May 14th, 2003
Who Can Sit at the Table?
An investigation into international student friendship networks
at Saint Olaf College
Study conducted by:
Thomas Halvorsen and co-author
On Monday, April 28th, I arrived at the cafeteria at 4:30 pm and
by 4:35 had found a discrete booth location from which to conduct my
observation. My hope was to record the interactions between
multicultural students , in particular noticing where and with whom
they chose to sit for their meals.
The evening began slowly, with individuals or pairs of students sitting
scattered throughout the dining area, but remaining mainly at the
tables closest to the main exit. Forty-five minutes passed in
this fashion, with two or three-person groups taking their dinners in
Stav Hall’s calm, early-evening atmosphere. At 5:15 there is
commonly a rush in the cafeteria, and at this time more American and
multicultural students began to arrive. I had begun to worry
that, for some reason, no large multicultural student dinner groups
would form this evening, especially as I noticed American students
choosing to sit at the tables commonly preferred by the multicultural
students. The multicultural students were choosing to sit
elsewhere, either with one other individual in a booth near the exit,
or further back towards the large window in the dining area.
At 5:17 however, my hopes lifted. A small group of students
passed by and sat down together. I recognized that the dinner
party consisted of junior female from the Asian subcontinent who had
lived in the United States for a number of years, another junior female
from India, a male Asian student , and an Asian American student
. A few minutes later, a Latin American exchange student entered
alone and without hesitation walked to the back of the dining area to
join this group. While the group ate their meal, I took note of
where other multicultural students had chosen to sit.
At 6:15, Jeron4 (an African American student) sat down alone at a large
table near the exit. I was intrigued because he had chosen one of
the tables most commonly used by the multicultural community. He
sat alone on one end of the nearly empty table facing the cafeteria
serving area. Two minutes later, Kim (a female Asian student)
came and sat across from Jeron, and a minute later, Awaale (a first
year male African student) joined them. Mark (an American
student who had attended high school in Japan) also sat down with them,
establishing a table of four.
Throughout dinner, American students had been sitting at this table and
others around it. I realized that the multicultural students were
gradually “reclaiming” their mealtime “territory”. At 6:25
Kristin (an American student) sat down next to Awaale and began to talk
with him and Mark. Mark finished his meal and left, and Trevor (a
junior international student from Jamaica) quickly filled his
place. Awaale’s roommate Geddi (another first year African
student) also joined the table.
By this time, Jeron, who appeared to be the most outgoing of the dinner
group, was waving to Angelica (an African American student) at a nearby
table. She shook her head regrettably and came over to talk with
the people at Jeron’s table. At this point I noticed that
different conversations seemed to be taking place on each end of the
table. A few moments later, Angelica sat down next to
Kristin. Seven people now sat together at this table. As
individuals left and others sat down, new conversations formed among
Nann (an exchange student from Asia) entered the dining area at 6:40
accompanied by her roommate (a senior Hmong student), an African
American male and female, and another Asian female. They chose a
table near the front of the dining area, relatively close to the
exit. Jan (the African American female) came over and joked
around with the people at Jeron’s table, while Jeron went over to talk
to Nann. I watched as other students from these two different
tables visited with each other, some exchanging a few words and others
sitting down for longer talks with friends at the other table.
7:00 is the official closing time for the cafeteria. Jeron and
the remaining three others cleared out of the cafeteria, thus
“dissolving” that particular table for the night. A number of
students remained at Nann’s table, but eventually drifted out of the
dining area as well. Luke (an Hispanic American) flashed a peace
sign to the table on his way out. Kong (a senior male from Asia),
who had straggled in at the last minute, took Luke’s seat. During
the last twenty minutes of dinner, activity at this table mainly
centered around the little baby boy that one of the students (an
African American woman) had brought with her to dinner. She sat
and ate while the others played with the child, kissing it and feeding
it a popsicle.
Nann and her roommate left around 7:25 and Kong moved to sit next to
the three remaining diners-- the mother and child, and another American
female student. When the two women left with the baby at 7:30,
Kong was left alone at the table. Since I know Kong through
international student activities, I decided to go over and chat with
Reflecting on these observations, I concluded that several similarities
existed between the three different “multicultural tables” that formed
during dinner. All were flexible, meaning that no group at a
table formed or left all together. Rather, individuals or small
groups of students joined and left these tables freely. It also
seemed that Jeron’s table mainly consisted of African or African
American students, while more Asians chose to sit at Nann’s
table. Despite this apparent segregation, the two tables
interacted with each other throughout the night. I also noticed
that no European students6 had joined any of these tables during the
This account of observations in the cafeteria illustrates the types of
interactions that happen across Saint Olaf campus on a larger scale.
Previous research has investigated adjustment issues and friendship
networks among international and host nationals, and research has
focused on identifying patterns in these networks. It is hard for an
international student to go to another country to study, and adjustment
can be traced to several different elements.
Moody (2001) noted that language adjustment and personal issues related
to setting change, and cross-cultural issues are main concerns for
international students. Previous research has found that
adjustment is closely related to how much contact individuals have with
host nationals and how familiar they are with the host culture.
Those with the most positive adjustment fell into two groups: first,
students who participated in a program with peers prior to the
beginning of school, and second, those who had lived in the host nation
previously and who had knowledge of the host culture (Abe et al. 1988).
Fluency in the host language, in this case English, may influence
cultural adjustment in the United States. The values that the
student held while attempting to adjust to American life also impacted
the cultural adjustment process. Cultural values that are closely
aligned to each other can facilitate easier adjustment, while
international students whose values differ from those of the host
culture find it more difficult to integrate themselves.
