How International Students Can Benefit From a Small-Town College

Prospective international students seeking to experience a slice of American culture and life may be drawn to the charm of a college in a small town, with its quaint local shops and friendly neighbors. Joosep Vorno from Estonia says the main thing that drew him to Bowdoin College in Maine was the school’s strong sense of community.

“What I have also come to realize over my time at Bowdoin is how deeply connected the school is to the town of Brunswick,” says Vorno, a senior double majoring in German and theater with a minor in anthropology.

Anjanita Mahadoo, educational consultant for StudyUSA Global Educational Consulting in California, says attending college in a small town, regardless of the type of school, “allows for a smoother and less shocking transition as students are able to adapt and adjust more easily to their new environment and country, due to their college town being not so different from their own country — especially if they come from developing countries.”

[Read: 3 Biggest Reasons to Choose to Study in the U.S.]

While some prospective international students may prefer the hustle and bustle of big city life, others may seek a quieter and slower paced small-town college atmosphere. Here are a few reasons to consider a college in a small town:

— They often have smaller class sizes.

— There may be more opportunities to immerse in the community.

— There may be ways to improve English skills.

They Often Have Smaller Class Sizes

Colleges located in small towns may have smaller enrollment, which can provide international students with more individualized attention from professors, who may know students by name.

“Colleges in smaller towns tend to be smaller themselves, which can foster a more personal experience for all students,” says Claudia Marroquin, senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College.

Smaller enrollment often means smaller class sizes, experts say. Tie Sun, an international admissions counselor at Illinois Wesleyan University, says there is a difference between learning in a class of 10 students compared with a larger lecture hall with hundreds of students, with the former providing easier access and stronger connections with professors and fellow students. Sun, from China, graduated from the school as an international student in 2017.

[READ: What a U.S. Liberal Arts Education Can Provide International Students.]

Beyond enrollment, prospective international students can also research a college’s student-to-faculty ratio. At the University of Mississippi, for instance, the student-to-faculty ratio is 16:1, says Blair McElroy, senior international officer and director of study abroad.

“The smaller ratio provides students greater access to their professors so that they can ask questions individually, feel comfortable with the material and connect with a faculty member on a deeper level than in larger classrooms,” McElroy says.

For students who choose to attend college in a smaller town, “The connections they form across campus with peers, faculty, staff and also with community members can lead to fulfilling and robust college experiences,” Marroquin says.

She says students are seen as individuals and that staff focus on helping students grow and succeed both academically and personally, and adds, “Our campus community is one in which students are not a number.”

There May be More Opportunities to Immerse in the Community

Small town life can provide international students a strong sense of community, experts say.

“In particular, the American South’s reputation for hospitality means that locals pride themselves on being helpful to and inclusive of everyone in the community,” McElroy says.

She says in smaller U.S. towns, off-campus events can be smaller and more intimate, which may allow international students to enjoy extracurricular activities and make friends organically.

In the town where Bowdoin is located, “There are local community members who attend talks, sports games and theater performances, and love chatting up students either when they walk their dogs on the quad or in local community hot spots like the Gulf of Maine Bookstore or the Little Dog Coffee Shop,” Vorno says.

[READ: 4 Common Myths International Students Have About U.S. Colleges.]

Vorno says Bowdoin also has a program called Community Hosts, where locals connect with students to help them with everything from storage to transportation and also serve as local ambassadors, “attending the students’ sports games, presentations and performances or inviting the student over for Thanksgiving dinners.”

Marroquin says the program helps students build a home away from home and develop deeper connections with the local community, with hosts becoming family, and notes “the connection extends well beyond their time at Bowdoin.”

Sun says a college in a small town can have additional benefits, too, like providing valuable local connections and resources between the school and town, such as information about lodging for family and friends who are visiting and internship opportunities.

There May Be Ways to Improve English Skills

Living in a small town could provide the added advantage of strengthening English language skills as international students become immersed in their new community.

“Small towns in the United States, like Oxford, have ample opportunities to practice English. Our international community is very diverse with students hailing from 86 countries, so the lingua franca is English,” McElroy says.

She says international students at the University of Mississippi must practice English daily to live in a small town, which may not have been the case if they had chosen a school in a big city or with a large immigrant population who speaks their native language.

“If an international student was attending a small-town college with a limited number of scenarios to communicate in their first language but more chances to utilize English with native speakers, it could help the student to improve the language skill in English, especially in speaking and listening,” Sun says.

Vorno says he did not feel that improving his language skills would be a big part of his college experience since he previously attended an international high school, “but I have definitely grown a lot in my ability to clearly express my ideas and hold a conversation on academic topics.”

Having lived in Brunswick for a few years, Vorno says he considers himself lucky to attend a small-town college and relishes the connections he’s made with peers, faculty members and the local community.

“Last summer I spent a lot of time working on a research project in a local coffee shop — and if going to a coffee shop and asking for “just the usual” is not emblematic of the American experience, I don’t know what is!” Vorno says.

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