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Journal of International Students
International Students’ Adjustment Problems and Behaviors
Jerry G. Gebhard, EdD
Professor Emeritus, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (USA)
Professor of English Education, Pusan National University (Korea)
Abstract
This article focuses on the kinds of adjustment problems that international students had while they studied at a
university in the United States, as well as the adjustment behaviors they used when faced with these problems.
Qualitative data was collected and analyzed for over a decade through on-going interviews with 85 international
students, as well as through observation field notes and student-written narratives about their adaptation
experiences. Findings show that students were challenged by academics, social interaction, and emotional
reactions to their new life. To manage their problems, students made use of behaviors that can facilitate adapting
to the new culture, as well as behaviors that can obstruct them from adapting. Facilitative behaviors include
coping strategies, use of supportive people, observation and imitation, and reflection. Behaviors interpreted as
impeding adaptation include expecting others to adapt, complaining, and withdrawing.
Key Words: International Students, Adjustment Issues, Adaptation Experiences, Qualitative Research
International students face a variety of adaptation
challenges while studying in the United States, and one
of the goals of this qualitative study was to identify the
kinds of problems that students at a mid-sized
university faced. A second goal was to discover the
kinds of behaviors they used when faced with these
problems.
Researchers have provided an understanding of the
kinds of problems international students have while
adapting to university life, and one of the most
discussed is problems with academic language. They
have reported that students often have trouble
understanding professors’ expectations and grading
style (Zhou, Freg & Bang, 2006), taking lecture notes
(Huang, 2006), articulating their knowledge on essay
exams and reading textbooks in a timely fashion (Lin
& Yi, 1997), comprehending professors (Kuo, 2011),
and giving oral presentations, asking the professor
questions and interacting in seminar discussions
(Coward, 2003; Ferris & Tagg, 1996; Gebhard, 2010;
Han, 2007; Kao & Gansneder, 1995; Liu, 2001).
Han (2007), for example, discovered that
international students across an American university’s
graduate programs had trouble participating in whole
class seminar discussions because of anxiety and
insufficient content knowledge. Similarly, Coward
(2003) studied interaction between Americans and
students from China, Korea, and Taiwan during
graduate seminar discussions and concludes that these
184 ISSN: 2162-3104 Print/ ISSN: 2166-3750 Online
Copyright © by JIS http://jistudents.org/
students were continuously trying to understand what
was going on in class, when they could talk, and what
role they should employ. In another kind of study, Lee
& Carrasquillo (2006) analyzed the perceptions of
professors on the linguistic/cultural characteristics that
contribute to academic difficulties of Korean college
students in the United States. These include: Being
uncomfortable with speaking in class; viewing
professors as having absolute authority, having trouble
expressing critical thoughts; having difficulty
answering negative questions.
Another challenge for many students is a lack of
familiarity with American intricate social rules for
interacting (Barratt & Huba, 1994; Ingman, 2003; Lee,
Kang, & Yum, 2005; Rose-Redwood, 2010; Swagler &
Ellis, 2003; Zhou, Frey & Bang, 2011). For example,
many Americans tend to use direct communication to
turn down invitations, complain, or ask for
clarification. However, some Asians, depending on the
cultural context, will use more indirect ways to do
these things (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2004), such as
some Chinese students turning down an invitation to a
party by accepting the invitation with hesitancy,
indicating that they likely won’t be able to attend
(Gebhard, 2010; Wang, Brislin, Wang, Williams &
Chao, 2000; Yum, 2000).
Much of the research on international student
university adjustment focuses on students’
psychological stress and challenges, including dealing
Fall 2012 Vol. 2 Issue 2
with high levels of anxiety, depression, and other
emotional problems (Alazzi & Chiodo, 2006; Chen,
1999; Constantine, Kindaichi, Okazaki, Gainor &
Baden, 2005; Dao, Lee & Chang, 2007; Heggins &
Jackson, 2003; Lin & Yi, 1997; Nilsson, Butler, Shouse
& Joshi, 2008). For example, Zhou, Frey & Bang
(2011) point out that students from individualistic
cultural backgrounds, such as students from many
European countries, felt serious adjustment stress and
mental problems due to being treated as a foreigner,
while students from both individualistic and
collectivist cultures (many countries throughout Asia
and Latin America) felt stress and mental difficulty due
to gender discrimination, racial stereotyping, and
language discrimination.
