Struggles Exchange Students Have to Go Through in a Different Country

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Introduction

Ever wonder what goes on inside a foreign exchange students mind? If so, you might be thinking, how are they able to adapt? Or what challenges might they face while studying abroad in a different country? For this qualitative research assignment, we decided to learn more about the student body and chose to investigate the challenges and adaptations international students face here at San Diego State University.

Here at SDSU, we interact everyday with other students, counselors, and professors. For the most part we share the same type of lifestyle with other students and it is what makes socializing even better for the college experience. Being able to adapt ourselves with other students on campus helps us feel part of a community, which is important to thrive. The ethnographic qualitative approach gave us a chance to research students at SDSU in their natural environment over these past five months using methods that involved participant observation and in-depth interviews.

We were able to conduct common topics and related ideas that helped support our own observations and research using other points of view from scholars, students, studies, and others.

Within our own research, we used plans of action to help us further in our investigation, these involved interviews, interpretations, observations, and even our own perceptions as to what we found. Using this, we came up with an analysis of the specific and most important findings, and finally came up with conclusions that addressed what needed to be fixed in order to follow up on proper beneficial means for our international students.

Literature Review

Bringing upon international students comes with benefits. Universities are able to add more dimension and diversity to their student bodies. International students help the learning environment become more aware of other cultures and help enhance the quality of the education as well (Ford, 2019). Because of this, students are able to become better critical thinkers by indulging in other perspectives from different cultures. International students also help for income opportunities (Ford, 2019). Higher education here in the US, helps create well trained professionals in the student’s fields, which later on benefits the outlook of their homelands as well (Ford, 2019). They are able to serve social, political, academic and cultural benefits. Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, and Canada are the most well-known for receiving international students (Bista, 2016). A study showed that international students brought upon 30.8 billion in the US for 2014-2015 (Bista, 2016). These funding’s came from scholarships, personal resources, and families (Bista, 2016).

However, even though international students do gain knowledge, and a higher education, they do face many challenges as well. It is shown that international students face difficulties when trying to make friends with domestic students.

These difficulties include, but are not limited to, language difficulties, difficulties adjusting to the academic culture, misunderstanding, and complications in communication with faculty and peers; stress, anxiety, feeling of isolation, social experiences, culture shock, financial hardships, lack of appropriate accommodation, isolation and loneliness, and any adaption in their daily life.

Language barriers are one of the main reasons. The lack of confidence on speaking the language to a non-native English speaker is a concern (Campbell, 2011). Most of us can agree that learning a new language is difficult, especially when we are learning it in the native country. This leads to anxiety during class and doing the tough work implemented in them like essays, in class presentations, tests, and others. A need for socializing is made even harder when there is such a boundary of communication between foreign and domestic students (Campbell, 2011). This is due to the lack of knowing common phrases, not knowing the right way to pronounce a word, or even learning someone’s name correctly. These can all bring upon embarrassing situations which students try to avoid.

In other recent findings, technology also brought upon difficulties for foreign students as well. One is the way international students tend to do their research. They are not quite familiar with using electronic sources or journal databases and mostly receive their information from the internet (Sei-Ching, 2015). Unfortunately, international students are also somewhat unaware as to what the Universities have to offer them in terms of library sources (Sei-Ching, 2015). Resources like book loans, private tutoring sessions, and knowing their way around libraries and how to find what they need when they need it is also knowledge they lack. “Being relatively new to the country, international students may experience more pressing everyday information needs and challenges than U.S. students” (Sei-Ching, 2015, pg.467). These needs involved finances, housings, health, and being able to find jobs suitable for their career goals and interests (Sei-Ching, 2015).

In addition to these academic difficulties, international students face major culture shock too. These types of changes include isolation, rejection, and loneliness as well. Discrimination is also an issue. Domestic students felt that international students will create negative outcomes to the economy, education, and values (Wu, Garza, & Guzman, 2015). These unfair stereotypes come from the anxiety to interact with the international students (Wu et al., 2015). Not knowing their cultural backgrounds, and type of communication, makes domestic students unwilling to engage with them (Guzman et al., 2015). This later on resulted in even more problems for foreign students too. Recent studies on international students in Australia showed that 41% suffered from stress (Guzman et al., 2015). In addition, did not use counseling services during their time in Universities. This brought upon other feelings of disorientation for them and difficulties while adapting.