International students must adapt to many new situations in the host
nation culture, which can be stressful (Kagen 1990). They must
contend with changes in setting and lack of familiar support networks,
while keeping up with the academic demands of the educational
institution. According to a survey conduced by Rajapaksa and Dundes
(2002), while a significant percentage of international students
studying in American felt they had adjusted well (79%), 46% still felt
they had problems acculturating because they had “left part of
themselves at home”.
In order to be more satisfied with their settings, people tend to
create “communities of memory.” This is due to their desire to
spend time with others who share a similar history (Bellah et al.
1985). This is something that all people experience, and
international students are no exception. In fact, they have a special
need for such a community. In general, they use their common
experiences to form cohesive communities, and previous studies have
shown that because of this people prefer to choose friends from their
own race, if possible (Moody 2001). A study focusing on African
students at an American university supports this conclusion, as they
were found to have formed densely connected relationship networks
(Maundeni: 2001). However, interracial friendships are also often
due to non-race oriented similarities.
In an international community it may be difficult to find many
individuals who share one’s background and nationality, especially at
smaller institutions. This leads students to seek out social
networks of individuals who share similarities in other ways (hobbies,
beliefs, social status etc.). These similarities facilitate
social interaction among international students, providing them with
common ground. However, language and cultural barriers lead to
difficulties in interaction between international students and host
nationals. Many American students recognize international
students as a “different” group, and believe that members of this
out-group have diverse beliefs and perspectives. Because American
students may believe that their international counterparts lack
understanding about American culture (due to their divergent beliefs),
they may form the stereotype that international students are naïve
in their understanding of the American culture and way of life
(Spencer-Rodgers 2001). For this reason, familiarity of the host
culture is of primary importance. This familiarity does not
necessarily depend of the length of time one spends in the setting, but
rather the values and effort one puts forth to understand the culture
in the host nation (Kagen 1990).
Overall, studies that have investigated the nature of friendship
networks have revealed that students tend to try and find friends with
whom they have similarities. These similarities can be racial,
cultural, socioeconomic, or the result of shared experiences.
Friendships not only depend on these types of similarities, but also on
the amount of contact that individuals have with others.
In order to understand the host culture better, it is important for
international students to have interaction with host nationals.
In general, an individual creates friendships only after having had
contact with another individual, in particular when this contact is
repeated over a length of time. In the study by Abe et al.
(1998), international students reported feeling that they were unable
to meet many American students and build relationships because of the
lack of social interaction opportunities. Academic institutions
often create a division between these two groups through the way the
education system is structured. An example of this is academic
tracking, which has the potential to create a structural segregation
and inhibit mixing opportunities (Moody 2001). Zimmermann (1995)
also found that special classes designed for non-native speakers “rob”
those students of opportunities to interact with natives and also take
away the opportunity for host students to get to know internationals.
At the same time, however, these types of separate classes can easily
lead to bonding between the students who take these classes. This
may be particularly true in classes where students may be struggling
together to learn a language (Clements 1997). While some
institutional structures cause a division between these two groups of
students, others may be set in place to increase contact and encourage
interaction. Through a variety of extra-curricular functions,
international students may become more familiar with Americans and the
local community (Tillman 1990). Toyokawa (2002) found that
extra-curricular activities designed and offered by an academic
institution serve as an opportunity to socialize with host nationals.
Institutions strive to promote this type of interaction because it
often leaves international students with a more positive attitude
toward the host culture. Activities create a chance to meet and
build friendship networks. According to social balance theory,
one is likely to meet and become acquainted with other individuals who
are friends with already-established friends (Moody 2001). For
example, in a study conducted by Maundeni (2001), African students
reported that their friendship networks were characterized by frequent
contact and close physical proximity. This led to highly
interconnected student relationships.
Also, institutions may want to facilitate social network building
between sojourners and host nationals. The institution may do
this by placing the students in situations or settings where they will
be in closer proximity, and naturally have increased contact.
Nesdale (2000) found that international students who had contact with
American students in residence halls were more likely to have obtained
a greater number of cross-cultural friendships across campus in
general. This is possibly because of an already-established
framework for handling and meeting new people. Satisfaction with
social networks, therefore, does not depend solely on close
friendships, but is rather determined by the level of social contact
(proximity and frequency of contact).
Just as contact may influence who one becomes friends with, it may also
be a matter of rational choice. Oftentimes, there are underlying
reasons and criteria for friendship formations. This is, to an
extent, based on the benefit that is derived from a relationship.
Coleman’s rational choice orientation states that:
A minimal basis for a social system of action is two actors, each
having control over resources of interest to the other. It is
each one’s interest in resources under the other’s control that leads
the two, as purposive actors, to engage in actions that involve each
other…It is the structure, together with the fact that actors are
purposive, each having the goal of maximizing the realization of his
interests, that gives the interdependence, or systematic character, to
Coleman (1990: 29)
Based on Coleman’s idea of rational choice, international students may
chose to associate with co-nationals or other internationals as a way
of coping with stress from adjustment issues. Individuals make
conscious and unconscious choices to fulfill their needs for security,
identity, and in order to keep ties to their culture.
International students may also choose to be a part of a “community of
memory,” as mentioned by Bellah (1985), because it promotes a feeling
of working towards a common good. Being part of a close community
may also have a negative impact on the integration process. By
spending time in a group of similar friends from countries other than
the host nation, an international student may be less likely to speak
and improve their English skills. This was also found to reduce
the cultural adjustment abilities (Maundeni 2001). Frequent
interaction with Americans was related to higher levels of satisfaction
with communication skills and adjustment to American life (Zimmermann
1995). Thus, it may be a rational choice to spend time with
native English speakers in order to practice and improve language
skills, and gain more satisfaction.
The trend at St Olaf campus that international students in general
spend a significant amount of time with one another reflects the
phenomena cited by past research and studies.