However, the mental anguish that people,
including students, feel when they live in a new culture
often comes from a barrage of small cultural
differences that can have a powerful emotional impact
on students. As Adler (1975) and Storti (2001) discuss,
doing everyday things that were easy for students to do
in their home countries are no longer easy, and due to
academic, social, and sometimes financial problems,
students can start feeling a variety of emotions,
including loneliness, confusion, frustration, anger, and
depression. When this happens, students sometimes
view the host culture with suspicion and reject cultural
differences. However, most students gradually adapt,
and as they do, they gain confidence and become more
emotionally stable . Of course, not all students move
through the process in the same way. Some may adapt
quickly while others never fully adapt at all. Others feel
well adapted, and then regress back to feeling culture
shock after having had a series of new problems
(DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2004; Gebhard, 2010;
Purnell, 2000).
During this process of cultural adjustment,
international students are faced with managing these
academic, social, and emotional problems, and
researchers have ascertained that international students
establish a support network of friends, usually
consisting of co-nationals or friends from similar
cultural backgrounds (Alazzi & Chiodo, 2006; Choe,
1996; Furnham & Alibhai, 1985; Hayes & Lin, 1994).
Studies also show that students reach out to the
university and larger community to help them solve
problems. For example, students use the international
office, trusted academic advisors, international student
clubs, and academic services, such as the writing
center, computer labs, and tutoring services (AlMubarak, 2000; Zhou, Frey & Bang, 2011). Choe
(1996) points out that some Korean students use the
Journal of International Students
Korean church as a way to cope with adaptation
problems, while Alazzi & Chiodo (2006) reveal that
many Middle Eastern students get involved in religious
activities to help counter stress.
When international students have limited English
proficiency and lack experience and familiarity with
American interactive behaviors, some students find it
difficult to make friends and establish a social network
with Americans (Constantine, et al, 2005). Often these
students withdraw into the expatriate community, and
this action appears to hinder adaptation when the
purpose is to avoid interaction (Storti, 2001). Such
withdrawal, as well as the benefits of international
student interaction with Americans, has been discussed
by a variety of researchers (Gebhard, 2010; Surdam &
Collins, 1984; Toyokawa & Toyokawa, 2002; Yang,
Teraoka, Eichenfield, & Audas, 1994; Rose-Redwood,
2010). For example, Toyokawa & Toyokawa (2002)
researched the association between Japanese students’
engagement in extracurricular activities and their
adaptation. They discovered that when students engage
in activities with Americans, they have more
satisfaction with life and are more involved with
academics. Japanese students who did not engage in
such activities were less satisfied with their lives and
academics.
Research Design & Methodology:
Qualitative Inquiry
This study was guided by principles found in
qualitative inquiry (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994, 2005;
Lincoln, 1995; Richards, 2003, and Bogdan & Biklen,
2006). Verbal descriptions were collected through ongoing interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 2004; Spradely,
1979) many which were audio taped and transcribed.
Observation field notes (Emmerson, Fritz & Shaw,
1995) were also collected and used to generate
descriptions of the students’ lives relative to problems
and behaviors they used to address these problems, and
written narratives were collected from some students.
Further, all data were collected within the participants’
natural settings. Interviews and observations were done
in places students went inside and outside the
university, such as classrooms, dormitories, cafeterias,
supermarkets, and parks.
