Challenge of International Students in Adapting to their New Surroundings in a Foreign Country
To function executively in the current economic environment, citizens of nation states require relevant and sufficient skills, knowledge, and expertise in their respective fields. This desirable state of affairs can only be attained through pursuit of quality education. Governments of modern day societies face the challenge of providing their populace with this education. Higher education is the principal driver of progress and sustainable development of countries and societies. A population that is highly educated faces lower unemployment risks earns higher wages, and is best positioned to make informed decisions than its counterpart that is less educated. Furthermore, populations that are highly educated enhance economic growth through increased productivity, creativity, and responsiveness to new technology. As nations appreciate the importance of education to national development, they continue to invest heavily in this sector. The current enrolment rates in institutions of higher education from across the globe attest to this. Statistical evidence indicates that the last few years have witnessed a significant increase in the number of enrolments (Gu, Schweisfurth & Day, 2010).
Besides changing globalization trends, technological advances, and strong social demands have increased the urge to acquire quality education abroad. Most importantly, countries and citizens are acknowledging the need to improve human capital in a bid to remain competitive. Thus, they place great emphasis on increasing the number of graduates in different fields of specification. Notably, not all countries can provide quality higher education. In particular, some countries lack resources and skilled manpower to offer important educational services. For this reason, they rely on foreign skilled labor to access and benefit from quality education. Unlike previously, more and more populations are considering education in international institutions located in western countries. In their effort to provide quality education to the global community, the institutions face various challenges. Just like the foreigners, local students face a wide array of adjustment problems. They encounter language barriers and are compelled to deal with the cultural differences of their visitors. The purpose of this research is to underscore the challenges that international students face in adapting to new surroundings in foreign countries. In addition, it presents viable coping strategies that the students can utilize to adjust effectively and hence benefit fully from quality education abroad.
Challenges of International Students
Foreign students commit themselves to seeking quality education in higher education institutions of other countries. Due to the diverse nature of their learning environments, they require special skills to navigate and reap beneficial outcomes. During the course of their studies, they encounter various complex problems. These have different implications on their adaptability and academic performance.
Various studies acknowledge that one of the major concerns of students studying abroad pertains to language barrier (Shillington, 2004; Yeh & Inose, 2003). Essentially, language is vitally imperative and impacts directly on the educational performance of these students. Reportedly, the students from non-English speaking nations encounter various problems when they seek for education in English speaking countries (Shillington, 2004). Usually, some of their home countries do not expose them to both the oral and written aspects of this language. Besides affecting their academic performance, lack of English proficiency has negative effects on the social wellbeing of these students. Specifically, reports ascertain that international students find it difficult to use vocabulary effectively in essays and research papers. This compromises their ability to articulate knowledge with ease.
In addition, language barrier prevents them from establishing and building viable relationships at different levels. As a social process, learning relies on strong and mutually reinforcing relationships that enable students to share knowledge with their peers as well as with their supervisors. Communication problems make it difficult for international students to benefit fully from these learning environments. As a result, they isolate themselves from the social settings that are imperative for knowledge sharing. They refrain from giving credible contributions during class discussions because of the fear of making mistakes. Currently, a significant percentage of learning institutions consider mastery of English language a prerequisite for quality research. The standards that they set in this regard are high and require all students to exhibit a strong mastery of this language.
Physical and psychological health is important for active engagement in the process of learning. International students struggle with various health problems that have effects on their educational experiences. Seemingly, these students do not take practical measures to involve in important physical activities that improve their health status. In addition, the weather variations have varied effects on their health status. In most instances, the weather conditions of host countries differ from those of their home nations. These present various challenges on their ability to adapt. In addition to avoiding physical activities, most international students neglect regular meals, fail to have meals on time, or ignore balanced diets. These have direct negative effects on their health and general functioning. Yeh and Inose (2003) indicated that compared to their local counterparts, international students suffer psychological problems frequently. In addition to anxiety and loneliness, they experience homesickness and depression. These affect their studies by leading to isolation and withdrawal from the learning process.