This research intends to explore and explain patterns of friendship
networks among international students at St. Olaf College. The
initial hypothesis in this study was that international students who
have spend a greater amount of time at St Olaf, or have intentions to
do so would be more likely to create friendships with American
students. This might be explained by their desire to become more
American-like themselves, and to experience faster acculturation in
order to facilitate living in the host nation. International students
coming to St Olaf College to study for an extended period would come to
identity themselves more with the American culture. In a sense,
the US would become their new home, and they may naturally tend to have
more American contacts in their social networks.
The first step in conducting our research was to decide on the target
population. While those who sit together in the cafeteria are not
all international students, we chose to focus on this group for several
reasons: First, international students are a large part of the
multicultural student body. In our study, the only significant
difference between the international students and all other
multicultural students was their participation in Week 0. Week 0
is the orientation most international students have with the
International Student Advisor prior to other students coming to St Olaf
College. It normally consists of three days of practical
information and getting to know one another. The second reason for
creating this focus was that both of the researchers were already
familiar with this group of students (as an international student and
an international student counselor). This would likely make it
easier to conduct interviews and have the same access to information
that international students have.
Information about this student group was available from the
International Student Advisor, from whom we received a list of all the
participants of Week 0 who were currently on campus. This list
was the foundation for those we defined as international
students. We took a stratified random sample based on class
(including all four classes and the non-degree seeking students). Using
this random sample we chose thirty students from the total population
of forty-five, with six students from each class, where four would
receive a survey and two would be asked to participate in an
interview. We felt that this method was appropriate because it
would give us a chance to observe differences in responses depending on
how long a student had been on campus.
With both an anonymous survey and confidential interviews, it was
possible to get a large number of responses to specific
questions. At the same time it allowed for a more in-depth
investigation into the motivation and experiences of these students.
Conducting interviews allowed for two-way communication where both the
interviewer and the interviewee work together to get a more complete
picture. Also, it led to new questions and possible answers that
may not have been considered before.
An email was sent out prior to distribution of surveys in order to
prepare the selected students for the survey that they would each
receive in their P.O. boxes. The survey was then put in their
P.O. boxes, along with a letter of information (Appendix 1) and details
on whom to contact with question and how to return the survey.
The letter attached to the survey (Appendix 2) stated that all
information would be kept anonymous but could be used for this study.
Surveys consisted primarily of open-ended questions. This was
done to obtain more personalized answers and to let the respondent
elaborate on their thoughts. Questions dealt specifically with
perceived impact of Week 0, importance of having American and
international student friends, and satisfaction with opportunities to
meet new people on campus. A primary concern was how to
operationalize the concept of “friendship”. After considering several
definitions we chose to ask the participants to provide their own
definition as a basis for our evaluation of the data given.
A separate email was sent out to those who had been randomly selected
for an interview. This email asked for their willingness to participate
with the understanding that all information giving during the
interviews would be kept confidential. The interview time and
location was scheduled for their convenience, and would not last for
more than one hour. Giving the possible interviewees the choice
of time and location made the interview process more informal and
relaxed. For each interview, one of the researchers would be
present. We accommodated the interviewees to the best of our
ability, and if either one of the researchers or the participant could
not meet at the set time a new time was scheduled via email. At
the time of the interview each participant was asked to sign a consent
form (Appendix 3). It stated the purpose of the research, any
potential risks, and the agreement of confidentiality. The
participants were also informed that even after they signed the consent
form they could withdraw from the study at any time. The
interviewees would also get a copy of the consent form for their own
We faced several challenges while conducting this research. A
major difficulty was creating contact with possible interviewees,
especially with the students who had been in the United States for a
longer time. This might be because those students who feel more
integrated into the larger St. Olaf community are less inclined to
identify themselves as members of the international students body and
therefore less likely to return surveys or agree to be
interviewed. On the other hand, since both the researchers had a
connection with the international student community it was easier to
gather the information. We foresaw difficulties in collecting
responses and found that it was oftentimes necessarily to contact
certain individuals multiple times, or discuss the importance of this
study with them in person.
Another difficulty in this study was preserving individuals’
confidentiality without compromising their identities. By
specifying the region of the world rather than which country each of
the interviewees is from we risk stereotyping these individuals, in a
sense. However, we felt that due to the small international
student population on campus this type of grouping is necessary in
order to maintain confidentiality. Thus, while our research may
not take into account individuals’ countries of origin, it does tend to
focus more effectively on common cultures throughout regions of the
world, seeking to find trends within that larger context. By
conducting surveys and interviews we were hoping to gain insights into
the patterns and possible explanations for phenomena like the separate
multicultural tables at the Stav Hall (the cafeteria).
The “tables” do not refer to specific tables in the cafeteria, but to
the phenomenon where multicultural students tend to eat together at a
familiar table in a common area of the dining hall. All of our
interviewees could point out to us where the “table” is, and all
referred to the same general area and trend. Some did so without
needing any prompting, while others were asked, “Do you notice any
trends in where people sit in the cafeteria?”
We also received a variety of other insights into the formation and
maintenance of friendship networks. As individuals shared their
experiences during each of the eight interviews, several themes arose
consistently. Other experiences were more unique to certain
individuals. For example, the two non-degree seeking students
that we interviewed, Nann and Dea, both recognized that the tables
exist in the cafeteria. However, they chose to sit at the table
for different reasons. Nann does not often sit at the table or go
to the cafeteria alone because she prefers to share her meals with one
or few other individuals who she can have a deeper discussion
with. For this reason, the multicultural table is not conducive
to this type of one-on-one interaction. Dea, on the other hand,
often sits at the table because she feels comfortable there and because
“hey, you always have to sit at the table with some other people.”
“Friendship is when you ‘put another person’s heart into your own’”.
