Facilitating international student adjustment – what we should keep in mind

Facilitating international student adjustment – what we should keep in mind

Students, especially incoming and international students, naturally struggle with a lot of adjustment issues. They have to familiarise themselves with a new life and educational environment, assume new roles and responsibilities, and cope with being separated from their friends and family back home. Some of these students not only face the inevitable adjustment and acculturation stress, but they may also arrive already laden with a set of personal difficulties.

These difficulties may range from the typical concerns of young adults (dating issues, financial problems, etc), to more serious matters such as eating disorders, depression, a history of suicide attempts or psychotic episodes, to mention just a few of the mental health concerns commonly seen by student counsellors.

Struggling students – some make it, some don’t

However, not every university has established a properly staffed counselling center yet. Even those who have, still experience the enormous challenge of educating and guiding young people. Looking at how troubled students progress through their college experience, two opposite scenarios are likely to be observed: either they manage to cope well and thus raise their chances to succeed with their studies and eventually graduate, or they fail to adjust, underperform and even face suspension or decide to drop out.

What predicts positive student outcomes?

Identifying the attitudes and behaviors of well-adapted students versus students who have difficulty adjusting, as well as being aware of the study conditions that may facilitate or impede student adjustment, can help university administrators to develop practices and policies that could prevent students from failing. Here are some important factors that seem to predict positive student outcomes:

  • Students possess the social skills to make and keep friends and are able to find the right tone when communicating with peers or professionals. They are aware of the expectations university administrators and educators have from them, and they manage to meet those expectations – at least partially and without overstretching their own boundaries and limits.
  • Universities have staff that are, not only well trained in communication skills, but are also passionate and caring enough to walk the extra mile. The leadership embraces multiculturalism and inclusion, all the while fostering a work environment that allows its employees to consider and accommodate diverse student needs.
  • Students know where they can find support, both on and off campus. They trust and utilise the available resources and are willing and able to adopt new coping strategies. They accept their challenging student experience – even if it may become demanding, rough and uncertain at times.

An “extra” and a lot of challenges

Keeping in mind that students and scholars from all over the world work and live together on our international campuses, it is crucial to understand how diversity can constitute that little ‘extra’ in a unique social learning experience not only for students, but also for other members of the campus community. However, this ‘extra’ will not be achieved automatically. First, several crucial questions need to be addressed and clarified:

  • What are the administrative staff members expected to do when faced with growing numbers of international students, who are particularly vulnerable, and those who, perhaps in addition to the culture shock, struggle with full-blown mental health issues?
  • How can social and intercultural learning take place so that not only students adapt to the dominant culture of the university, but the wealth of differences in needs, values, styles, etc, can be effectively leveraged and used to create synergies and a multicultural campus community that deserves its name?
  • What are the typical dilemmas that staff members encounter in their various roles and responsibilities and how should they be tackled?
  • What competencies are actually needed in different administrative offices to respond effectively and appropriately to the needs of students? How can these competencies be developed? And even more concretely: who is involved at your university in supporting students with their psychosocial and intercultural needs?
  • If they at all exist, what is the rationale behind your rules and procedures with regards to addressing the perceived needs of troubled students?
  • Who in your department decides at which point what information is relevant to share about the perceived needs of a particular student, with whom and for what purpose?
  • Who is the “process-owner’’- the person who takes command, oversees the work flow, drafts policies and has been assigned the final responsibility of taking care of and facilitating the adjustment processes of incoming and international students?
  • Where does the university’s responsibility end and where does the responsibility of the individual student and/or his/her peer group begin?

To-do list for our committed universities

Gathering the insights of student counselling experts and higher education interculturalists, a number of important to-dos can be derived (see Haber, 2009; Deardorff, 2004; Toomey & Oetzel, 2001):

  • Let’s analyse them and, if necessary, revise our standardised administrative procedures and practices applying a carefully considered, sensitive and needs-oriented perspective.
  • Let’s share best practices that are supportive of the development of intercultural competency and coaching skills on campus.
  • Let’s nurture our abilities, and those of our clients, to understand, evaluate and relate to ambiguous and uncertain situations, realising the relative validity of our own (culturally-shaped) frames of reference.
  • Let’s remain open and, for a while, suspend our judgment when encountering culturally or otherwise ambiguous situations and be motivated to understand the situation first, before taking action.
  • Let’s use our knowledge about differences to reflect on our underlying values and needs and those of others, being aware that they may influence the way we perceive and interact with each other.
  • Let’s become more flexible within our professional roles, communication styles and behaviors to make them fit as best as possible to the specific requirements of every unique context that we may be facing in our work with diverse clients.
  • Let’s keep looking at intercultural and mental health-related challenges with a curious attitude and from as many different angles as possible – so that we can better anticipate and understand behaviors that may seem alien or even bizarre to us.
  • Let’s make a mutual learning experience out of shared intercultural experiences for staff and students.
  • And last, but not least, let’s keep up our good work and enjoy what we are doing.

If you want to learn more about the psychological skills that assist resilience and cultural adjustment, sign up for the workshop ‘Facilitating international students’ adjustment‘, taking place on 11 September at EAIE Istanbul 2013.

By Frank Haber, Psychological Counsellor and Interculturalist at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany and Marijke van Oppen, Educational Consultant and Intercultural Trainer at Wageningen University and Research Centre / Van Oppen International, Netherlands.