reflecting on their experiences, get to know who we are and demystify what counseling means," she said.
And while international students might not yet be ready to buy into the idea that — as a speaker at a recent orientation session jokingly put it — "in L.A., seeing a therapist is a status symbol," Chow and Cherian agree that they’ve noticed more of them warming up to the idea. In fact, understanding that counseling is important, said Cherian, "may be an international trend."
Students who are registered for classes are eligible for all of the center’s services, which are free for those covered by the Student Health Insurance Plan. Walk-ins are welcome Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Appointments can be made in person or by calling (310) 825-0768. In the event of a crisis, counselors are available by phone anytime at that number.