- Naan (Asia)
Naan is a female exchange student from Asia who is twenty-two years
old. She came to St. Olaf because she had a dream of studying
abroad, and she also received a scholarship that allowed her to do
so. At her university, she had met some St. Olaf students who
were studying on “Term in Asia”. In this way, she heard about St.
Olaf and was encouraged to attend the school through some of her
friends who had previously studied there. Now at St. Olaf she
spends time with former “Term in Asia” students who live in her pod (a
living area in Ytterboe Hall).
She spends most of her time with these pod mates and another female
exchange student who lives in the same hall. She met this student
during Week 0 when they were the only ones living in the dorm.
Throughout the year they became closer, initially because that student
had shown interest in her Asian culture, particularly the food.
Naan often likes to prepare traditional foods to share with her
friends, partly because she “needs” people to know about her
culture. She explained that those who took time and initiative to
understand her are those who become her friends.
This said, she was disappointed that during Week 0 she did not form any
close friendships. Despite the many activities and time spent
together with other international students, her expectations for real
friendships were not met. Instead, she found herself spending
time with others for the necessary support. In particular, she
began spending time with two other Asian exchange students because she
felt they would understand her better. She perceived Asian women
to be in general less confident, feeling lost, and struggling with
English more than others.
Naan wanted to show her commitment to the international community by
participating in a performance during International Night 2003.
She is willing to help out when asked because she feels it is her
duty. She received a scholarship and feels she that she has to
give back to the school and community. However, she does not feel
that she has the right to take on a leadership position, since she will
only be here for one year. Naan identifies strongly with the
international student body, and she is also a part of the Asian
Awareness Association (AAA).
Naan explained that it was important in the beginning of the year to
have international student friends because they shared the same feeling
and depended on each other. Now, she does not really think about
where people come from because friendships grow out of other factors
than nationality. For Naan, close friendship forms through time
spent together and deeper discussions about family, backgrounds, and
feelings. This is one of the main reasons why she prefers to sit
with fewer people during meals.
“A friend is someone you can talk to and feel comfortable with”
- Dae (Asia)
Dae is also a female exchange student from Asia. She is twenty-two
years old and chose to spend a year at St Olaf as part of her
undergraduate studies at her home university. She expected that
while studying at St Olaf she would have time to hang out with many
friends and find entertainment. Instead, she spends much of her
time in the library where she studies for her classes. She was
surprised at the workload that followed each class and found out she
had to prioritize differently.
She did not participate in many activities, mainly because she could
not handle the combination of friends and study. Last October she
spent much of her time with her roommate’s friends, but felt they were
superficial and that the interaction was somewhat forced. She
could tell that, “They didn’t have fun!” and it seemed like there
was an expectation to spend time together. She did not understand
why they felt obligated to spend time together if it was not genuinely
interesting. She also felt uncomfortable with this
façade. Dae suggested that this might be because
Americans’ way of communicating is different. They like to contradict
your ideas, which makes it hard to have a conversation. She finds
that Americans who have studied abroad are much easier to talk
to. They have been in another culture and are not as
Dae has met most of her friends in class, especially in her English
class, where most people are trying to improve their English language
skills. This gives them something in common. She also finds a
common connection with people through AAA and has made friendships that
she cherishes. She has made friends from South America, and also
with Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans. She feels that
there is a boundary in coming to know Americans, and that they lack the
understanding of her culture. For this reason Dae can more easily
identify with the international student body on campus. She finds
it much easier to get to know Asian Americans, and she is active in the
AAA on campus. She feels much closer to the other Asian Americans at
St. Olaf and would rather participate in those events than the events
planned by ISO or by international student counselors. However, for
International Night she did prepare traditional Asian food, something
she really wanted to do.
Reflecting back on Week 0, Dae admitted that she struggled with English
and felt that it was harder for her than for other international
students to understand and participate in the planned games and
activities. She said she felt excluded since most of the
international students had stronger English skills than she did.
However, she got to know the other international students because they
hung out a lot during that time and participated in many activities
together. They did not know anyone else on campus and everyone
was new to each other. She made some friendships during Week 0,
but when she thinks back on why, Dae concludes that it was so she would
have something to fall back on. She wanted a “safety net.”
She made two good friends during this time, but now considers only one
of them a friend because she has little in common with and rarely talks
to the other person.
Dae did not think of common interests in the beginning because she
wanted a net, but as friendship evolves, she feels it is important to
share interests. Her definition of a friend is someone that you
can talk to and feel comfortable with. When talking to a friend,
the topic can be serious or superficial as long as they find pleasure
in it. She distinguished between friendship and having an
acquaintance and feels that she has more acquaintances than friends at
Overall, Dae feels very comfortable at St. Olaf. It is a small
community and everyone knows each other. At the university where
she studied before it was very hard to get to know people, but that was
partly because she did not participate in activities (which were
arranged for first year students). Dae’s focus right now is on
trying to adapt and follow the culture and she said that she is getting
used to the American way of life.
“Friendship is a relationship of love, where one has love for the other person, even beyond themselves”
- Maria (South America)
Maria is a twenty year old female from South America. She is
currently a first year, degree-seeking student and plans to graduate
from St. Olaf College in 2006. Maria shared her thoughts with one
of the researchers one evening in a residence hall lounge.
Week 0 had a significant impact on Maria. She met other international
students, and felt that in coming to a new country there is a
significant amount of new knowledge that is important to obtain.
Since she did not really know what Week 0 was when she first came to
St. Olaf, she did not have any expectations. Even with no
expectations for Week 0, she thought it was very important that
international students came early to campus in order to get to know the
new country better and retain more information. Due to this, she feels
that she relates better to international students than to American
“I love talking and laughing,” she said. Because of this Maria feels
that she can meet new people almost everywhere, especially in
discussion-based classes. In particular, she mentioned that
people in her philosophy class are more open-minded and therefore
easier to meet. She not only meets people in classes and
organized activities, but just walking around campus gives her the
opportunity to meet new people. She has friends from many
different countries, including students who are Nepalese, South Korean,
Chinese, German, Rwandan, Somali, Mexican, Hmong, and American. While
talking about this topic Maria suggested that there should be
recruiting from St. Olaf to get more international students on campus
and increase diversity in the student body.
