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Abey Muthoni Wachira, Ph.D., and Mijin Kim, Ph.D., are staff psychologists with University Counseling Services at VCU who specialize in intercultural issues. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

From experience, two VCU staff psychologists help international and immigrant students navigate college

Mijin Kim and Abey Muthoni Wachira with University Counseling Services bring empathy and expertise to those dealing with culture shock.

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Adjusting to college can be a challenge for most students, but for those coming from other countries, the hurdles can be even higher. International students often have to navigate not just a new educational system but a new culture as well.

Mijin Kim, Ph.D., and Abey Muthoni Wachira, Ph.D., are staff psychologists with University Counseling Services at Virginia Commonwealth University, and they specialize in intercultural issues. They bring personal perspective to their work.

Kim grew up in South Korea, and as a college student, she was helped by a counselor in her university’s counseling center. Already interested in psychology, Kim said the experience bolstered her pursuit. “I thought it is very meaningful to help somebody to move forward,” she said.

When Kim came to the U.S. for her doctoral program, her experience as an international student helped her understand the unique challenges they face. “I also got to work a lot with international students or students whose parents are immigrants,” she said.

Wachira grew up in Kenya and was fascinated watching documentaries on the human brain. After immigrating to the U.S., “I [realized] when I came here that culture plays a very big role in terms of adjustment, in terms of how people deal with concerns like stress, anxiety and different things that might come up associated with migration,” she said.

In college, “I really gravitated to counseling psychology because I felt like based on the research I was doing and what people were sharing with me, it kind of helped connect everything – mental health, social issues, cultural issues, identity issues, immigration issues.”

Challenges for international students

Kim and Wachira highlighted a range of issues that international students can face as part of the culture shock of living and studying in a host country, whose norms and values can vary from their native lands.

One is that each student’s period of acculturation can vary in time and intensity. Wachira added that students who immigrate with parents or relatives, or who are the children of immigrants, may have variations in the way they acculturate, leading to family conflicts.

Kim said political issues impact the experience as well. She noted that many immigrant and international students are coming from countries whose pasts are rooted in Western colonization, so understanding these histories captures a bigger picture for a counselor.

“I also feel like because I am an insider in this population, as an international student and immigrant myself, I could understand a lot on a deeper level,” Kim said.

The pandemic reflected how political issues impact the mental health of international students. Starting in 2020, border policies changed in a matter of days, and many students couldn’t visit their home countries, even if a relative had passed away. There are also students who cannot visit home because of civil war in their country.

Kim said knowing historical and political issues is important because students might not raise the subject themselves. “But if we actually bring that up, that's when I feel like students can talk about how difficult it can be and feel more kind of supported in that way,” she said.

Language barriers can also be tough for international students. This makes it difficult to communicate with and even relate to others, even if the student is well-spoken.

“Accent is also something that tends to come up,” Wachira said. “Depending on how strong your accent is, it might impact how people respond to you or whether or not they're able to connect easily with other people.”

And then there’s the stigma of mental health in general. Wachira said that depending on the messages they have gotten from people in their lives, international students may be concerned that if they speak to a mental health professional, they might be perceived as “crazy.” Or they might think their situation needs to be particularly dire before reaching out to a counselor.

Normalizing the experience

Kim and Wachira said one of their top goals is to normalize the struggles these international students are facing. They often have never been in these situations before – they are goal-oriented high achievers who can be hit hard by classroom challenges based on cultural, language or communication issues.

“At the beginning when they experience [these issues], they have no idea how long it’s going to take for them to adjust,” Kim said.

The counselors give students a space to talk about their challenges. Wachira asks students how they feel about seeking out therapy. “That's where the validation and the normalizing happens,” she said.

Wachira looks to establish a connection with clients and get to know them before delving into how to reach their mental health goals. It’s about “building that connection, that relationship and that safety before we can now start to do the deeper work,” she said.

Where to get help

Students seeking mental health support can start by visiting the University Counseling Services website, where the identity-based resources include a category for international students. In addition to individual therapy, Counseling Services offers group therapy sessions, relationship counseling and support groups. One is the International Student Discussion Hour that Wachira hosts every other week.

Also available is Timely Care, a 24/7 virtual mental health service offered through VCU. Students can download and use the app for crisis or emotional support, or for booking counseling sessions. Kim said students being able to schedule appointments themselves can help ease the barrier to reach out.

Wachira said if students aren’t sure about seeking therapy, they first can sign up for a consultation to articulate their reservations and any other questions.

Kim added that students don’t have to be experiencing serious issue to seek services.

“If they are struggling, if they are having a hard time figuring out resources on campus, then they can come and talk to a clinician and the clinician will help them to figure out what would be the best service they can get,” she said, which doesn’t always mean therapy.

Wachira noted that for therapy to be effective, a client must commit to the process without force. That means it can take time.

“Whenever they're ready or whenever they feel comfortable,” she said, “we are always going to be available.”