Methods

As it is common in the Ethnography field, we used a qualitative research approach which was adopted to have a deeper understanding about the issue of adaptation faced by international students attending San Diego State University. Case study was the most appropriate qualitative research method for the present study since we wanted to focus on recording research “in which detailed consideration was given to the development of a particular person, group, or situation over a period of time and analyze it in order to illustrate our thesis” (Oxforddictionaries.com). The findings for this study were collected and analyzed from the January to the month of May of 2019.

Our main sites of data collection were the International Student Center, where it was easier for us to engage with international students as well as for us to witness “The international Student Coffee hour”, which took place every Friday and every week. Here, sojourners which is defined as someone who “stay for a time in a place; live temporarily (with the aim of going back to their country”(Dictionary.com) from the same nationality plan for a discussion about their own country and where they present cultural aspects such as gastronomy, religion, values, and other aspects revolving their country. These observations were of value for our study since we could observe them, interact, and gain perspective about cultural differences that were closely related to their experience abroad.

Based on the personal experience of some of our researchers, we determined that the length of residency had a direct correlation with the adjustment challenges for foreign exchange students and how they face them. This study focused on sojourners who had recently arrived in the US, which were students that have been in the US from one month, to two years.

A total of ten international participants pursuing their graduate/undergraduate degree at San Diego State were interviewed as well as a teacher assistant in the Spanish department who assists native Spanish speakers with English. These are mostly international students from all over the world still having difficulty learning the language and are part of the “ESL” program (English as a second language). The teacher assistant deals on a daily basis with probably the most unprepared exchange students that face challenges such as language barriers, lack of visibility or adjustment in a more intense way than other international students with a more comfortable English level. Her perspective gave us an external point of view from international students themselves that allowed us to contrast information from both sides and ultimately draw conclusions.

Analysis

An important aspect of analysis about our participants that we find related to academic difficulties is the preparation of foreign students before arriving to the US. Clearly, proper beforehand preparation in the country of origin can help students adapt more easily to their new academic environment. The fact that there is a lack of such preparation can hinder or negatively influence their adaptation to the new country. According to the interviews we conducted, eight out of ten of the interviewed subjects did not receive any organized preparation before moving to San Diego State University. Those who did receive some kind of preparation indicated that “such preparation mainly consists in the information we received about the credit system and the academic system in a general way, so it was information that did not specifically fit my situation” (Field Notes, 2019). Only one of our subjects attended preparation classes.

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This student stated that, “they provided me with not only academic preparation but also with some cultural knowledge such as eating habits, how it is an individualistic culture, their values and ways to perceive the world”(Field Notes 04/20/19). Given the lack or non-existent preparation, it is no surprise how common it is among international students to have a hard time adapting themselves to an alien environment. That being said, when we also spoke to international student counselors about this issue, they informed us that “according to the San Diego State International Student Office criteria, the preparation of foreign students it is highly encouraged and it should consist of a linguistic, academic and cultural preparation” (Field Notes 10/04/19).

Aside from the previous preparation received, we found out that support from the host university plays an important role in adaptation as well. According to the interview we conducted with an ESL teacher assistant “students at State are provided with a mandatory orientation, that gives them fundamental concepts for them to adapt better and quicker” (04/28/19 Field Notes). The fact that it is a mandatory orientation somewhat gives us more encouraging findings, given that when asked, only four out of the ten interviewed students reported walking out the “orientation” with positive takeaways that they considered helpful for them to ease their adaptation process. As we have been able to verify through our own research, the exchange students in a great majority find difficulties at the time of adapting to a new academic system. Many of them have not been prepared for their incorporation into the new academic environment and their reception by SDSU should be improved. Less than half of the interviewed students still felt “lost” even after the mandatory orientation. However, if we apply this finding half of international students in SDSU, the numbers are concerning.

Students that come abroad from other countries not only face difficulties adapting in the classroom environment, but also with communicating efficiently and thriving outside the lecture hall. According to Santi, a former group member with five years of experience and knowledge abroad, “Culture is an important aspect when it comes to establishing and living in society, the fact of sharing certain values, norms and premises causes individuals to create a feeling of belonging that will later influence their relationship, both with local students as and members of other societies and cultures. Since this phenomenon is a dynamic process, in front of the saying intergroup contact there can be different types of answers depending on diverse social factors such as the similarity of cultures, which it can facilitate the adaptation of the individual by having fewer elements to assimilate as every day.