Lack of Quality Supervision
To perform well in higher education, students need quality supervision and attention by their tutors and instructors. Leder and Forgasz (2004) assert that close supervision helps in development of positive relations between supervisors and students. Intensive interactions between these two factions enhance the process of learning and eases knowledge sharing. Supervisors are important in this process because they guide students through learning and research. The guidelines that they provide enable international students to pursue education in an effective manner. Guidance and supervision have direct implications on both academic and social performance and determines the failure and success of the international students.
With respect to the needs of international students, supervisors play an instrumental role in monitoring cross-cultural matters. Essentially, international students require close supervision, guidance, and attention. This is due to the fact that they need more time to adjust as well as adapt to new and challenging learning environments. In addition, they face the challenge of coping with emergent challenges that are in most instances complex and overwhelming. In order to attain viable outcomes, supervisors need to exhibit high-level commitment to addressing the varied needs of these students. In addition to close monitoring, establishment of mutually benefiting relationships is desirable. Effective interactions during the course of studies greatly benefits international students.
Regardless of this recognition, international students still face the problem of lack of quality supervision and relative problems that stem from communication barriers (Brustein, 2007). As indicated earlier, lack of effective communication undermines establishment of strong relationships. Another factor that influences supervisory relations includes gender concerns. Brustein (2007) ascertains that unlike their male counterparts, female students find it difficult to access quality supervision particularly in instances where they are allocated male supervisors. Further, supervisors lack sufficient time to address the complex needs of international students. This is due to the fact that the respective needs are varied and this student fraternity is huge.
Lack of Facilities
One of the main challenges that international students grapple with pertains to inaccessibility to quality facilities. In this regard, they find it difficult to access housing and food when they arrive in their host countries. A study undertaken by Shillington (2004) established that some foreign students find accommodation facilities unsafe, poor, inconvenient, overly expensive, and inappropriate. Coupled with lack of reliable information regarding accommodation alternatives for such students, it makes it difficult for them to adjust effectively to their new learning environments. Indeed, a significant percentage of foreign students agree that comparatively, their accommodation facilities are unsafe and lack essentials such as war water. In addition, the students are not allowed by the administration to prepare meals in these units and regardless of being presented as neat, they are not in good condition.
International students experience difficulties with food and the restaurants that provide catering services on campus. Reportedly, the food mainly reflects the culture and needs of the host population. In some instances, the quality of this food is low and sanitation standards are worrying. The poor conditions put their health and general wellbeing at stake. In addition, the restaurants are not sufficient to cater for the entire needs of the growing population and in some cases; international students miss meals because of this problem. What is more, the do not have information regarding alternative restaurants that they can have good quality meals. This is challenging especially considering that the student fraternity has a host of challenges to deal with.
Although studies show that students have ready access to transportation both outside and inside their institutions, the quality of service is wanting. Reportedly, the buses do not avail themselves on time resulting to incidences of lateness. This is particularly challenging for students residing off campus. According to one student’s confession, “although the bus station is situated in front of my residence, I am forced to wait for up to an hour or even more for a bus” (Brustein, 2007).
Lack of a Supportive Environment
With regard to enhancing the experience of international students, Yeh and Inose (2003) indicate that the faculties and universities need to provide efficient and sufficient infrastructural facilities. Information and technological services and research resources are imperative for effective learning. In addition to academic facilities, students require support from their peers, family, and faculty staff. Fundamentally, a strong support system enables them to cope effectively with the challenges that they encounter in different contexts. Lack of resources, poor facilities, and a weak social support system frustrates students and prevents them from pursuing learning with ease. It derails their academic progress and in extreme instances, culminates in withdrawal from the institutions. From a psychological point of view, lack of a strong support system distresses the students and limits their capacity to address existent and emergent challenges with ease.