Maria does not identity herself as much with the international student
body at St Olaf as she does with PEP (Professional Exploration
Program). Students in PEP come one month early to campus to
prepare academically for the college year. She feels more
connected with PEP students and has worked with PEP selling
apples. She recounted a story about working at this sale. A
faculty member who previously knew Maria walked by and recognized
her. The faculty member stopped and asked why she was working at
the PEP table, since she was not in PEP. Members of PEP tend to
be labeled into this group for the duration of their studies at St.
Olaf. Even so, Maria confided that she would prefer to be a
member PEP if she had the choice. She is not used to different
kinds of labels like PEP, or even terms like Hispanic, Asian Americans,
etc. Here in the US people seem to use them very frequently and
Americans expect others to change and be more like themselves.
She chooses to counteract this pressure by intentionally dressing and
Maria is considering transferring from St Olaf, mainly because it is
not what she expected. She expected more intellectual challenge
and more diversity. One thing that very much surprised her was
that in classes she often did not see one single person of color.
She is used to seeing people of different ethnicity and she did not
expect such ethnically homogenous classes. She may continue
staying at St. Olaf though, because it is one of the few schools she
can afford to attend.
Asked if she had seen any patterns in where multicultural people sit
and eat in the cafeteria, she responded immediately, “of course there
are!” She identified the two tables closest to the exit of the
cafeteria as the multicultural tables. They are very noticeable.
Maria herself started to sit there early in the year and she most often
sits there because she feels comfortable at those tables.
“A friend is a person I feel comfortable with and share an understanding with”
- Shinya (Asia)
Shinya is a nineteen year old male from Asia who is also a first-year
student intending to graduate from St. Olaf in 2006. Like Maria,
Shinya was able to identify the multicultural table in the cafeteria
without being asked about it. He located the tables in the same
place as the other interviewees.
Shinya feels tightly connected to the other international student on
campus. However, it was not always this way. He was
satisfied with Week 0 but felt isolated due to his lack of English oral
communication skills. During structured games, for example, he
admitted that he did not understand what was going on due to the fast
pace. Language was the major adjustment for Shinya, who tended to
speak more with students who knew his first language and was closer
with Asian students in general because he felt more comfortable around
them. Also, he grew closer to international students because they
shared similar struggles with the language.
Now, Shinya has met friends in his introductory courses, in his
first-year dorm, during work in the cafeteria, and through other
people. It is pretty easy to meet people because he is the only
Asian in his corridor and everyone recognizes and remembers him.
In the early part of the academic year, a student who was studying an
Asian language approached him in his dorm and wanted to meet him.
In this way, Shinya met many friends from his dorm and now he mostly
spends time with them. He spends time with a number of different
friends, but does not feel a connection with people who do not have an
interest in Asia. He perceives Asians to be quieter than
Americans, who tend to spend time drinking and watching movies.
It is extremely important for Shinya to keep his cultural ties and have
international student friends. This is why he chose to participate in
International Night 2003, and occasionally attend other international
At the same time, he believes that it is important to have American
friends in order to learn colloquial language, slang, and new
phrases. He feels that “hanging out with other international
students all the time is a problem” because one will not learn the
language as well. For this reason, Shinya chooses to not make
plans to eat with international students. He usually goes to the
cafeteria alone or finds someone from his dorm to eat with.
“Friendships is a respectful and genuinely caring relationship between two people”
- Maud (Europe)
Maud is a nineteen year old European student in her second year at St.
Olaf. She is planning to graduate in 2005. She has lived in
several Asian countries, including Mongolia, Pakistan, and Nepal.
She came to St. Olaf as a music major, but changed to a Asian Studies
major in the beginning of her sophomore year. She has also spent an
interim in Asia, through a St. Olaf academic program.
In her first year Maud met many friends through the activities in Week
0. She considers the orientation period a positive experience
through which she gained many close friends. She admits that
during her first year she knew mostly international students and had
few American friends. Maud was highly involved in the
international student community as an ISO senator, and she contributed
in many ways to International Night 2002. She met new
international students at these organized events, through chance
encounters, and through other friends. As an international
student she feels that she has an excuse to approach other
internationals because they share a type of bond.
In her second year Maud is experiencing dramatic changes in her circle
of friends. Only two international students remain at St. Olaf
from her initial Week 0 group. She concluded that although she
considers a smaller number of people as friends, she now knows more
Americans. Another change in her second year was her decision to
focus more on academics and participate less in extra-curricular
activities. This past year she has attended some counselor
sponsored events, and was involved in International Night 2003,
although she had a smaller role.
Reflecting on this year’s group of new international student, she
commented that they appeared to be more diffused into the St. Olaf
community, probably because more intend to stay for longer than one
year. For this reason Maud believes it will be easier for them to
adjust than it was for her.
Maud has friends from many different parts of the world, but she feels
most comfortable spending time with Asians, mainly due to her
background in these cultures and because she feels that she “connects
better with them.” Often, her Japanese friends have said “God,
[Maud], you are so Asian!” She appreciates the liberal views the
international students have, compared to most Americans. Also,
she says that the international students are more straightforward.
Maud believes that Americans might feel intimidated by the closeness of
the international student community. This might prevent them from
trying to initiate friendships with international students.
