Theoretical Approaches to the Study of International Students

Theoretical Approaches to the Study of International Students

by Minghui (Hannah) Hou, Jing Yu, and Shinji Katsumoto

In current internationalization research, international students tend to be considered a homogeneous group, overgeneralized as ‘internationals’ (Lee, 2014). The ‘international student experience’ is assumed to apply to all international students, but there are nuances in international students’ experiences (Heng, 2019). Jones (2017) notes that international student experiences are influenced by their personal, familial, and institutional backgrounds. In our first essay on this topic, we introduced different methodological approaches to studying international student diversity. In this second essay, we present some key theoretical approaches on which scholars can develop their study and methods to explore and analyze international students’ diverse experiences in U.S. higher education.


Neo-racism is a framework to “explore structural racism in the context of immigration where race, culture, and nationality interact complexly to produce a hierarchy of social positions” (Cantwell & Lee, 2010, p. 497). Neo-racism is deeply rooted in systemic racism and white supremacy (Lee, 2020; Stein & de Andreotti, 2016). Lee and Rice (2007) demonstrate that neo-racism is new racism that is attributable to skin color as well as culture, national origin, and relationships between countries. In the US, international students from Asia, Latin America, and Africa are often the targets of neo-racism in the forms of verbal assaults, bullying, false accusations, and even physical violence, which international students from the Global North do not often experience (Lee, 2006). The COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened neo-racism, particularly among Asian American and Asian international students (Wu et al., 2021). For example, Chinese international students suffered stigmatization related to the “Chinese Virus” or “China Virus” (Wang, 2020). 


Neo-nationalism is defined as “a radical form of populism with specific characteristics, including protagonists leveraging the politics of fear to attach and blame perceived enemies, domestic and foreign, wrapped in the mantle of patriotism” (Douglass, 2011, p. 17). Neo-nationalism is discrimination based on one’s national identity (Lee, 2006). In the globalization era, national identity is reintroduced and reconceptualized as a form of global competition. International students have been increasingly vulnerable due to the rising neo-nationalism in Western countries (Lee & Castiello-Gutiérrez, 2019). Kiecker Royall and Dodson (2017) found a declining interest in traveling to the US due to geopolitical tensions. For example, political rhetoric in the US places Chinese citizens as ‘spies’ and ‘stealing intellectual properties’ (Lee, 2020). Chinese students and researchers often experience biases when they apply for jobs due to the growing scrutiny from the American government. International students from Mexico and the Middle East tend to encounter more harassment (Lee & Castiello-Gutiérrez, 2019). As an additional example, the US is currently considering an end to research partnerships with Russia and expelling Russian students from U.S. universities over the invasion of Ukraine (Jones, 2022). 

Critical Race Theory (CRT)

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an analytical framework originating in Critical Legal Studies in the US. Many lawyers, activists, and legal scholars perceived that although the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s has ended, the law itself is deeply unequal to racial minorities. Therefore, CRT was developed to accelerate the pace of racial reform in the US. CRT was also expanded beyond the confinement of US borders to include an international context that applies to migrant populations (Gillborn et al., 2012; Kitching, 2015; Vass, 2015).

Delgado and Stefancic (2017) offered one widely cited set of central tenets of CRT: 1) racism is ordinary and natural in the everyday experience of people of color; 2) the dominant ideology promotes interest convergence; in other words, white Americans are willing to create laws and policies that support people of color only if whites benefit as well; 3) race is not objective, inherent, or fixed, but socially constructed and manipulated within systems and institutions; 4) minorities are differentially racialized; 5) intersectionality and anti-essentialism are crucial to understanding race and racism; and 6) the voices of people of color must be recognized in order to counter dominant hegemonic narratives through storytelling. Prior research suggests that international students of color are by no means immune from racism and discrimination (e.g., Yao et al., 2019; Yeo et al., 2019), so the process of racialization is a crucial topic to investigate in international student-related research. 

Asian Critical Race Theory (AsianCrit)

Education scholars find it very useful to analyze how white supremacy subjugates people of color; for this reason, CRT has developed to address specific issues in various communities of color. Building on CRT, Iftikar and Museus (2018) advanced an Asian Critical Race Theory (AsianCrit) framework that is specifically tailored to Asian American experiences, issues, and concerns. There are six tenets in AsianCrit: 1) Asian Americans are in the process of Asianization, meaning the particular ways Asian Americans are treated as a monolithic group and are racialized by white supremacy in the US; 2) Global economic, political, and social processes shape the conditions of Asian Americans; 3) (Re)constructive history transcends the visibility and silence of racialized experiences; 4) Strategic (anti)essentialism and intersectionality are crucial to understanding race and racism; 5) Experiential knowledge can challenge dominant, white, European epistemology; and 6) AsianCrit aims to eradicate all forms of oppression and exploitation. By applying AsianCrit, Saito and Li (2022) discovered that Chinese international students’ racialized experiences are deeply rooted in the US historical context, which is in urgent need of institutional support and preventive strategies to protect them from these and other forms of racist hatred.

