Over the last 5 to 10 years, people in America have started to pay more attention to bullying. What used to be seen as a rite of passage, something joked about in cartoons, TV shows, and movies has become recognized for what it really is: something deeply cruel that can have a deep psychological and physical impact on a young person. Bullying may hurt individuals not only during their school years, but sometimes for the rest of their lives. A full 20% of American high school students report being bullied on school property.

It is hard to say exactly why this has started to gain more recognition. It is most likely due to the rise of social media and instant communication, over which people can share their stories, talk to other victims, and make their voices known. The flip side of that has been the sadly predictable explosion in cyberbullying, where distance and anonymity can have a multiplying effect for the naturally vicious. Paradoxically, though, a horrifying rise in cyberbullying-related suicides has shone a light on the epidemic, and peer pressure, awareness, and even laws have been raised to stop it.

Sadly, the international student in your school is not immune from this. In some ways, they may be even more vulnerable and less likely to speak up. We’ll talk about the problem today, and in Thursday’s piece, try to figure out how to put a stop to it, so that everyone can find the fulfilling and safe, educational environment deserved.

Bullying can make a student feel isolated and insecure.
Image source: zalouk webdesign via wikimedia.org

Why International Students Are at Risk

Bullying is obviously something that isn’t inherent in or exclusive to America. There is bullying all over all over the world, with America falling somewhere in the middle of the rankings, and Greece, Lithuania, and Latvia coming at the dubious top. However, saying “it is worse in the Balkans and Baltics” is cold comfort to the student being picked on.

There are obvious reasons why an international student might have a difficult time (although, to be clear, this is still rare, and more likely than not there will be no problem). Some high school kids simply like to pick on those who are different, and who seemingly won’t be able to fend for themselves. An international student might not have a lot of immediate allies, which every student needs.

Those who are insecure tend to bully those they perceive as weak, and if that person has an accent, looks “different”, or has some trouble with the language, they might be seen as even weaker. That makes for a tempting target. It is a sad fact that Asians and Asian-Americans are the most bullied individuals in schools, because of all the idiotic surface differences upon which some people insist on clinging.

A Reluctance to Tattle

Often, high schoolers find difficulty in turning to someone else to help them with their problem. For one thing, they are at that stage where they are seeking independence. However, they are sometimes not experienced enough to know that receiving help is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Peer pressure is another huge factor- no one wants to be thought of as a tattletale. This normal loathing of the tattler has been exacerbated by the “snitches get stiches” mentality, a perhaps understandable, if amoral, code of the street that has migrated inanely to school hallways.

This is doubled for the international student. In many ways, they can feel alone, and being picked on makes that seem worse. Feeling isolated is not fixed by doing something that you’ve been made to feel will  bring you unpopularity. It is a terrible, self-reinforcing mentality. Many international students are nervous about making friends, and feel that if they are breaking “the code of the hallways” it will ruin any chance. This just keeps the cycle going.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Fortunately, this doesn’t always have to be a problem. There are many ways to combat this, and the huge majority of students at your school will want to help tackle it, to create a safe and welcoming environment where your international student can feel not just welcome, but at home. We’ll look at those in the next post.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.