However, those who are sincerely interested and make an effort will
form friendships. To illustrate the closeness, Maud described her
experiences at the multicultural table in the cafeteria. She
first sat down at this table because she saw her international student
counselor there and joined him. Others followed and it became a
dinner custom to have a constant stream of international students
sitting there between 6:30 and 8:00 PM, when they were kicked out of
the cafeteria. One night during her first year, approximately
thirty-five students were sitting together at these tables. Even
this year, Maud rarely makes plans for dinner. Instead, she will
go and find friends to eat with at that table and introduce herself to
people she does not know yet. “It reminds me of last year”, she
said, “when all my friends were here”.
“Friendship is one of the most important aspects of a human life”
- Dasha (Eastern Europe)
Dasha, a nineteen year old female from Eastern Europe, met with one of
the researchers on a Sunday morning. She is currently a sophomore
at St. Olaf and intends to graduate in the class of 2005. Over a
cup of coffee in the student center she spoke about her experiences as
an international student. Prior to attending St. Olaf College,
Dasha spent her senior year in high school in Minnesota. This was a
reason she did not participate in Week 0. The researchers were
surprised to learn that she did not participate in the orientation
week. However, the information she shared was very
valuable. Compared to other interviewees, Dasha is glad that she
decided not to participate in Week 0. She believes that would
have given her less opportunity to meet American students, due to the
close networks international students are known to form.
Nonetheless, she thinks it is important for international students to
attend such an orientation because it introduces them to the American
During her first year at St. Olaf Dasha did not participate much in
organized activities for international students. Even so, she
finds it very easy to make friends. She considers herself as a
loving, outgoing person who can relate to and understand different
people. She feels that people can trust her, something she feels is
important in a friendship. For Dasha, friendship is a
“relationship in which you have a complete and innocent trust in
another person, and vice-versa.” It is a mutual relationship that
requires effort from both sides. She makes a distinction between
friendships and acquaintances. One of the biggest differences is
mutual trust, which she did not find necessary with
acquaintances. Dasha said that she has noticed that Americans
tend to consider all acquaintances as friends, while Europeans in
general make a distinction between these two terms. As long as
mutual trust exists, nationality is not considered important to her.
Most of Dasha’s current friends at St. Olaf are those she met during
her first year, especially people from her corridor and those she met
through inter-corridor activities. She also thought back and
concluded that she should have tried harder to meet international
students during her first year. She feels she can learn more from
international students, who have a variety of experiences from all
parts of the world, than from American students, who in general have
had less experiences of this kind.
This year Dasha is more involved with the international student body on
campus. She is the Public Relations Officer in ISO and she had a
major part in the public relations part of International Night
2003. She became more involved with the intention of being able
to spend more time with international students. Still, Dasha does
not identity strongly with the international student body and usually
does not plan to sit with other international students.
Nevertheless, she, like the other interviewees, has noticed a pattern
of students with multicultural backgrounds preferring to sit together
in the cafeteria. She identified the tables on the right hand
side, closest to the exit.
“Friends are friends”.
- Tajim (Asian)
Tajim is a twenty-one year old male from the Asian subcontinent.
He is in his third year at St. Olaf and intends to graduate in
2004. Like Dasha, Tajim did not participate in Week 0. He
arrived late during his first year and missed Week 0 (which he intended
to take part in). He also missed the first three weeks of
classes, which meant that he did not have the initial contact with the
other new international students. Instead, Tajim met people in
his residence hall (which had both first-years and upper-class
students). Mainly his contact with other international students
took place by chance encounters in his residence hall and in the Lion’s
Pause where other international students would approach him. In
this way he met a few good friends during his first year in
college. During his second year he became more active in
organized activities, including joining the rugby team, and planning
International Night 2002. His third year has brought a change in
his friendship network. Some of his good friends graduated the
previous year and he has not had time to build friendships with the new
international students. He thinks that friendships with these
individuals might develop over time.
Now Tajim spends most of his time with friends who are predominately
from the Asian subcontinent. He feels that this group of people
is “more laid back in general.” He went on to compare them to
African American students and Hmong students on campus. African
American students “need to be loud about something” and “they want to
fit the stereotype.” He feels that they make everything into a
racial issue. The Hmong, according to Tajim, focus only on Asians
being oppressed on campus. He thinks this is because there is so
little to do on campus and students become frustrated with their
workload. Tajim himself tries to leave campus as often as
Referring to American students in general, Tajim stated, “some guys are
not right for college.” He then recounted an incident when an
American peer said it was cool to see buildings being hit by
bombs. Tajim attempted to explain to the American that for each
bomb that hits a building, ten people die. When the American student
did not see this point, Tajim became frustrated by the American’s
It is understandable that Tajim prefers to make friends with people
whom he is comfortable with and trusts. Tajim has never
distinguished between American and international students.
Therefore he does not usually sit at the multicultural student table,
although he was able to identify where these students normally sit.
“A friendship is a relationship where you give more than you expect to receive”
- Kong (Asia)
Kong is twenty-one years old. He transferred to St. Olaf during
his junior year from the university back in his home country and is now
a senior. During the Week 0 orientation he expected to
participate in a variety of games and activities that promote social
interaction. He sees it as a positive experience because it was
helpful to get to know other people. In fact, he claimed to know
approximately one-third of the new international students.
Knowing international students, even just as acquaintances, is
important to Kong. During his first year, Kong was motivated to
introduce himself to a variety of students. He met international
students during Week 0 and during meals in the cafeteria. During
these meals he also met American students. These connections can
lead to new friendships because one can meet others through already
Kong still feels that he has a strong connection to the international
student body. He is currently an international student
counselor. He chose to take this position because he understands
what it is like for an international student to come to a new country
and live far away from home. He wanted to make this transition
into American college life easier for the new international students,
and see them come to love St. Olaf as he has. He wishes he could
participate in all the organized activities for international students,
but due to academic demands he is not able to spend as much with
international students as he would like. Nevertheless, he makes
an effort to find time for the friends he met during his first year on
campus. Due to his upcoming graduation, though, he now feels less
motivated to meet new people and prefers to spend time with his closer
According to Kong, international students oftentimes have similar
feelings towards Americans and their way of life. He feels that
he learned significantly more during his first year at St. Olaf due to
events in the United States, specifically his experiences after Sept.
