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Bridging the cultural divide in international higher education

Universities talk about internationalisation and diversity, but often students voluntarily self-segregate on campus. Instead, institutions should be looking at how to encourage students to be more resilient and open to change and different ways of thinking.

The raw material of resilience is intellect, physical robustness and emotional stability that derives from networks of external support (family, friends, teachers etc.), internal support (abilities and skills and learning to develop them) and existential support (meaning, values and faith).

While each of these support mechanisms is culture-bound, encounters with other cultures may bring new understanding and shifting mind-sets, building positive self-image, and opening up new opportunities and worldviews.

Ultimately, resilient thinking challenges ‘automatic thinking’ styles and rigid beliefs while building tolerance for frustration and discomfort, promoting relativistic views which are the bedrock of survival in a pluralistic, complex, globalised world.

Most universities in the 21st century boast a richness of diversity among their student population that provides an invaluable resource in developing resilient thinking.

Voluntary social segregation

However, the benefits from cross-cultural encounters tend to be incidental. While valuing diversity, the predominant response to diversity among our students tends to be voluntary social segregation.

Voluntary social segregation is a highly visible phenomenon on university campuses and in classrooms, yet many practitioners in higher education continue to believe that the greatest challenge for international students remains adapting to the host academic culture.

Conversely, students suggest that perceived ‘risk factors’ are not necessarily associated with the demands of academic learning in an unfamiliar educational environment since many international students are equipped with a determination to succeed which serves them well in achieving academic cultural adjustment.

Rather, the most pressing and difficult challenge is one of ‘fitting in’ with host peers. It is this inability to find common identity that undermines the ‘sense of self’, can lead to feelings of self-doubt and isolation and in turn negatively impact on academic performance.

The notion of ‘fitting in’ is, of itself, complex. Students refer, for example, to their inability to understand the nuances of tensions within the wider society in which they study and live because of a lack of background knowledge.

Another problem is negotiating the boundaries of friendship and intimacy in different cultural contexts and encountering peers who might superficially look the same, but are essentially different in the way they think, behave and in terms of what they believe.

Compounding the notion that international students require learning and language support above all else is the tendency to regard them as a relatively homogeneous group, modelling the international student on a sometimes quite negative MBA programme stereotype.

International students as individuals can be very different in terms of background, disposition to learning, broader goals and aspirations, and higher education is not necessarily about acquiring a qualification that will support a future career and comfortable lifestyle.

Rather, the experience or, at the very least, observation of hardship and suffering in their native homelands can be a powerful driving force determining their disposition towards their university experience.

In effect, knowledge becomes the key to understanding the world in which they have lived and to which they continue to be connected (their own personal biographies) and to future attempts to change that world.

A pedagogy for ‘resilient thinking’

Many international students are ‘resilient thinkers’ before they come to university and the student body as a whole can only benefit from the sharing of life experiences.

Rather than a conventional ‘cut and paste’ model of learning in diverse multicultural settings, which fails to engage the sense of ‘self’, learning for future resilient thinking for all students requires curriculum and pedagogic practices that capture the processes involved in negotiating the boundaries of difference within personal and social contexts, taking them forward in ‘real-world’ learning settings.

In effect, conventional classroom-based, cognitive-focused forms of teaching, learning and assessment need to be adapted towards more affective and intuitive formats, which address and challenge students’ engagement not only with the subject, but also with the broader context of their own biographies and lifeworlds.

International and home students engaging with difference and reaping the full benefits of that engagement require support in developing cross-cultural capability and resilience which, in turn, requires us as higher education teachers to acknowledge that:

  • Developing cross-cultural capability is likely to be an uphill struggle with few positive outcomes if curricula fail to connect with students in their own time and space because cross-cultural capability is not an absolute – like resilience, it is emergent, iterative, involves shifting dispositions and is highly dependent upon life experience.

  • Cross-cultural capability is not necessarily about travelling the world accumulating knowledge about different cultures and the different ways in which people live. It is nurtured by interventions that harness and explore the difference that students and staff bring to university campuses.

  • Cultural diversity alone does not automatically lead to intercultural learning experiences. The social experience of ‘otherness’ has to be transformed into a personally relevant learning experience which can lead to stress, negative feelings and disruption of one’s own cultural worldview in the short term, but in the long term will build future resilient thinking.

Resilience and cross-cultural capability therefore form a mutually reinforcing virtuous circle in which transition is a key concept that pervades the entire journey through higher education and beyond. In the 21st century globalised world, our students operate in the context of complex and interconnected present, past and future life trajectories.

The continued maintenance of an authentic connection with prior and ongoing learning and life experiences based on a dialogue between pre-university and higher education in terms of learning styles, teaching and learning cultures etc., provides the raw material to promote resilience and the ability to negotiate, and realise the opportunities afforded by, encounters with difference.

This implies then not only a new pedagogy, but also a new model of personal support based on a holistic approach, where concern is for the ‘whole person’, acknowledging the complex living space that students occupy and drawing on trust, empathy and mutual respect, which are paramount in enabling students to build on existing resilient traits in order to develop new coping strategies.

The most abiding characteristics of our students today are their diversity, yet common identity in a complex, globalised world, where resilience is the key to the future.

The greatest challenge for us as practitioners in higher education is to create the curriculum space, the pedagogic interventions and the support structures that will enable students to engage with difference, challenge rigid views, find the common territory and become future resilient thinkers.

* Dr Viv Caruana is reader in internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. This article is based on a Higher Education Academy UK-funded project, available here.
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