Differences in learning styles also compromise the ability of foreign students to adjust in new environments with ease. In this respect, Knight (2006) indicates that unlike the developing countries that adopt passive learning styles, developed nations place emphasis on active approaches that require students engagement at all times. Basically, western approaches to learning are student centered and do not solely rely on teachers to pass on knowledge and information. Thus, international students experience difficulties in switching to independent styles of learning and competing positively when their peers who have mastered independent learning.
Besides being unable to exercise creative and critical thinking, the students experience difficulties in undertaking research in an effective manner. They fail to take the personal initiative of pursuing learning without the help of their instructors. In addition, research indicates that a significant percentage of students do not understand the policies and regulations that guide research in western nations. In his review, Shillington (2004) points out that most students face the challenge of avoiding plagiarism when undertaking research. Since they are unfamiliar with the education systems of their host countries, they find it difficult to meet the standards therein.
The experience of students seeking education overseas is in most instances shocking because they are met with conditions and circumstances that they least expect. In this respect, they experience psychological strain in their effort to make necessary adaptations to their new environments and deal with a sense of loss as well as feelings of deprivation. In addition to having limited number of friends, they lose their possessions, professions, and social status and in certain cases; are rejected by members of the dominant culture. In his research, Knight (2006) indicated that they experience confusion with respect to the roles that they are expected to assume. Their understanding of role expectations is low and as such, they resort to isolation and withdrawal in order to avoid problems. Further, the individuals lack a clear understanding of the values and virtues of the host population and resultantly, the mistakes that they make have various implications and affect their adaptability in different ways.
Comparatively, the cost of living in western countries that offer international education is higher and as such, students struggle with lifestyles that they are unaccustomed to. They experience academic problems especially in instances where they are not prepared to deal with the economic differences. Their low economic statuses impact significantly on their esteem and ability to relate well with their local counterparts. In addition to being unable to pay for their essential living expenses, they incur expensive electricity, transportation, and gas bills (Gu et al, 2010). In most instances, the expenses are unanticipated because students do not incur them in their home countries.
Cultural and Socialization Problems
Just like their local counterparts, foreign students face the challenge of adapting to the diverse cultural environments. In his research, Gu et al (2010) indicates that the cultural background of students has direct impacts on their styles of learning. For example, Chinese students are considered passive learners. The culture of international students influences their understanding of English language as well as usage in different ways. For instance, Chinese students experience confusion while learning and using English language because their language lacks articles. In addition to oral language, culture impacts differently on the writing abilities of students. Likewise, international students face challenges while undertaking their thesis and research. Apparently, their styles of writing differ considerably from those of their host countries. From the point of view of their hosts, the challenges have negative effects on their quality of writing and affect their performance at different levels.
In his research, Brustein (2007) posits that in order to perform well, foreign students require effective adaptation and adjustment to different ways of life and education systems. The cultural lifestyles and social norms govern behavior both inside and outside classroom contexts. In most instances, international students experience destructive feelings of isolation because of an inability to adjust to new social norms of the majority. This culminates in an inability to develop deep relationships that are emotionally satisfying. In addition, it prevents them from developing viable friendships that act as social safety nets.
Certainly, international students face a host of challenges that impact on their ability to cope in the problematic environments. Ultimately, these challenges undermine their ability to perform optimally and realize academic success. They frustrate their efforts and make it difficult for them to compete favorably in the academic sphere. This prevents them from achieving important educational goals and objectives. Moreover, it compromises the efforts of learning institutions with regards to providing quality education to the international population. Considering the multifaceted nature of the implications of international education, the host countries suffer innumerable shortcomings. In addition to failing to benefit fully from their investments, withdrawal from the learning institutions harms their reputation and image. For this reason, it is vital for the affected institutions to develop viable measures to address the concern in collaboration with the foreign students. The following intervention measures offer workable solutions that can be used to address the issue effectively.
The fact that the challenges that international students experience abroad undermine academic performance is indisputable. It is important for these students to be taught on how to deal with these difficulties and overcome the obstacles they present. The following approaches offer workable solutions to the above-mentioned foreseeable difficulties.