11, 2001. He reflected that being an international student in the
United States during times of conflict gives him a unique perspective
on American life. Kong’s friendships with American students are
important because they help him learn about the American way of life,
but he finds many of them to be superficial. Compared to their
American counterparts, international students are more open and
Because he has strong connections with the international student
community, Kong also identified a pattern in where multicultural
students tend to sit in the cafeteria. He himself often chooses
to sit there with his friends.
Our analysis of the surveys revealed consistency with data from the
interviews. All international students reported having American
friends and international friends from a variety of different
countries. Patterns emerged that suggested that Asian students
tended to have friends from a greater number of Asian countries while
Europeans had friends from the fewest number of different
countries. International students typically meet other
international student friends in a variety of settings, but most often
during international activities and during meals in the cafeteria. They
meet American students most often in their classes and through
organized activities such as choir and other extracurricular functions.
To international students, having American friends and international
friends is important for different reasons. In general,
international student friends are important for their shared
experiences and because they can relate to and understand each other
better. The data overwhelmingly indicated that American students
are important as friends because they facilitate learning about the
American culture and way of life.
Looking at the results from this research in order to form a broader
picture, we noticed that our data agreed with previous studies in that
responses typically fell into three different categories. Moody
(2001) and Kagen (1990) suggested that similarity between individuals
is a determining variable for friendship formation. Abe et al.
(1998), Moody (2001), Tillman (1990), and Toyokawa (2002) emphasized
the role that contact between individuals plays in facilitating
friendships. These two factors, combined with Coleman’s ideas on
rational choice (1990:29) create a multidimensional framework that can
be used to explain why certain friendships form.
The first theory explains friendships based on similarities among
individuals. Those who share common characteristics tend to have
an easier time forming friendships than those who have less in
common. One example of this among international students is that
most of them do not speak English as their first language. Their
struggle to learn the language brought them closer together, especially
during the first months at St. Olaf. Naan and Dae both testified
to this common struggle, and due to this they initially spent time with
Those who share a similar first language also tend to form
friendships. In the beginning of the school year, Shinya tended
to spend the majority of his time with others who spoke his
language. In the same way, Maria would rather be a member of PEP
because many of those individuals speak Spanish, and therefore she has
more in common with them.
AAA is an organization that brings together Asian students and provides
an opportunity for them to maintain and share their cultural ties with
each other. Maud, Dae, and Naan are all members of this
organization because they find comfort and support in spending time
with other students with similar backgrounds. In general, most
international students are in a country far away from home, and as Kong
pointed out, this will naturally lead to closeness among these students
with similar languages and cultures.
Another theory to explain why certain people become friends relates
more towards the contact between individuals. Greater frequency
and closer physical proximity will lead to a greater chance that a
friendship will form. Living in a residence hall on campus
provides an ideal setting for this type of frequent and close contact
between individuals. Shinya, Naan, Dasha, and Tajim all formed
friendships with other students from their residence halls.
Classes also give one the opportunity for closeness through regular
contact. An example of this are the English courses that many
international students attend in order to improve their language
skills. Shinya and Dae both met peers in this manner who are now
a part of their social networks. Also, social balance theory
suggests that networks form when one individual introduces one friend
to another. Shinya, Kong, and Tajim had this experience in places
like the Lion’s Pause and at the multicultural table in the cafeteria.
Almost all the international students have participated in Week 0
activities, and this initial contact naturally led to friendships among
those who participated. Maud and Kong are two strong examples on
this. They formed many meaningful friendships during this
week. It is natural that international students appear to be a
cohesive group because they have had this unique bonding experience
before other students arrived on campus.
The final theory uses rational choice to explain why certain
individuals choose to be friends with others. Looking back on
Week 0, several international students (Dae and Naan, for example)
cited a need for support. This led them to create “safety nets”
to have something to fall back on. These types of friendship
networks provided security for the international students
involved. Another reason that international students look to form
friendships with other internationals is because they take comfort in
these types of networks and feel that they can trust and understand
each other. The surveys provided strong support for this
conclusion, as did the interviews with Naan, Dae, Dasha, and Tajim.
In the same way, rational choice suggests that international students
may choose to form friendships with American students in order to
improve their English skills. Shinya made a point that he needed
to spend more time with American students to learn the language and
increase his understanding of the culture. The survey responses
support the conclusion that international students value friendships
with their American peers because it is a way for them to learn about
the American culture.
From this study we learned that friendship networks are not necessarily
determined by the length of time an international student intends to
stay at St. Olaf. Instead, three major theories helped to explain
the patterns in friendship network formation: similar friends theory,
contact theory, and rational choice theory. It is important to
implement multiple frameworks when seeking an explanation for how and
why people form friendships. If multiple theories are not used in
the explanation, one may only get a portion of the larger picture and
overlook other significant variables.
We began this study with the hope of gaining insight into the
friendship networks that international students form. We focused
on the multicultural student table in the cafeteria as an illustration
of how these relationships and social networks are structured. In
understanding why these tables form we can increase our understanding
of the larger phenomenon on campus. This insight could help St.
Olaf College in understanding the relationships between multicultural
students and with Americans. This understanding may then lead to
more effective solutions and structures for promoting adjustments and
integration of the multicultural student body on campus.
St. Olaf College is a small, liberal arts college that shares many
characteristics with other colleges throughout the United States.
