The adjustment journey of international postgraduate students at a university in England.
This source preferred by Lorraine Brown
Authors: Brown, L.
The aim of this study is to capture the adjustment journey of a group of international postgraduate students at a university in the South of England. An ethnographic approach was used, involving regular in-depth individual interviews with thirteen students of different nationalities and overt participant observation of the entire postgraduate cohort of 150 students. Research began on the first day of induction in September 2003 and ended in October 2004 upon completion and submission of the Masters dissertation. Students' experience of adjustment to academic and sociocultural life was therefore captured from arrival in the new country to the return home one full year later. Seven research categories were generated by this ethnographic study: the shock of arrival; language acquisition; academic orientation; eating patterns; interaction strategies; collective and individual identity; and finally, transformation in personal and cultural outlook. The overarching category was interaction, which influenced every other theme that emerged from analysis. This study found that stress was at its height in the initial stage of the academic sojourn; this was caused by the struggle to cope with the challenges of foreign language use and an unfamiliar academic and sociocultural environment at a time when students were beset with homesickness and loneliness. An association was made between the passage of time and a gradual decrease in acculturative stress; however, this was not a generalisable process; there was not only fluctuation in experience across the student body but also in the individual's subjective sense of success across different aspects of life in the new country. This led to the conceptualisation of the adjustment journey as an unpredictable and dynamic process, which is experienced differently among sojourners, and fluctuates throughout the sojourn as a result of a host of individual, cultural and external factors. There was some universality of experience however during the initial challenging stage of the sojourn and in the final stage when an outcome of positive personal and cultural change was documented: this was complemented by apprehension over re-entry to the origin country. Inhibiting forces in achieving adjustment to an unfamiliar academic, language and sociocultural environment were cultural dissonance and segregated friendship groups. The greater the cultural gap between the home and host cultures, the greater the acculturative stress students suffered. Interaction strategy was found to be a powerful influence on both the experience and outcome of adjustment: the bicultural bond with the host was noted for its absence, and segregation was the most common friendship pattern. This implied minimum exposure to culture and language learning, and a failure of the international campus to realise the benefits of cross-cultural contact. Individual motivation to optimise the benefits of the intercultural experience and to tolerate the anxiety inherent in the cross-national context was found to be the key factor in the adoption of a multicultural attitude towards interaction and in the cultivation of multicultural skills. This was the route exceptionally chosen, informing the creation of the category `exceptional student', who, in deviating from established norms of interaction, came to embody the intercultural mediator. Despite observation of a tendency towards gravitation to same-nationality members, an increase in intercultural competence and a reformulated sense of self were universally recorded. This suggests that distance from the origin culture is sufficient to promote self and culture learning, and that segregation is not incompatible with the development of tolerance. The implications of the study are that international students require both academic and pastoral support from the start and also throughout their stay in the host country. Furthermore, it is suggested that HEI have a role to play in influencing students' interaction strategies, so that the benefits of the international campus can be reached.