How Structural Differences Disadvantage International Students

Contributing writer Isaiah Doble ‘25 details a set of deep discrepancies between the experiences of domestic and international students, drawing from conversations and interviews conducted over the past semester.

In his book The Privileged Poor, Anthony Jack '07 discusses the hidden disadvantages that exist within top colleges and pose disproportionate struggles for their less privileged students.

The hidden curriculum: a fascinating, yet profoundly disheartening, sociological concept.

Renowned education sociologist Anthony Jack ’07 investigates this overlooked topic in his work, “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged College Students.” He summarizes this phenomenon as “unwritten rules, unexplained terms, and a whole host of things that insiders take for granted,” which result in academic success being largely determined by “insider knowledge rather than ability, drive, or talent.” The research concept investigates tacit rules that “insider” students follow to promote their success and well-being in education and how those rules hinder the ability of unaware students to succeed in comparison, regardless of their innate academic potential.

Consider our college’s use of office hours, for example. A professor may brush by the purpose and technicalities of their office hours policy during their first class, based on the assumption that such information is common knowledge. Yet unfamiliar students may find themselves unable to make use of this resource, and consequently need to jump over academic hurdles throughout the year that accustomed students, who can access this resource with ease, do not. This is a common, albeit relatively mild, instance of the hidden curriculum at play.

While Jack’s research focused on the socioeconomic discrepancies of domestic U.S. students in his application of this term, I am greatly interested in its application to the international student experience. During several deep conversations I’ve had with my international peers about adjusting to college life, many of them referenced significant cultural and academic discrepancies from their experiences back home, which have proved to be significant hindrances to their academic achievement. The concept of the “hidden curriculum” seems to provide a rationale for many of the undefined, yet common, experiences that international students at Amherst face. Applying this concept to these discussions reveals the seemingly individual struggles of these students to be visibly systemic.

The primary aspect of my research involved interviews with several international students about their adjustment to Amherst, both academically and more broadly. While the “data set” I collected was quite small, there were clear emergent commonalities that raise serious concern for the college community. The following three primary themes of concern were evidenced in most, if not all, of the international students’ dialogue:

Invisible Codes: Cultural Discrepancies in the Classroom

When teaching a class of mostly domestic U.S. students, it is easy to practice U.S.-centric cultural norms without second thought. And yet, these downplayed practices exclude international students. In my interviews, these experiences of cultural discrepancies varied between students, yet everyone expressed some form of frustration with the unspoken norms that they had to autonomously discover and adopt.

One first-year was exasperated by the academic supports and systems in place within the classroom, especially related to grading. They did not understand, for example, the concepts of “grade curves, or students ‘upping’ their grades by emailing faculty,” much less how to successfully navigate and utilize the system. They mentioned how none of these topics were “explicitly explained,” but rather unstated rules that students were expected to know and use to their advantage.

Another student, a sophomore, shared that he struggled with participating in discussion-based classes, especially his first-year seminar. He explained that “it was challenging because where he is from, students are not expected to talk in classes in high school — their classroom participation was based only on listening and writing.” Thrown into numerous discussion-based courses without any introduction to discussion skills, he often felt categorized as less intelligent or uninterested by his teachers when he did not participate in them frequently.

All the interviewees identified the dominance of American culture and the English language as a source of struggle, with one first-year especially noticing the impact. She shared that she often struggled with writing about her personal experiences, saying that she feels “a cultural barrier” when trying to convey her experiences — often involving language-specific emotions and objects — in a paper in English. She also mentioned that “the American pronunciation system makes [her] hesitant to speak in class for fear of sounding unintelligent.”

Fierce Independence: The Glorification of Academic Self-Reliance

All of the international interviewees mentioned that in their preparation for higher education, they were trained to be self-reliant in their studies and to not be dependent on teacher or communal support, a mindset that has backfired at Amherst. One first-year student recalled that, back in high school, “asking for help [was] looked extremely down upon,” and that she initially believed that this enforced sense of self-sufficiency prepared her for college “because in high school it was up to [her — she] was taught to be very independent.” She described her discovery of the college’s unspoken expectation — even necessity — for students to rely on faculty support in order to succeed as a “culture shock.” She noted that she “struggles to grasp that professors are actually here to help.”

A sophomore described a similar discrepancy. Compared to his college professors, his high school teachers were “much colder. They tell you what to do and that’s it — ‘shut up.’” He said when he arrived at Amherst, “it didn’t come to my mind to ask for help — I tried to do everything by myself.” He noted that even after understanding the college’s emphasis on and resources for academic support, he still struggles with this entrenched necessity to be independent: “I still don’t find the [support systems] very successful. … I’m just not necessarily comfortable with getting help.”

Shifting Expectations: From Admission to Campus Life.

Getting into college is one thing; succeeding on campus is another. Yet this transition proves especially jarring for international students. The extreme expectations placed onto them for gaining admission  — something especially difficult for international students — often contradict the unspoken standards they face once they get to Amherst. One student noted the extreme pressure placed on them to have outstanding extracurricular accomplishments in high school, explaining that “in order to get in as an international student, you have to be exceptional. I put most of my focus on my extracurricular profile in order to have a chance of admission.” And yet, when they arrived on campus, “[they] found [themself] having to focus solely on academics, and not outside activities.” They expressed discombobulation and frustration in discovering the sudden, yet unspoken, shift between high school and college in what determines a successful student. They struggled to respond to and navigate dynamic shifts in institutional expectations thrust upon them without any forewarning or guidance — even though it was simply expected of them.

My conversations with international students at Amherst unearthed a realization that seems invisible to the majority of the Amherst campus: a cultural hidden curriculum is greatly at play. My goal is for these discoveries to alarm you, the reader, into heightening your own and others’ (especially professors’) awareness of the numerous discrepancies that international students are likely facing in their sudden transition to Amherst; I am sure there are many more than the few that I have identified here. May raising our awareness be the first of many steps in pursuing educational equity for Amherst students, regardless of geo-cultural background.