The goal of collecting and analyzing data was to
gain an emic understanding – in other words,
understanding meaning from the participants’
perspective (Agar, 1996; Spradely, 1979; WatsonGegeo, 1988), and relative to this study, the goal was to
understand what it means to be an international student
185
Journal of International Students
at an American university from the international
students’ perspective. To reach this goal, international
student research assistants worked on this project (from
China, Ghana, Grenada, Kenya, Korea, Nigeria,
Poland, Senegal, Taiwan, Thailand), and some of these
assistants worked on the project for years and were
invaluable. They were able to elicit deeply moving
narratives from classmates, friends, and themselves
about their cultural adjustment experiences. Although I
also developed close trusting relationships with some
of the students and gained privileged access to stories
about their lives, as insiders, some of the international
student researchers were able to gain deeper access to
their lives.
The research assistants and I tried to give students
chances to express themselves as wholly and truthfully
as possible. We attempted to approach on-going
interviews by taking on what Agar (1996) calls a onedown position, in which we accepted each student we
interviewed as having unique knowledge and
experience. We also approached each interview by first
asking grand-tour questions (Spradely, 1979), such as
“What kinds academic problems have you had?” or
“Tell me a story about experiences in the United
States”. We then listened to the recorded interviews and
jotted down follow up mini-tour questions (Spradely,
1979), such as “What is it like to have an American
roommate?” or descriptive questions (Rubin & Rubin,
2004), such as “What do you do when you participate
in in-class discussions with Americans?” and
clarification questions such as, “You told me you had
trouble talking to your American roommate. I’m not
sure I fully understand. Would you mind telling me
again?”
We also discussed issues about interview data
collection. One issue was the reliability of what a
student-interviewee said in response to a question.
When unsure, we designed follow-up questions to
check reliability by asking the participant to answer the
same question but worded in a different way, such as,
“What kinds of problems do you have with listening in
the classroom?” after the interviewee had previously
expressed problems understanding a professor. Another
issue that consistently came up was the inability of
some student-participants to express themselves clearly
in English, especially for students who only recently
had arrived at the university. As the student-participant
and interviewer often spoke different native languages,
we talked about the need for interviewers to paraphrase
what student-interviewees said to check understanding,
as well as the need to create follow-up questions to ask
the student during another interview. Also, when the
186 ISSN-2162-3104
interviewer spoke the same native language, the
interviews sometimes were done in that language and
then translated into English. A third issue was about
bias (Agar, 1980) since the international students who
were interviewing other international students might
unconsciously infer their own personal adjustment
problems onto the questions they ask or their
interpretation of what an answer to a question means.
In addition to on-going verbal interviews, I also
requested some students to write narratives about their
experiences. I emphasized that I was only interested in
factual accounts of their lives related to adjustment to
the US and their university lives. I also told them they
could write about any aspect of cultural adjustment,
such as problems, successes, interesting or awful
experiences, and accomplishments, as well as tell their
true story in their own way. After reading the
narratives, I often talked with the students individually
about what they wrote, not only to check my
understanding but also to check the reliability of the
story.
I carried on-going analysis of the descriptive data
(spoken & written narratives, observations, field notes)
and let findings emerge from this analysis, and
interpretations were made about what these findings
mean. To facilitate this process, I listened to the
recorded interviews many times, as well as studied
transcripts. I placed written narratives in sight so I
could easily read and reread them, and wrote notes on
them as I read. As more and more interviews were
conducted and narratives written, I gradually was able
to categorize the kinds of challenges students had and
strategies that both created and impeded opportunities
for students to prevail over these challenges.
Findings
Kinds of Adaptation Challenges
Much like other researchers have discovered, as
discussed in the review of literature, there were three
overlapping kinds of problems that the international
students in this study faced, including difficulties with
academics, social interaction, and handling emotions.
Not surprisingly, many students emphasized challenges
with academics, but a language problem that surprised
some students was academic reading. As a graduate
student expressed, “In Korea in a course the professor
only uses one book. Here I have to read many books,
and content is difficult. I can’t finish all my homework
reading. It is a big problem” (Interview #28). In
addition, some students found professors’ lectures and
Fall 2012 Vol. 2 Issue 2
seminars challenging. Students reported that some
professors were organized and easy to follow, but
others talked impulsively and digressively which was
problematic for some of them. A student from Taiwan
expressed such a problem during her first few General
Psychology lectures: “I tried to take notes in English
and Chinese, but I couldn’t follow the professor’s ideas.
