What helps international students to adapt

November 28, 2017

Conscious decision-making and internalized intentions, as opposed to extrinsic influencing factors, are the key to a student's successful adaption to life in a foreign country. This was confirmed by research carried out by a group of scientists which included Ken Sheldon, Academic Supervisor and Head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). The research was published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014717671730216X

Numerous factors can influence the adaptation of international students, such as their knowledge of the local language, personality features, gender and age. Also important are the goals that the international student hopes to achieve in studying abroad. In this research project, scientists considered the link between the type of motivation and the level of cultural shock and subjective well-being. Approximately 130 individuals participated in the research project, all of whom were studying either at the University of Missouri (77%) or at other higher education institutions in the USA. Roughly half of the subjects were aged between 18 and 25, the remainder were over the age of 25. More than 70% of subjects were from Asian countries, 12% from European countries and 6% from both North and South America.

The study of HSE confirmed that students with internal motivation to study abroad, who came to the U.S. because it would be interesting and meaningful, cope more easily with culture shock and experience a higher level of subjective well-being. In contrast, young people with external motivation based on pleasing others or gaining monetary rewards experienced difficulties in adapting.

As part of the research project, students were required to assess the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements relating to their reasons for choosing to study in the USA. Autonomous motivation corresponded to the following explanations: 'Because I wanted to feel proud of myself'; 'Because I regard tertiary study in the USA highly'; 'Because I will enjoy studying in the USA'. Controlled motivation (the opposite of autonomous) was indicated by such statements as: 'Honestly, I don't know why I chose to study in the USA', 'Because, if I hadn't chosen to study in the USA, everyone around me would have gone crazy', 'Because I would have felt guilty if I hadn't chosen to study in the USA'.

According to self-determination theory, there exist various levels of autonomy or self-determination. At one end of the spectrum are those who feel completely controlled, and at the other, those who feel completely autonomous. When people are autonomously motivated, they have the impression that they personally decide how to act. That is, their behaviour correlates with their interests and values. In the case of controlled motivation, the person feels coerced into doing something. This feeling of coercion may be a result of external factors (such as material benefits) or internal (such as a sense of guilt).

In the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 300 000 new international students attended American higher education institutions. According to researchers, studying abroad, in addition to bringing with it experience and knowledge, brings many challenges due to the necessity of adapting to an unknown physical, cultural and linguistic environment. As a result, young people can experience feelings of isolation, depression and a decrease in their level of subjective well-being.

Another possible effect - culture shock. In contemporary scientific literature, culture shock is described as manifestations of inadequate psychological reactions and the forming of psychological disturbances in response to the change in surroundings. Scientific results confirm that the experience of culture shock has a negative impact on the psychological and socio-cultural adaptation of international students.

Where autonomous motivation to study abroad is concerned, it is likely that a tendency to be open to new experiences can be helpful to students, according to researchers. Also, concordance between this decision and their own aspirations gives the new students the necessary resources to withstand stress in an unfamiliar situation.

Researchers also clarified the role of other factors influencing international students' adaptation abroad. Young people who are highly extroverted and exhibit a low level of neuroticism become used to a new environment more quickly. In contrast, difficulties in communicating, and a low level of proficiency in the local language, can have effects which are connected to culture shock.

Also, older students adapt more easily to new conditions than their younger peers.

The results of this research, as noted by the authors, have a practical application. They can be used in preparing students for study at institutions abroad. For example, before leaving, students can clarify their motivations and work on them, so that they arrive at their destination with more self-endorsed goals. Conversation starters such as the following could help: "It seems that you are going away in order to please your dad. But let's have a think about how this can be good for you too, and not just for him".

Authors also noted that it is imperative to continue with research in this field, as well as to widen the cultural context. In particular, it would be beneficial to examine differences between nationalities and to look at, for example, how American students who go abroad experience the process of adaptation.

National Research University Higher School of Economics

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