Are we doing enough for foreign students?

2017-08-02 13:58

International students are defined as students who study outside the boarders of their home country. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that 4.5 million students globally were studying outside their home country.

Professors Jenny Lee and Charles Rice, writing in 2007 on an article titled, “Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination”, recognised that international students studying in the United States (US) provide the US with a diversity in student populations and an awareness for other cultures and countries. 

Furthermore, they also provide economic value to the US in the form of knowledge and skills in a variety of fields, such as technology, health, and engineering. Those who go the US as international students and stay there add to the intellectual property of the US. Those who go back to their countries of origin also play a similar role.  

Nevertheless, the enrolment of international students, although commendable, is not a phenomenon without challenges. The demographic differences of international students such as gender, language, age, religious affiliation, norms, socio-economic background, and psychological dimensions, such as the way they interact and connect with others, can have a significant impact on their social acculturation. 

In addition, the hosting country and its university environment, its institutional culture and language can be unwelcoming to some international students. This may leave such students feeling unfulfilled. 

Culture and identity play an important role in an education model. Academic outcomes do not exclusively depend on teaching and assessments only. Instead, an education model is located in a particular sociocultural context. 

Education is a social endeavor that includes different forms of interaction between many participants and stakeholders. Therefore, in a multi-cultural environment like a university, any understanding of educational processes must be sensitive to the cultural background of students and teachers and the relationships of the institutional cultures which exist between them in such a university. 

The reality is that students and universities alike are often not prepared for the challenges that such cross-cultural environments present.

Students from different cultural backgrounds face several obstacles when adapting to social life in English-speaking universities. Consequently, these social obstacles affect their academic performance and achievement. 

Social class is a crucial indicator and aspect of cultural membership and identity. A class position is key in forming the identity that a student comes with to university. Students from middle-class backgrounds have a comparative advantage in an education environment. This is the case because schools are established with middle-class values and sociocultural practices which reflect the sociocultural upbringing of middle-class students. 

Dr Billy Long, in his paper titled “Sensitizing Undergraduate Students to the Nature of White Privilege” states that the criteria for success in the middle-class measuring rods imposed on the university schooling system includes: 1) ambition, 2) individual responsibility, 3) manners and courtesy, 4) neatness, 5) delayed gratification, 6) skills and achievement acquisition, 7) rationality and planning, 8) refraining from violence, and 9) respect for authority. 

Middle-class students are taught and socialised into these values from an early age. This gives them a head start in life given that they will be evaluated in university according to the same standard as their home lives and values. 

Children from working-class backgrounds, however, see the school as an alienating environment. They feel small and invisible or ‘other’ in a space which does not feature, acknowledge or recognise their own cultural heritage and social identity. 

Working class children become disadvantaged because the sociocultural norms they have been socialised into during their upbringing are different from the school’s code and institutional practices. In the South African context students who transition into higher education have to overcome these middle-class linguistic and sociocultural values. 

Dr Savo Heletam, writing in “Decolonisation of Higher Education: Dismantling Epistemic Violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” argues that the key challenges facing such students have less to do with cognitive aspects of learning, instead, it is sociocultural issues of identity, language and culture that act as the highest form of academic and social exclusion. 

Since working class students feel alienated in the middle class valued schooling environment, they change their behaviour and mold it to be acceptable according to the school’s code and institutional practices. They do this to make their presence legitimised in the schooling space. This is the same form of a silent violence that international students encounter in South African universities. 

Problems that international students face and the conditions which need to be satisfied as fundamentals for their social acculturation in English-speaking universities can be summarised into five key stressors which prevent their success of social namely: 

- Language: Not being able to communicative with the same efficacy or nuance as with the ethnic first language.

- Educational: Not understanding the educational values or procedures of the host university.

- Social: Not knowing people, not understanding the culture, loneliness, etc.

- Discrimination: Alienation and being discriminated against, either actively or passively or even both.

- Practical: Money, clothing, time, transport system, weather, food, etc.  

These are instances which indicate the potential danger for students studying overseas. Nevertheless, short-term ‘semester abroad’ programmes and cultural exchange programmes in English speaking environments and elsewhere can be beneficial. They are often sociolinguistic in nature, with special focus being paid to personal interactions and second-language acquisition. 

An integrationist approach ignited by the hosting university which encourages students to avoid being socially and linguistically separate can be beneficial and would encourage students to actively engage with the cultural practices of the countries they find themselves in. 

In this context, universities must be obliged to invest in having an International Office that is designated, fully capacitated, responsive, proactive and comprehensive. It must facilitate a process of having all university stakeholders to take an active part in practically learning much more about international students’ backgrounds and needs so as to more effectively adapt and develop the provisions they offer to them.

When international students and host universities take a deliberate and an active role in learning to consciously exchange language, culture, food and values, the benefits are worthwhile in the long term politically, socially, and economically. According to the OECD, when such students are adults in future leading in government, business, and civil society, they will boost the relationships between the two countries that academically accommodated the student previously. 

One would recall the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe when he was speaking at the University of Fort Hare Centenary celebrations in 2016, where he is an international alumni. Controversies aside, one cannot forget the gravity of his address when he boldly remarked in his opening sentence: “here I was academically born, here I was transformed and here is where I truly discovered my African identity”. 

- Pedro Mzileni is a master’s sociology student and SRC President at Nelson Mandela University.

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