International Students as Teaching Assistants: Barriers and Suggestions

MPj04383850000[1]One of the biggest difficulties faced by international students is getting the necessary funding to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. After all the struggles of applying – getting the GRE, TOEFL, letters of recommendation, and personal statements – you’ll likely want a site that will fund you, especially given international students are not typically eligible for financial assistance or loans in the United States.

This can put some international students in a conundrum – between what they are able to do, what they would like to do, and what the department would like them to do. Most international students would like to have a well-rounded experience, developing their practical, teaching, and research skills. At the same time, they are not usually able to work outside of their department, and cannot be funded by federal grants. This leads international students to find departmental funding – which mostly means being a TA.

Working as a TA can be an enriching experience – you are able to develop communication skills, as well familiarize yourself with how psychology is taught and learned in the United States. However, several uncertainties may arise:

“Will I be able to communicate effectively?” “Will students understand me?” “Will anyone question my competence, given I come from a different cultural background, and see teaching/learning differently?”

Those can be hard questions, and may require a lot of pondering. Facing these challenges can be hard, but necessary for international students to feel comfortable when they are teaching.

The majority of in-departmental graduate assistantships come from teaching undergraduate courses. Although college administrations tend to endorse international student TAs to promote diversity, the interaction between these students and undergraduate students might be complicated at times. Plakans (1994) found that communication was one of the major problems pointed out by U.S.-American undergraduate students who had international teaching assistants – however, undergraduate students supported and had a positive attitude towards international TAs. Although Plakans’ (1994) research informs us about some of the concerns shared by U.S.-American undergraduate students, it also tells us that the university community does support international students as teaching assistants.

Yook and Albert (1999) addressed how the affective mindset of the audience – especially anger and cognitive attributions – would influence the perception of international teaching assistants. The authors proposed that anger towards a TA’s accent, as a negative affect, would reduce the cognitive capacity of U.S.-American students, which in turn may lead to more stereotyping and less capacity for comprehension. They found that sensitizing the students to the intercultural differences between students and TA, lead students to be less angry, and have more positive attitudes towards the international TA. Yook and Albert (1999) suggest that US-American undergraduate students may benefit from being sensitized and understanding the difficulties experienced by international TAs, given it prepares them to live in an increasingly multicultural society, and fosters more feelings of empathy. The process of sensitizing the students to the international TA’s experiences can be done in the first class, explaining to the students possible differences and barriers that might exist in the teaching/learning process, and creating an environment in which students feel comfortable discussing cultural issues and differences.

In a more recent article, Meyer & Mao (2014) found that U.S.-American TAs have slightly higher evaluations from their students than International TAs. However, the authors point to how this difference may be caused by U.S.-American undergraduate students’ ethnocentrism, and not by an actual difference in teaching efficiency. Although many International TAs tend to blame themselves for a bad evaluation, it does not necessarily reflect reality. To improve the relationship between International TAs and their class, the authors suggest that U.S.-American undergraduate students need intercultural training, to better appreciate diversity, and to improve the classroom climate. For that reason, supervisors of international TAs should consider the influence of U.S.-American preconceived dispositions when analyzing their evaluations of TAs.

Meyer & Mao (2014) suggests that there are some expectations of TAs, such as being friendly and interactive with students, asking students questions,  inviting comments and questions, and creating an easy and active conversational environment. The authors propose that international TAs should work to advance their listening skills, to help them better recognize and address their students’ needs. The use of self-disclosure may also help to bridge the communication gap and foster empathy, improving in- and out-of-class communication. Additionally, using the chalkboard and including visual aspects of learning, using interactive instructional strategies, and developing culturally sensitive communication may improve the classroom environment.

Although the research supports that contact with International Teaching Assistants fosters empathy and the development of multicultural skills, it is hard for international students to navigate this transition into a teacher’s role. Here are some of the things that international TAs can do to overcome these difficulties and facilitate this transition:

  1. Disclose  their cultural background in their first class, to foster a more empathic relationship.
  2. Facilitate class discussions in a culturally sensitive way, recognizing cultural differences between the TA and the students.
  3. Openly talk about cultural differences in the classroom, so students feel more comfortable, and the TA becomes more relatable.
  4. International TAs face several additional barriers compared to their U.S.-American counterparts, and they should ask for additional training and mentorship from their advisors, supervisors, and faculty members – who can help them to better understand the expectations in the University setting in the U.S., and facilitate the transition into the role of a teacher.

Aside from these suggestions, international TAs in the U.S. may also find institutional support, since some universities have specific resources for international student TAs (e.g., University of Washington). These resources depend on each university, but can provide valuable support to international students. It is important to emphasize Plakans (1994) findings that the university community tends to support international TAs, and by identifying how they can overcome challenges in their teaching experience, we may foster a more multiculturally sensitive environment in the university and promote better experiences for international students in psychology’s graduate schools.


Meyer, K. R., & Mao, Y. (2014). Comparing student perceptions of the classroom climate created by U.S. American and international teaching assistants. Higher Learning Research Communications, 4(3), 12-22. DOI: 10.18870/hlrc.v4i3.206

Plakans, B. S. (1994). Undergraduate experiences with and attitudes toward international teaching assistants (Doctor of Philosophy), Iowa State University, Ames, IO.

Yook, E. L., & Albert, R. D. (1999). Perceptions of International Teaching Assistants: The interrelatedness of intercultural training, cognition, and emotion. Communication Education, 48, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/03634529909379148

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a blog series about the issues faced by international students in graduate programs in psychology. It was written by APAGS-CARED (Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity), an APAGS subcommittee that exists to promote a psychology pipeline that is representative of the nation’s ethnic diversity and foster culturally relevant and adaptive science and practice in psychology. If you missed it, check out the first post in this series, International Students and Clinical Work: Overcoming Challenges.