Before travelling to any country, the students ought to make inquiries and understand the values, culture, and social norms of their host countries. In most instances, information pertaining to the profiles of their host nations is available online. Students should take the initiative of accessing this information that enables them to understand the lifestyles, economic performance, and general wellbeing of their host nations. In addition, students should seek for advice from the embassies prior to travelling. The information equips them with knowledge about foreseeable challenges. It improves their coping capacities because they are able to come up with intervention measures upfront. Suggestions from persons who have pursued international education offer useful insights regarding ways of adapting to the new environment too. Usually, these individuals provide first-hand information about their experiences, challenges, and suitable coping strategies. Undoubtedly, international students can benefit significantly from this information.
Upon arrival in the countries, Leder and Forgasz (2004) suggest that students should determine the obstacles that they are likely to face. In this respect, understanding the type and nature of challenges reduces tension and enhances adaptability. It reduces psychological stress and enables the students to seek for effective solutions in a timely manner. Handling these challenges during the initial stages gives students a chance to focus more on their academic performance. To address the problem of language barrier, foreign students should begin by acknowledging that learning a different language is a slow process and as such, they should exercise patience. In as much as most students have basic knowledge about the language in their host countries, research evidence shows that they still encounter difficulties especially when interacting with native speakers (Leder & Forsgasz, 2004). They should commit themselves to acquiring language competencies by watching television, movies or listening to radio. In addition, they should expand their social relationships by establishing new friendships. Joining interest groups and clubs of natives increases their interactivity and enables them to learn the language of their host countries. Most importantly, they should speak confidently, seek for clarification whenever they are in doubt, and accept corrections.
As indicated above, culture shock causes anxiety that prevents foreign students from adapting to their new learning environments with ease. To benefit optimally from cultural activities, they need to focus on enjoying the experiences rather than comparing or complaining. In addition, exploring their hobbies can enable foreign students to establish credible support networks. Interacting with fellow international students gives them an opportunity to share their experiences and coping strategies. If they encounter health problems, international students should seek for medical attention promptly. As aforementioned, these students suffer both physical and psychological health complications. For instance, to overcome stress and depression, foreign students should seek counselling from trained professionals. Understandably, they tend to get overwhelmed by academic workloads. They should be ready and willing to share their problems with family and health professionals. Most importantly, international students should exhibit high level commitment to achieving their educational goals. They should remain aggressive and focus more on overcoming the challenges and meeting their goals and objectives.
The current globalization trends and technological challenges have compelled individuals to seek for quality education in foreign countries. Unlike developing nations, developed countries equip their institutions of higher education with sufficient resources and human capital to provide quality education. Individuals from across the globe require relevant skills and abilities to function effectively in the competitive labor environment. In their pursuit of quality education abroad, they encounter a wide array of problems that undermine their coping abilities, adaptability to new environments, and make it difficult for them to benefit fully from the educational opportunities. The challenges that international students face range from lack of access to credible facilities, language barriers, shock, and physical and psychological health complications to lack of support from faculty members, and inability to establish and sustain viable relationships. These compromise their academic performance and lead to incidences of withdrawal that also harm the reputation and image of host institutions. Certainly, students need lasting solutions to these foreseeable challenges. In addition to accessing information about the host countries upfront, foreign students need to exercise patience especially with regard to acquisition of language competencies. Furthermore, they need to broaden their social networks by engaging actively in cultural activities. Besides helping them to understand new cultures, the activities encourage sharing of experiences with fellow international students. In addition, international students should seek for professional help when they experience physical and psychological health problems. Of great importance however should be their high level of commitment to achieving their educational goals and objectives.
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Knight, J. (2006). Internationalization of higher education: New directions, new challenges. USA: International Association of Universities.
Leder, G. & Forgasz, H. (2004). Australian and international mature students: the daily challenges. Higher Education Research & Development, 23 (2), 183-198.
Shillington, L. (2004). Beyond borders: Challenges to an international education. USA: Northern State University.
Yeh, C. & Inose, M. (2003). International students’ reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 16 (1), 15-28.