International students vs immigrants & refugees

Top eight differences between international students and immigrant and refugee students

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In the US, college students from outside of the country fall into two distinct categories:

  1. international students
  2. immigrant and refugee students

These two groups of students have many differences. Some college courses include both types of students; however, when their English skills and understanding of US academic systems need improvement before enrolling, each group has a different path to prepare for regular college courses. Based on averages, here are some of the major differences between each type of student:


1. Legal status in the United States

Immigrant and refugee students and international students have different legal statuses in the US.

Immigrant and refugee students fall under a wide variety of legal statuses, including green card holders, permanent residents and many other designations. Some are US citizens. Immigrants and refugees represent a very wide variety of people who have come from other countries to settle in the US. They come to school here and many of them raise families here. They work here and are encouraged to find employment throughout different sectors of the economy.

International students, on the other hand, come to the US on student visas for the express purpose of studying at US institutions. They are not allowed to work, except for a limited number of hours on their own campuses. International students have to enroll in courses that typically meet in person; however, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many of these classes have been meeting on-line.


2. Reasons and goals for Studying English

Immigrant and refugee students have a wider variety of goals and reasons for studying English as a Second Language:

  • Find employment
  • Find better employment
  • Communicate with doctors, teachers and other people in their communities
  • Enroll in college programs

International students, on the other hand, are studying English for purely academic reasons; they need certain levels of spoken and written English to enroll in their desired college programs. For this reason, many international students are focused on passing certain tests. Many college programs and their instructors are also focused on making sure that international students will be able to succeed in their college coursework once they get there.


3. Academic background

Immigrant and refugee students have a very wide variety of education levels. Some have come into the US with Master’s degrees; others have never had any formal education in the home countries at all. It varies greatly from country to country, and from person to person within each country. Each class of ESL for immigrant and refugee students typically has participants from across the education spectrum.

In contrast, international students have nearly all had education in their home countries. The vast majority of them have taken at least some form of English classes in their home countries, and most have been through quite a few of these English classes, which leads us to the next point.


4. Attitudes and beliefs about Learning English

Since immigrant and refugee students have wider variety of education levels than international students, and also a wider variety of reasons for learning English, their ideas about learning English also tend to be more diverse. When planning lessons for immigrant and refugee students, it is good to teach or use a wide variety of topics, including work, life and academic topics.

Since the vast majority of international students have taken lots of English courses in their own countries, many will have a negative view of information or activities that superficially resemble ones they have seen many times before. When planning lessons for them, it is a good idea to introduce some specific topics, vocabulary, or otherwise package the information in a way that will look new and fresh from their perspectives.


5. Different abilities in different aspects of English

Immigrant and refugee students have a wide variety of skills in the four skills of English: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. Some students have better spoken skills than reading and writing skills; for others, it is the reverse. That said, it is common for immigrants and refugees to speak English better than they can read and write it. This pattern is much less common for international students.

Typically, immigrants and refugees have had more exposure to spoken than written English; international students have had more exposure to written English than to spoken English. This is only a generality, as exposure varies from country to country and between individuals from the same country.



6. Different skills in navigating technology

The vast majority of international students have a high degree of familiarity with technology. Skills in this area vary more widely among immigrant and refugee students. Among refugees, some lack knowledge of how to use a mouse, while others may have training in computer programming.



7. Average Ages of Students

The average age of international students is lower than the average age of immigrant and refugee students. Your typical class of international students will range from about 16/17 year olds to 24/25 year olds. In contrast, your typical class of immigrants and refugees ranges from 18 years old to 69 years old or older.

Among international students, the average ages of students from the Far East tend to be lower than the average ages of students from other regions.



8. Countries Represented in the classroom

Immigrants and refugees come from a wider variety of countries than international students.

Most international students come from countries that either have millions of families with the economic means to send students abroad or from countries with large scholarship programs. In the State of Washington, the majority of international students come from Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia.

In the Seattle area, most immigrant and refugee students come from Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Congo, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Mali, Mexico, Russia, Somalia, Thailand, the Ukraine, Vietnam and many other countries.

Actual representation differs widely based on specific locations and programs.