American Higher Ed doesn’t understand what is means to be an International Student.
That’s a fairly blanket statement, but overall International Students are some of the populations of students that are so hard to truly serve in higher education properly. I had never been an international student before. The closest thing I had ever been was an out of state student. I am from the great state of Texas and I received my undergraduate degree in Oklahoma, which by some standards of people is a mortal sin, and now I’m living in Arkansas where my coworkers are also transplants to the state. Needless to say I’m used to being the outside person, the out of towner and the new guy.
However, nothing completely prepared me for spending the summer in China.
I had been to China twice before, and the the longest time before was a 3 week stint where I met my friend and other Americans. This was the first time that I was going to be on my own in a foreign country and also my longest amount of time abroad. This is possibly a similar story to some other students who we consider international students, but regardless in China I was an International Student.
As an international student I was going through culture shock. To familiarize some of you with the culture shock continuum is that it simply is excitement that everything that is new, next is the beginning of slight discomfort, then there is actual discomfort and shock which leads to what we see in many international students which is shutting down and solidarity. After the major shock there is a slow recovery into full synthesis. Some people can be pulled back into shock and synthesis is not always met.
I was ready. I understood culture shock, and so I was “aware” of all of the major cliffs and valleys I was going to have while in China. I didn’t realize that my valley would come two days after my peak.
I was beginning to feel like I was into the swing of things and feeling good. I had befriended some other students who were friends with my roommate, an american and a frenchman. We decided to go down to a place called Taidong and play pool that night. I wasn’t feeling good, but I didn’t think much of it. After struggling to get through the night I tossed and turned in my bed in a hot sweat. I felt so bad. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I then moved myself to my window which I had open to let in the cool night air. At that point I felt it come up and come up quick.
As I finished yacking up my guts out of my second story building onto the dirt of the backside of the building I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and just asked myself, “Why in the world are you in China?” I didn’t realize this till later, but that night was when I had my “shock”. Maybe it came because of the circumstances, but that night I was in full shock and disgust of my surroundings. The next day I stayed in bed (it was the national dragon boat festival holiday so I didn’t have classes or work). I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t eat for a couple of days, and didn’t want to do anything, but get on my computer and sleep. I was in full blown culture shock.
I didn’t think I would react so badly to my surroundings. I had been to China before, and I had always claimed an “iron stomach”. It seemed that I was wrong on all accounts. I was not even strong enough to fight off the dreaded culture shock. However since I understood it, I didn’t stay in my solidarity state long and was back hanging out with the aforementioned students.
Student Affairs professionals must understand that International Students are not only going through other types of development, but also dealing with culture shock and feelings of insecurity and confusion. I’m in no way saying that other students aren’t going through just as many developmental processes, but I am saying that culture tends to be a stronger determinate in affecting an international student than other developmental processes.
I work with International students on a daily basis and even then I thought I had a small understanding, but I really did not. Living day to day, and accomplishing simple tasks was something that had become almost an event. Things that I considered simple back in the U.S. became a new adventure and in some ways a hassle. I slowly began to move out of my shock and into synthesis, but I found myself continually finding new things that were international and new to me.
Something as simple as going to dinner became an affair. In a culture such as China where food and meals are very much parts of social culture, I felt out of place ordering and eating as a restaurant by myself. So some nights I wouldn’t eat not because I was busy or not hungry, I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to do it alone. I know that some students feel that way also when they are in the U.S. They just aren’t sure enough in themselves and they decide to stay where they feel safe… their room.
Culture is the largest determinate, but I’ll save that for my next post on being an International Student.
If you take one thing away remember that an International Student is just like any other student. However they are experiencing everything in the context of their own culture and trying to cope in a culture that is not the same as their own. So when dealing with a student always remember that there is always more going on than they are telling you, which can be true for any student.