Later a classmate told me (that) this professor — He
likes to tell stories about his family and life in the
middle of a lecture” (Interview #19).
Seminars, where students were expected to ask
questions, answer the professor’s questions and discuss
topics, challenged many of the students in this study.
For example, an enthusiastic British student reported
that he was frustrated to find himself with his hand
“permanently up” during professor led discussions and
being “ignored even when it is my turn to speak”. His
problem was, as he later realized, cultural. In Britain
“teachers are obligated to remember who is next so that
everyone has a chance to contribute to the discussion.
But, here, the teacher seems to randomly acknowledge
a student to answer or ask a question” (Interview #21).
However, students from Asian countries, especially
students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, had
the most difficulty. For example, a student from Taiwan
pointed out, “There was one class which made me
extremely nervous. I guess that is because it only had
15 students, we were expected to talk, and all my
classmates were native speakers.” She goes on to say
that she prepared for each class, and she wanted to
answer the teacher’s questions, but she never got a
chance. As she put this, “Every time I got some ideas,
I tended to rehearse my lines in my mind first to make
sure I used the correct words and sentence structures.
Whenever I was ready and brave enough to raise my
hand, I found the cruel fact that the subject of
discussion had moved to the next one” (Written
narrative #21).
In addition to academic language problems, some
Asian students were disappointed and anxious about
their inability to socially interact with Americans when
they first arrived. For example, a student from China
articulated, “My new American roommate started
talking really fast. I couldn’t understand anything she
said after, ‘Hi. I’m Nancy.’ It was like I have never
heard English before!” (Interview #26). Another
example shows the social realities of sharing a room
with a young American. A Thai student’s roommate
and her friends came into the room to play music, talk,
and eat, and she was surprised by their behavior: “One
girl sits on my bed with her shoes on. In Thailand, you
know, we take shoes off in our room. I know that in
Journal of International Students
America this is not the custom. But, it makes me feel
uncomfortable. My bed feels dirty.” She added: “I also
get so embarrassed! My roommate, she takes off all her
clothes in front of me. Thai people, we don’t do like
that. We are shy” (Interview #8).
In addition to academic and social adjustment
challenges, students expressed how emotionally
challenging adapting to another culture can be. They
said that everyday things, such as registering for
classes, paying bills, using the telephone, installing
cable television, finding a cell phone plan, and even
crossing the street were no longer easy. This was partly
due to using English, rather than their native language,
but it was also because the rules about how to do such
things were no longer the same. As Storti (2001) puts
this, “You expect to have to learn how to do new things
overseas and even new ways of doing familiar things,
but you may be surprised to discover that you have to
learn to do things you normally do without thinking”
(pp. 12-13).
Constant effort to do everyday things became
emotionally exhausting for some students. This often
resulted in feelings of depression and homesickness.
Thinking about her initial university experiences, a
student from Taiwan expressed her emotional turmoil
in this way: “I don’t know how I can deal with my
problems. I feel angry one minute, sad few minutes
later, and sleepy few minutes later! I can’t sleep at
night, and I now criticize everything and everyone,
especially professors” (Written narrative #32). A
student from Kenya showed her personal emotional
turmoil with outbursts of complaining about
Americans: “To me, being ‘Americanized’ is being
rude. It’s being arrogant. It’s being self-centered. It’s
being selfish. It’s being overbearing, controlling,
ignorant. To be honest, it’s being ignorant” (Interview
#61).
It is important to point out that not all students had
severe emotional reactions to the cultural differences
and new challenges, and most students who become
emotionally overwhelmed were able to adjust.
However, how successful students were at getting
beyond emotional problems and overcoming
challenging adaptation problems depended on how
they approached their problems, as I discuss in the next
section.
Students Facing Challenges: Behaviors That Seem
to Work
The students in this study used a variety of coping
strategies. All coped by using reminders of their
187
Journal of International Students
home culture. They put photos of family and friends on
their wall or computer sc …
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