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Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow Sonya Friel '23

December 9, 2022 Alex Kelly '23

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.

Sonya Friel '23, Anthropology and Neuroscience Major, Psychology Minor

"International Students and Principles of Belonging at University in the USA"

Abstract: International students face additional challenges when attending college abroad, and this could put them at increased risk for developing poor mental health. This project investigates how differences in upbringing and background circumstances impact the experience of international students in the USA, particularly in regards to sense of belonging, and how this influences mental health and overall well-being. The purpose of the study was to learn from international college students of all backgrounds to gather insights and perspectives about their experiences in college. The study was designed to be used to inform how universities can better support the needs of the international student community, and incorporates research and methodology from the fields of anthropology; sociology; and psychology. I conducted 41 surveys and 13 personal interviews with current and alumni international students of small liberal arts colleges on the East Coast of the USA, involving students from 6 colleges across 4 states on the East Coast. The majority of international students reported difficulties in connecting with domestic students on campus as a result of their race, ethnicity, first language, or socioeconomic status. Other key themes mentioned by participants include language barriers, decreased sense of belonging, and physical and mental health challenges. All students, regardless of reported sense of belonging on campus, indicated friends and family - in particular, fellow international students - as a primary source of support during the study abroad experience. This indicates that institutional support strategies for international students should focus on strengthening the international student community itself, rather than focusing on student assimilation into American college culture. My study is essential in understanding the needs of international students and in understanding their relationships with their college, which is the first step towards improving the experiences of students studying abroad in the USA.

Was there anything surprising about the work you did?

Because I’ve lived the experience myself, I found that many of the challenges shared with me by international students were not unknown to me. However, I was surprised that in the majority of the colleges involved in the study, only one or two people are officially assigned to support their entire international student body, which can be hundreds of students. This is something that I’m glad has been flagged by my project!

How did you choose your topic?

As a First Generation, Low Income (FGLI) international student myself, I’ve experienced first-hand the challenges and struggles that are often faced by this community. I’ve often been frustrated as I navigated student life, and found that misunderstandings and miscommunications are frequent; conversations with international student friends showed me that for many, it’s a shared experience. This made me realise that there is a lack of official studies that have been conducted to identify international students’ needs and work to come up with solutions to support them. I wanted to provide this resource so that it can be used in the future to bridge the gap between international students and the colleges in which they study.

How will you use your research in future studies?

My hope is that my research can ultimately be used by academic institutions to improve their international student services. I’m currently working on expanding my research for my senior thesis in anthropology; this time, I’m focusing on the perspective of college staff members who work to support international students. My goal is to improve communications between staff members and international students; to do this, we must first understand both perspectives.

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences.  The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.

Hanna Holborn Gray Undergraduate Research Fellowships

Department of Anthropology

Neuroscience Program