This findings from this study at St. Olaf can be extended to other
colleges as well. This process of friendship network formation is
not exclusive to the international students on St. Olaf campus.
Previous studies have found that students in general, at St. Olaf and
throughout the United States, use the same factors in creating networks
with their peers. Therefore, results from this study focusing on
international students may be useful when examining a variety of other
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International Student Survey
We are two Sociology/ Anthropology majors who are doing a research
project for our class. We are interested in looking at your experience
as an international student at Saint Olaf College. In order to complete
our sociological research we would very much appreciate your input and
Week 0 is often referred to in the survey. For those of you who have
not heard this term before, Week 0 is the orientation most
International students have with the International Student Advisor
prior to other students coming to St Olaf College. It normally consists
of three days with practical information and getting to know one
Attached is a survey that we ask you to fill out and return to PO Box
#1151 (Name: Thomas Halvorsen) in Buntrock Commons by April 11th, 2003.
Please do not put your name on the survey; information collected will be kept anonymous.
We are very grateful for your help, and we hope that you have fun filling out the survey.
Thank you for your cooperation!
Co-author Thomas Halvorsen
International Student Survey
Sex: Female Male
’05 ’04 ’03
non-degree seeking student
What country are you from? ___________________
When did you arrive at St Olaf College?
2 weeks before Week 0 ___
1 week before Week 0 ___
at the beginning of Week 0 ___
during Week 0 ___
Did you form any close friendships during Week 0? Yes No
Are any of those friendships still maintained? Yes No
If not, why not?
Among your friends who are at St Olaf, are any from:
(check next to country)
Bangladesh India South Korea
Jamaica Sri Lanka
Bosnia Japan Tanzania
Costa Rica Morocco Thailand
France Nepal Zambia
Germany Norway US
Great Britain Peru Other:
When you first arrived, how long did you expect to attend St Olaf College?
1 semester 1 year
2 years 3 years
Have you changed your mind in how long you plan to attend St Olaf College?
Why/ Why not?
Is your roommate an International student? Yes No
If yes, did they participate in Week 0 activities? Yes No
How easy has it been for you to meet other International students?
Why/ why not?
How easy has it been for you to meet American students?
Why/ why not?
How/ where do you typically meet other International students?
How/ where do you typically meet other American students?
How important is it for you to have International students as friends?
Why/ why not?
How important is it for you to have American students as friends?
Why/ why not?
Please define friendship:
WHO CAN SIT AT THE TABLE?
A INVESTIGATION INTO INTERNATIONAL STUDENT FRIENDSHIP NETWORKS AT SAINT OLAF COLLEGE
INFORMATION AND CONSENT FORM
You are invited to participate in a research study investigating the
friendship networks among international students at St. Olaf
College. This study is being conducted by Thomas Halvorsen and a
co-author, undergraduate students at St. Olaf College under the
supervision of Carolyn Anderson, a faculty member from the Department
of Sociology/Anthropology. You were selected as a possible
participant in this research through a random selection process through
which two international students from each class year were
selected. Please read this form and ask questions before you
agree to be in the study.
The purpose of this study is to explore the different social networks
that international students form throughout their year(s) at St. Olaf
College. Approximately 30 people are expected to participate in
If you decide to participate, you will be asked to participate in an
interview with one of the researchers that will last no longer than one
hour. This will provide the researchers with a more in-depth view
of personal experiences with friendships on campus.
Risks and Benefits of being in the study:
The study has minimal risk. Due to the nature of the questions,
participants may feel uncomfortable answering questions relating to
The benefit to participation is the satisfaction of helping St. Olaf learn more about its international student community.
Any information obtained n connection with this research study that can
be identified with you will be disclosed only with your permission;
your results will be kept confidential. In any written reports or
publications, no one will be identified or identifiable and only group
data will be presented.
The research results will be kept in a location that only we (Thomas
Halvorsen and co-author) and our advisor have access to while working
on this project. We will finish analyzing the data by May 1,
2003. We will then destroy all original reports and identifying
information that can be linked back to you.
Voluntary nature of the study:
Participation in this research study is voluntary. Your decision
whether or not to participate will not affect your future relations
with St. Olaf College in any way. If you decide to participate,
you are free to stop at any time without affecting these relationships.
Contacts and questions:
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us,
_____________ or Thomas Halvorsen (x2295). You may ask questions
now, or if you have any additional questions later, our faculty advisor
(Carolyn Anderson x3133) will be happy to answer them.
You may keep a copy of this form for your records.
Statement of Consent:
You are making a decision whether or not to participate. Your signature
indicates that you have read this information and your questions have
been answered. Even after signing this form, please know that you may
withdraw from the study at any time.
I consent to participate in the study.
Signature of participant/ Date
This research intends to explore the experiences of international
students here at St. Olaf college. More specifically, this
project focuses on understanding the friendship networks that
international students form on campus. In order to complete this
research, I would like to talk with you about your experiences, and I
hope that you will feel free to respond as openly and fully as you
wish. Everything that you tell me will remain confidential.
Do you have any questions about the research? Would you please
sign this informed consent form which indicates that you understand the
project and have agreed to be interviewed?
4) What country are you from?
5) What impact, if any, did Week 0 have on your experiences here at St.
Olaf? (Week 0 refers to the orientation most International students
have with the International Student Advisor prior to other students
arriving on St. Olaf campus) Did it meet expectations? Did
you make any friends?
6) How would you define “friendship”?
7) How strongly do you identify with the international student body on
St. Olaf campus? (Participate in ISO? activities organized by
counselors? International Night?)
8) How easy is it to make friends at St. Olaf?
9) Where have you/do you meet your friends?
10) Where are your friends from? (from what countries?)
11) How satisfied are you with the atmosphere of the campus?
(With respect to meeting different people and having sufficient
opportunities to get involved in campus activities that interest you?)