There may be some confusion about how we use the terms immigrant, refugee, and international student. With this note, we hope to clarify these terms and enable more effective support for our students and colleagues.


Generally speaking, this is a person who comes to the U.S. voluntarily to live here. Unless you are an indigenous Native American or First Nation person, then most of us are immigrants or are descendants of immigrants. Many ethnic groups go back several generations in this country. According to the most recent U.S. census data, in the Bellevue area, the largest immigrant populations speak Spanish or Asian languages, such as Chinese or Korean, as a first language.


Any individual who has been forced to leave his/her/their country of nationality and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on his/her/their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Like immigrants, refugees live, work, and raise families in the community.

In terms of education and social backgrounds, immigrants and refugees are quite diverse. Some come to the U.S. with advanced degrees while others come having faced significant barriers to social or economic mobility. The English as a Second Language (ESL), Basic Education for Adults, and I-BEST programs within the Basic and Transitional Studies Department serve a total of approximately 700 immigrant and refugee students.

International student

A student who is studying in the U.S. under a temporary visa, also called an F-1 visa. An F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for those wishing to study in the U.S. F-1 visa holders can remain in the U.S. for up to 60 days after completing their academic program or training. Any students wishing to remain in the U.S. after their program, must change their visa status, re-enroll in a higher program, or have the option to transfer to a new school and receive new visa documents. According to the BC website, “over 1,200 international students from more than 70 countries are enrolled in both college credit and English language programs.”

Domestic student

Generally speaking, this refers to an American-born student.

Other helpful definitions:


This is usually based on a person’s passport. Some people might have dual nationalities, such as Canadian and U.S.


In the U.S., this is about skin color; race is socially constructed (not scientifically based).


For the most part, ethnicity can be described by the cultures in which someone engages in their daily life, such as language and customs. For example, a person may be viewed as being Black (race), however their ethnicity might be Japanese if the person speaks Japanese as a primary language and practices mostly Japanese customs. Thus, ethnicity can be self-identified.

It is critical to remember that knowing something special about your student or colleague and building a trusting relationship is the most important step to serving each student and working with each other.

Jointly written by Sayumi Irey, Ph.D. (Office of Equity and Pluralism) & Eric Nacke (Basic & Transitional Studies) at Bellevue College

Last Updated May 24, 2017