How can the Duke Libraries better support the needs of international students at Duke? A team of library staff conducted qualitative research with international students over the past year in order to answer this question. This research was part of a multi-year effort at the Libraries to better understand the experiences and needs of various populations at Duke, including first-generation college students, and Black students.
Our final report discusses the full research process and our findings in more detail than that provided below, including a full list of recommendations resulting from the study.
We began by reading existing research on university and academic libraries’ support of international students and speaking with key stakeholders on campus. In fall of 2022 and spring of 2023, we conducted a series of discussion groups with both graduate and undergraduate international students. We also surveyed international students to better understand their library and campus experiences at Duke.
On the whole, participants express high satisfaction both with the Libraries and Duke University. In the 2023 Libraries Student Survey, international student respondents were more likely to report feeling welcomed at the Libraries and that the library is an important part of their Duke experience than domestic students. When asked in discussion groups what helps them feel welcome, international students discussed how the Libraries’ wide array of exhibits and events with international focus, as well as visible print materials in non-English languages, make the Libraries a welcoming space for them. Numerous students mentioned the positive impact of the Duke International Student Center (DISC) and a range of orientational programs, such as campus wide, program specific, and international student specific orientations, in fostering a sense of belonging and welcome at Duke. For undergraduates specifically, peers play an important role in making them feel welcome.
Participants were also asked which people, services, and spaces feel supportive and safe at Duke University. For undergraduates, examples include Counseling and Psychological Services; Duke LIFE (Lower Income, First-Generation Engagement); the campus farm; Resident Advisor supervisors; advisors; fellow Duke students; professors and Teaching Assistants; the Career Resource Center; campus events; Duke health insurance; student clubs; and the campus gyms. For graduate students, supportive services primarily revolve around departments and programs, including departmental staff such as program administrators, Directors of Graduate Studies and Director of Graduate Studies Assistants, program advisors, career services teams within schools, and department coordinators. Graduate students also discussed fellow international students, upperclass students within their programs, instructors, and lab mates as sources of support.
Overall, international students at Duke feel welcome and supported by both fellow students and faculty. Participants also discussed aspects of Duke that have felt unwelcoming, including the additional stress of administrative requirements around acquiring healthcare, visas, driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and housing. Both graduate and undergraduate participants discussed how cultural differences can make students feel out of place. A few students shared their experiences of encountering microaggressions from some fellow students and faculty. These microaggressions often stem from assumptions made by the microaggressor based on the students’ nationality or from the microaggressor’s own U.S.-centric worldview, even in academic situations where a global perspective is expected. A theme among undergraduate students was the unwelcoming exclusivity of social groups and some clubs, which was described as a cause of social anxiety. For graduate students in particular, the cost of living, feeling unsafe off campus, and transportation are three of the least welcoming aspects of life at Duke. Some students additionally brought up the stress caused by the pervasive nature of academic elitism at Duke, an issue that would not be unique to international students.
Participants were asked who they turn to when they have questions. Undergraduates often turn to friends, upperclass students, advisors, student support offices, and even large chat groups used by their cohorts. Graduate students tend to rely more on formal entities such as advisors, graduate program offices, and faculty, though they also consult lab mates, upperclass students, friends, and their extended networks.
Students reflected on what was most challenging for them when they first arrived in Durham or on campus. Literature reviews discussing the challenges international students face while studying abroad often emphasize language and communication barriers. However, challenges identified at Duke centered more on cultural and social interactions, with little mention of basic communication issues. Students expressed feelings of being overwhelmed with a bewildering variety of resources and facing challenges in navigating through available options. While such overwhelming feelings are not unique to international students, it is notable that their American counterparts are often guided by relatives who have experience with the U.S. education system. Additionally, many undergraduate students talked about differences in education systems and pedagogical approaches between their home countries and Duke.
We also asked participants how they use the Libraries at Duke and what works well for them. The overall attitude toward the Libraries is very positive. International students use and value the Libraries for its variety of study spaces, online resources, textbook loans program, interlibrary loan services, and research support. When asked what works well in the Libraries, the majority of comments focused on the ease-of-use of library facilities and spaces, as well as on the accessibility of library materials. Many students also appreciate the ability to use the Libraries as a place to relax and unwind throughout the day. Students praised the volume of Duke’s holdings, its networked relationship to other lending institutions, the ease of finding online resources, and the savvy work of librarians in assisting students during research consultations.
International students also identified several areas of the library that do not work well for them. Among these, students described their limited awareness of library services and librarian subject expertise. Many also commented on the crowded nature of study spaces, and the frustrating waitlist for carrels. While study rooms are highly valued by international and domestic students, we found that they are also one of the Libraries’ services for which students express frustrations and a greater need. We found that many undergraduate international students were unaware of the ability to receive personalized help from library staff, and that the Libraries’ support role is known only to small cross-sections of the international student population. When students learn of personalized assistance from librarians they often do not do so through the Libraries, but from professors and other students. Students praised information provided by librarians in their Writing 101 and English for International Students classes, but requested that the Libraries provide more outreach and information sessions extended over a longer portion of the student’s academic career at Duke. Some students expressed a strong interest in having tour opportunities, more library orientations, and greater awareness of the general services offered by U.S. academic libraries, with which many international students may be unfamiliar.
When asked what services and programs the Libraries could offer to further support international students, participants had several ideas. The overarching theme was a desire for enhanced communication and promotion of library services and resources. This could include promotion through the DISC newsletter and international student orientations. It could also include channels not specific to international students, such as professors, programs, program orientations, and increasing advertising about the Libraries on campus but outside the library buildings themselves. Students were also interested in the Libraries increasing its offerings of workshops and tours. Echoing findings from the Libraries’ 2023 Student Survey, a recurring request from international students in discussion groups was for increased foreign language materials, and in particular, leisure reading materials and current newspapers. Other ideas from students include increasing collaboration with DISC and other campus offices, and providing popular games from students’ home countries in a leisure area of the Libraries.
These findings became the basis of 29 recommendations outlined in the Research Team’s full report. The Research Team will present this study at the Libraries’ all-staff meeting, and will share it widely with other units on Duke’s campus over the summer of 2023. We will also share the report within the library community to encourage other libraries to consider these questions and undertake similar work at their own institutions.
One of the report’s recommendations is that the Libraries’ charge an International Student Study Implementation Team in fall 2023 that will prioritize and coordinate the implementation of recommendations from the study.
For more information on this study, contact Joyce Chapman, Assessment Analyst and Consultant, at firstname.lastname@example.org.