International students in the US face many challenges as they adjust to new cultural norms.

Chaplains open doors for international students on campus

When international students arrive to study in the US, life can be harder than expected. Some universities have found that religious chaplains can help students make the transition. While mental health is stigmatized in some countries, spiritual care is not. As a result, student chaplains have become de facto front-line mental health care providers. 

The World

When Eva Seydou first came to the United States as an international student two years ago, she was ecstatic. But the novelty wore off and homesickness set in.

It wasn’t gun violence or racism — her initial concerns — that worried her most. It was the unexpected cultural nuances in the US that made the adjustment hard. 

Back home in Mauritania, West Africa, it was rude to look people in the eye, but in the US, people expected it. American culture valued independence over community, which can be lonely, she said. English idioms also took extra effort to understand. 

When a dental emergency depleted her savings account, she felt defeated: “I just went back to my room asking why am I here? I should go back home.”

That’s when she connected with Emmanuel, who serves as a campus chaplain at Old Dominion University, in Virginia, where Seydou studies. (Emmanuel asked to use his first name only due to privacy concerns around travel visas.) 

After meeting with Emmanuel, Seydou said she realized that her experience was a fairly common one for international students. In fact, it’s expected. 

“You just go through that roller coaster of sadness, and there’s just no shortcut through it,” said Emmanuel, who also helps host international student programs. “But you don’t have to go through it alone.”

“You just go through that roller coaster of sadness and there’s just no shortcut through it. But you don’t have to go through it alone.”

Emmanuel, campus chaplain, Old Dominion University, Virginia
International students gather for a meal. It’s these types of social connections that support students, especially those that come from cultures that value community over the individual.
International students gather for a meal. It’s these types of social connections that support students, especially those that come from cultures that value community over the individual. Courtesy of Emmanuel

The number of international students in the US is on the rise, topping over a million students in recent years. In part, it’s been a financial strategy for universities to recruit students from abroad who pay full tuition. It’s also a win for international students who may not have access to resources and education in their home countries.

But adjustment to life in the US can be stressful, which in turn, can catalyze the onset of mental health challenges. And for many international students, seeking mental health care can carry stigma whereas spiritual care is more culturally acceptable.

That’s how university chaplains like Emmanuel have become de facto counselors and mental health advocates on campuses. Coming from Cameroon, Emmanuel knows personally what the adjustment experience is like for internationals. But when necessary, he said, chaplains will guide students to seek professional help through campus counseling services. 

Rather than sitting in a chapel or a mosque or a temple, the chaplain’s “office” tends to be wherever students need support. 

“My office can be at Panera, where I’m just having a meal with a student. My office can be at a cellphone store, where I’m helping a student.” 

Chaplains foster social connections to help international students adjust to life in the US.
Chaplains foster social connections to help international students adjust to life in the US. Courtesy of Emmanuel

Emmanuel also opens up his home to students, inviting them to join his family for dinner or watch soccer games. 

Plus, he turns to social media for his work. In the WhatsApp group he created, he sees who needs a roommate or help moving furniture, finding a lawyer to assist with a visa, or a family to share a holiday meal when campus grows quiet during winter break. 

He also gives advice. For example, professors might yield authority in other countries, but Emmanuel tells international students that in the US, students are expected to raise their hands and speak their minds.

“I feel like I have an older brother, like there’s this person I can count on,” Seydou said about Emmanuel’s role in her life. “I can just text about anything at all [and] he will be there to assist me.” 

“I feel like I have an older brother, like there’s this person I can count on.”

Eva Seydou, student from Mauritania at Old Dominion University, Virginia

These social connections can be especially pivotal for students who come from cultures that place a high value on community.  

Seydou, who is Muslim, said she has not always felt understood on campus — the questions she has received from classmates amount to Islamophobia, at times.

“There are people asking you about Taliban, Afghanistan, but it feels like more of an attack than actually curiosity,” she said. 

Emmanuel, who is Christian, noted that he cares for students regardless of religious affiliation. His goal is to make students like Seydou feel a sense of belonging on campus. 

“There is a Bible reference that says God has welcomed us,” he said. “We want to welcome others because he has provided so much for us and cared for us unconditionally.”

For some international students, crisis can strike back home. They might wake up to headlines of an earthquake, wildfire or political violence, and to these students, the news is personal. 

Anzhelika Gyulumyan, from Armenia, was in the US when she heard about political conflict back home, where her family still lives. Over 120,000 Armenians were forced to leave their homes, becoming refugees in a single day, she said. 

Her friends posted about the crisis on social media, made donations and signed petitions to show support but Gyulumyan said she still felt overwhelmed. 

When Emmanuel and other campus chaplains reached out to Gyulumyan, an Armenian Christian, they sat with her and prayed for her. They helped her grieve the home she knew was no longer there. 

“You’re just heartbroken, there’s nothing worse probably than loss of homeland,” Gyulumyan said. “Chaplains are just people who want to walk the walk with you.”

“Chaplains are just people who want to walk the walk with you.”

Anzhelika Gyulumyan, student from Armenia at Old Dominion University, Virginia
Campus chaplains help to celebrate the graduation of some international students whose families may not be able to travel from abroad to the US, bringing flowers, taking photos, and buying dinner in their stead.
Campus chaplains help to celebrate the graduation of some international students whose families may not be able to travel from abroad to the US, bringing flowers, taking photos, and buying dinner in their stead. Courtesy of Anzhelika Gyulumyan

Eventually, international students adjust to the cultural nuances in the US that were once stressful.

And when it’s time to graduate, campus chaplains often come with flowers, take photos for international students because it can be difficult for some families to travel the distance from abroad. 

Students like Seydou and Gyulumyan then wonder where to call home next. Some think about visas and green cards — and perhaps taking their first steps toward becoming American.

Both said their experiences as students in the US — surrounded by diverse beliefs — helped them to articulate their own. 

“I was able to understand which parts of my identity I am open to adjusting to, and which parts I want to keep my own,” Gyulumyan said. 

Seydou has noticed her political views have begun to differ from those of her parents’ back in Mauritania. 

 “It helps you actually realize that there’s a lot more in this world than you actually know.”

This project was supported by a grant from the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University in partnership with Templeton Religion Trust.

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