Transnationalism and Critical Race Theory

In addition to branch theories of CRT to address the specific issues of racial minorities in the US, another piece written by Yao et al. (2019) incorporates transnationalism into CRT. These authors illuminated four tenets to analyze the international student experience in the US: 1) Race and racism permeate the international student experience; 2) Whiteness as property and white supremacy are normative; 3) Intersectionality is crucial to understanding the international students’ multiple layers of privileges and oppressions; and 4) The lens of interest convergence is the most visible tenet of CRT in international student-related research in the US context. 


Although often portrayed as a homogeneous group, international students are diverse individuals. Students who are from diverse demographic and educational backgrounds experience different challenges in host institutions and need different approaches to support addressing their intersectional identities within academic study and social experiences. We have introduced multiple methodological approaches (in our previous essay) and theoretical frameworks (in this essay), which would be helpful to learning and researching the heterogeneity of international students. Often, higher education institutions tend to focus on the recruitment of international students rather than retaining them and providing appropriate support due to the benefits brought by the students, such as the internationalization of the campus and economic contribution (Arthur, 2017). We believe that it is critical to further understand the diversity among international students rather than to view them as a homogenous group of students with similar experiences in their host country.


Arthur, N. (2017). Supporting international students through strengthening their social resources. Studies in Higher Education, 42(5), 887–894. 

Cantwell, B., & Lee, J. (2010). Unseen workers in the academic factory: Perceptions of neoracism among international postdocs in the United States and the United Kingdom. Harvard Educational Review, 80(4), 490-517.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (3rd edition). New York: New York University Press.

Douglass, J. A. (2021). Neo-nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education. JHU Press.

Gillborn, D., N. Rollock, C. Vincent, & Ball, S. (2012). ‘You got a pass, so what more do you want?’: Race, class and gender intersections in the educational experiences of the black middle class. Race Ethnicity and Education 15(1),121-139.

Heng, T. T. (2019). Understanding the heterogeneity of international students’ experiences: A case study of Chinese international students in US universities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(5), 607-623.

Iftikar, J. S., & Museus, S. D. (2018). On the utility of Asian critical (AsianCrit) theory in the field of education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 31(10), 935-949. 

Jones, E. (2017). Problematising and reimagining the notion of “international student experience.” Studies in Higher Education, 42, 933-943.

Kitching, K.  (2015). How the Irish became CRT’d? ‘Greening’ Critical Race Theory, and the pitfalls of a normative Atlantic state view, Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(2), 163-182.

Lee, J. (2006). International student experiences: Neo-racism and discrimination. International Higher Education, (44).

Lee, J. J. (2014). Understanding international students: Beyond U.S.-centrism and towards international consciousness. In S. Harper & S. Quaye (Eds.), Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations (pp. 105-120). Routledge.

Lee, J. J. (2020). Neo-racism and the criminalization of China. Journal of International Students, 10(4), 780-783.

Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 53(3), 381–409.

Lee, J. J., & Castiello-Gutiérrez, S. (2019). Engaging International Students at U.S. Higher Education Institutions. In S. J. Quaye; S. Harper & S. L. Pendakur (Eds.), Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations (3rd ed., pp. 107-129). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Saito, L. E., & Li, J. (2022). Applying an AsianCrit lens on Chinese international students: History, intersections, and Asianization during COVID-19. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Leadership Studies, 3(1), 122-140.

Stein, S., & de Andreotti, V. O. (2016). Cash, competition, or charity: International students and the global imaginary. Higher Education, 72(2), 225–239.

Vass, G. (2015). Putting critical race theory to work in Australian education research: “We are with the garden hose here”, The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(3), 371-394.

Wang, T. (2020). Students caught between globalisation and nationalism. University World News.

Wu, C., Qian, Y., & Wilkes, R. (2021). Anti-Asian discrimination and the Asian-white mental health gap during COVID-19. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(5), 819-835.

Yao, C. W., George Mwangi, C. A., & Malaney Brown, V. K. (2019). Exploring the intersection of transnationalism and critical race theory: A critical race analysis of international student experiences in the United States. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(1), 38–58. 

Yeo, H. T., Mendenhall, R., Harwood, S. A., & Huntt, M. B. (2019). Asian international student and Asian American student: Mistaken identity and racial microaggressions. Journal of International Students, 9(1), 39–65.

About the Authors:

Minghui (Hannah) Hou is a Ph.D. candidate in the higher education program at Old Dominion University. Her research focuses on international education equity, neo-racism, international student agency, US-China geopolitical tensions, etc. She has served as copy editor for the Journal of International Students and production editor for the Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education. Email:

Jing Yu is a Ph.D. candidate in Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at University of California Santa Barbara. She received M.A. in Teaching and Learning from the Ohio State University in 2015. Her research interests include international student mobility, intersections of race, class, and nationality, as well as international dimensions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. She serves on editorial boards for Journal of College Student Development and Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Email:

Shinji Katsumoto is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program and a graduate researcher at the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on international student success and world university rankings in the international education context. His recent publications about international student experiences appear in such outlets as the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and the Journal of College Student Development. Email:

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