Assimilation occurs in cases where a subject do not want to maintain the identity culture and the approach to the host society. It is a strategy of abandonment of the culture of belonging

In integration, the sojourners keep their culture of origin and incorporates the new culture as well, achieving a bicultural identity.

The separation, is the result of a negative attitude towards contact with the host culture and a constant attachment to the culture of origin reinforcing nationalism and rejecting the new culture

Marginalization corresponds to rejection of the culture of origin and also from the hostess. It tends to hesitate and debate between the two cultures without feeling represented by any. (Denise Benatuil & Juliana Laurito, 2013)

Absence of Community. Absence of community is known to lead to feelings of homesickness, insecurity, and tendencies to an introverted personality. This is due to international students having uncertainty towards where they belong in a new country and new environment. This is common among them with many domestic students having common and misleading stereotypes towards their cultures and backgrounds. The lack of cultural support or a community for a student on campus can make them feel lonely, insecure, and afraid. It was important for us to know that because of this, there was uncertainty as to what purpose he or she might serve here on campus.

Considering both the factors that influence the acculturation process as mentioned, as well as the possible scenarios of responses of individuals before contacts with different cultures, it is important to point out that they are not arbitrary concepts or, existing the possibility of finding new patterns, reactions and trends that make these influential elements as also the possible answers are different and flexible in terms of reactions to interpersonal and intergroup relations. One of our interviewees stated that “ thanks to different cultures can be known before the confrontation to this and not only located aspects in the outer layer of culture, but it is possible to have contact with individuals originating from each culture, being able to arrive at a slightly more finished idea of its nature and reactions, may also dispel certain doubts and prejudices. Although this does not replace the immersion experience, it can be a considerable facilitating element at the time of confrontation and interaction and that these events are successful.

According to a significant amount of our interviewees, they feel that their community as international students, is not supported or promoted as much as other groups in campus. One of the students we interviewed stated “ Have you not seen where our office is? you have to cross all campus to get there and it looks like a barricade.”(Field Notes 03/20/19) As we can clearly see there is a lack of sense of community, that can be easily corrected in multiple different ways and by making them feel more supported. One way to make them feel they belong would demand a better concealer aid, where they would specialize on International student needs to ensure they can keep in track with their academics despite the difficulties the language or different educational system could supposed to them.

One creative option we came up as well to make them feel more relevant, would be a “Welcome Week at the very beginning of the semester, where the University could offer a budget for interested international students that would want to participate and be part of it. With that money let them be creative to a certain extend and under supervision of faculty, and come up with different activities that they could express themselves and their culture and at the same time be of interest of the rest of students, such as a culinary contest from the different countries, or providing help and information to students who are considering going abroad in the future.

An activity like that, would not only make them feel more integrated and relevant, but also bust their confidence making them feel proud of their difference and reducing acculturation feeling which ultimately would suppose of a better mindset from the beginning of the semester and give them a chance to interact with American students and establish new relationships.

Conclusion

According to a significant amount of our interviewees, they feel that their community as international students, is not supported or promoted as much as other groups in campus. One of the students we interviewed stated “ Have you not seen where our office is? you have to cross all campus to get there and it looks like a barricade.”(Field Notes 03/20/19) As we can clearly see there is a lack of sense of community, that can be easily corrected in multiple different ways and by making them feel more supported. One way to make them feel they belong would demand a better concealer aid, where they would specialize on International student needs to ensure they can keep in track with their academics despite the difficulties the language or different educational system could supposed to them.

One creative option we came up as well to make them feel more relevant, would be a “Welcome Week at the very beginning of the semester, where the University could offer a budget for interested international students that would want to participate and be part of it. With that money let them be creative to a certain extend and under supervision of faculty, and come up with different activities that they could express themselves and their culture and at the same time be of interest of the rest of students, such as a culinary contest from the different countries, or providing help and information to students who are considering going abroad in the future.

An activity like that, would not only make them feel more integrated and relevant, but also bust their confidence making them feel proud of their difference and reducing acculturation feeling which ultimately would suppose of a better mindset from the beginning of the semester and give them a chance to interact with American students and establish new relationships.

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