The ‘international student experience’ is of increasing interest to researchers, educators and policy-makers alike. Social connectedness has been found to be key to the quality of this experience, both in terms of student wellbeing and adjustment to new academic and sociocultural environments (Ward et al., 2001). International students typically lack familiar social support structures in the host country, making the formation of social ties a paramount objective for this group. Study abroad is therefore, first and foremost, a social experience.
there is overwhelming evidence that international students, across different locations, struggle to instigate and maintain meaningful contact with local people
Research suggests that international students typically form social ties with three distinct groups: co-nationals, host nationals, and other international students (Hendrickson et al., 2011, Schartner, 2015). Of these, social contact with host nationals, or ‘local people’, is often seen as especially desirable, both by researchers and students themselves, not least for the perceived benefits in terms of linguistic and cultural learning. However, there is overwhelming evidence that international students, across different locations, struggle to instigate and maintain meaningful contact with local people, often despite their best efforts. Seventy per cent of postgraduate students surveyed by UKCISA in 2004 reported not having any British friends at all. Where host contact does occur, this tends to be limited to functional and formulaic encounters. As one student in my own research put it, ‘It’s just the lady I meet in Tesco or the cab driver’ (Schartner, 2015). In light of these findings, some speak of a ‘ghettoization’ of international students on our campuses (Deardorff, 2009), while others fear that lack of host contact may lead to feelings of disillusionment and disenchantment among this group (Brown, 2009).
But is ‘host’ necessarily ‘best’? There is now increasing evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that friendships with ‘comparable others’ (i.e. peers also going through the study abroad experience) can enable international students to have a positive experience independent of the host society. These ‘international communities of practice’ (Montgomery & McDowell, 2009) have been found to not only augment students’ sense of wellbeing and belonging, but also to boost their academic performance (Young et al., 2013). Likewise, research has shown that social ties with co-nationals, whether face-to-face or via social media, are of vital importance to international students’ wellbeing (Schartner, 2015). Nonetheless, these bonds are often discouraged or sneered at, to the point that students feel they ought to avoid any contact with their compatriots during their time abroad.
Contact with host nationals appears to be no longer the single most important factor for achieving integration with the host environment
So should host universities advocate international and co-national ties as a valuable alternative to host contact? I would dare to answer this question with a tentative yes. Contact with host nationals appears to be no longer the single most important factor for achieving integration with the host environment. Instead, international students seem to obtain the most effective support from their sojourning peers, including opportunities to develop their language skills. As one of my students recently put it, ‘I don’t need the British to communicate in English’.
International students arguably want to belong, but whether this must necessarily mean ‘fitting in’ with host nationals is doubtful. This raises the question whose need it is to achieve integration with hosts. One wonders whether it is in fact the institutional endeavour to achieve ‘internationalisation at home’ that drives and perpetuates the notion that host is best.
Contact with ‘home’ students and the local community at large should of course be encouraged wherever possible, but the number of British friends may not be the best, or only, indicator for the quality of international students’ social experience at UK universities. Perhaps it is time to call for a more holistic and inclusive understanding of social integration, one that acknowledges the multilingual and multicultural reality international students encounter at our universities.
Brown, L. (2009). A failure of communication on the cross-cultural campus. Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(4), 439- 454.
Deardorff, D. K. (2009). Connecting international and domestic students. In M. Andrade & N. Evans (Eds.), International students: Strengthening a critical resource. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, K. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 281–295.
Montgomery, C., & McDowell, L. (2009). Social networks and the international student experience: A community of practice? Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(4), 455–466.
Schartner, A. (2015). ‘You cannot talk with all of the strangers in a pub.’ A longitudinal case study of international postgraduate students’ social ties at a British University. Higher Education, 69(2), 225-241.
UKCOSA (2004), Broadening Our Horizons: International Students in UK Universities and Colleges, UKCOSA: London.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock (2nd Ed.). Hove: Routledge.
Young, T. J., Sercombe, P. G., Sachdev, I., Naeb, R., & Author, (2013). Success factors for international postgraduate students’ adjustment: Exploring the roles of intercultural competence, language proficiency, social contact and social support. European Journal of Higher Education, 3, 151-171.