The phenomenon of students migrating to foreign countries for the purpose of pursuing education has been here for quite a long time. In the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia, there are over 1 million students pursuing higher education hence being exposed to new cultures. These students often experience more stress than the students from the host country mostly due to the adaptation process they have to undergo. This adaptation process is referred to as acculturation. Acculturation can be defined as the process by which a minority group adopts the culture of the group that is dominant. It requires the international students to change their attitudes, values, behaviors and even their identity, in the spirit of conforming to the new culture.
This process is not very easy for the foreign students bearing in mind that their personality and character is something that was build over the years and changing it in a very short time is often accompanied with various degrees of stress depending on an individual student. Personal and situational variables come into play in determining the level of severity of stress that a student undergoes during the acculturation process. They also determine the period of time an individual student takes to undergo the acculturation process. To measure the self esteem and acculturative stress level; the SAFE acculturation stress scale and the Rosenberg self esteem scale are the tools that are normally used.
Low self esteem
In a study carried out on Turkey students by Erdinic and Senel (2007) using the above tools, it was found that International students have low level of self esteem and high levels of accumulative stress. The low self esteem experienced by international students a rises from the feeling of being the minority group in a foreign country and from the discrimination they experience from the students from the local country. Low self esteem leads to the feeling of being inferior and lack of assertiveness. An individual who is not assertive cannot express his own feelings and thoughts about issues and situations. The individual experiences problems in trying to affirm his own identity and this greatly impedes the individual’s success in America or any other country. Many international students are plagued with lack of assertiveness which contributes to stress in these students.
Loneliness and financial pressure
The international students are separated from their own parents and relatives and often times they don’t have anyone to turn to for consolation and comfort during times of difficulties. They are as a result reported to experience high levels of loneliness. The concern for their relatives in their countries also acts as a source of stress. Sometimes the foreign students are faced with financial pressures with no immediate and possible solution in the vicinity. Situations become even more difficult if the foreign students don’t understand English.
Language barrier and academic pressure
They become faced with an uphill task of learning the local language first and in the meantime experiencing a lot of problems in trying to express themselves. Although quite a number of them understand English, lack of fluency in the language affects their confidence when interacting with people and during participations in class discussions. Those who are fluent in English are more likely to excel in their academics since they are assertive and have the confidence to initiate academic discussions and ask questions (Meifen, 2007).
Also contributing to the stress of international students are academic pressures. Although the foreign students may have good academic skills, they are accessible to fewer resources than their American counterparts. They experience stress in trying to adjust to a new education system and way of learning. Difficulties also arise from the adjustment to the college life itself. There social life in the college becomes a nightmare in trying to establish new acquaintances whereby their efforts are sometimes met by rejection, scorn, hatred and discrimination.
Psychosocial distress faced by foreign students can be grouped into two major factors. The first on is linked to interpersonal issue found within self while the other includes more external factors like the cultural milieu and the environment. Generally, both types of psychosocial distress combine and interact with each other (Erdinc & Senel, 2007). Intrapersonal distress involves an individual experiencing a sense of inferiority, sense of uncertainty, sense of profound loss, perceived discrimination, mistrust, threat to cultural identity and perceived hatred. Interpersonal stressors are linked to culture shock, communication barriers, academic pressure, different expectation in education and social support system loss. Intrapersonal stressors factor analysis showed that foreign students perceived alienation and discrimination as the ones stressing them the most. Research findings show that perceived discrimination is less serious in immigrant students than international students. Perceived discrimination leads to more identity conflict, elevated stress, poor academic performance and increased socio cultural and psychosocial adjustment issues (Meifen, 2007).
Self-efficacy is another issue that affects foreign students (Madonna & Sumie, 2004). An individual’s level of self-efficacy determines the degree of stress the individual undergoes and the speed of adjustment to new environment. International students who have a strong sense of self-efficacy about their abilities and competencies help them with emotional adjustment. A strong self-efficacy also assists individuals to confront difficult situations without having to feel confused and overwhelmed. This positive self belief assists individuals to be able to perform new tasks that are challenging besides overcoming hardships. Self-efficacy therefore plays a major role during the stressful acculturation period as it helps protect a person from negative emotions and experiences as well as eminent health impairment. One of the factors that affect affects a foreign student’s self efficacy is perceived skills in English (Erdinc & Senel, 2007).
The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) criteria used to admit students in colleges do not satisfactorily guarantee that the students are fluent in English. A student who scores highly on A TOEFL test may experience real problems when interacting with fellow students in the college due to language barrier. International students with higher levels of fluency in English have been associated to have higher levels of self-efficacy. They consequently have better adjustments to the culture of the host country. With the increased self-efficacy comes high level of assertiveness, confidence and academic efficacy.
Most of foreign students originate from collectivism societies which highly value interpersonal harmony to such an extent that there is an encouragement of passivity and self-restraint among members. Asian international students have been reported in many studies to be passive and less assertive compared to their Caucasian counterparts. As a result, they have higher acculturative stress when compared to other foreign students. Their passivity often leads negative effect on their relationships and interactions with peers, teachers and general American associates.
Spirituality is another issue that is associated to stress levels experienced by international students during the period of acculturation. Spirituality refers to the belief in a higher power and the divine expression of this belief which governs an individual’s existence. It is different from religion in the sense that religion is a collective belief in higher power or God while spirituality is relational and personal meanings people attach to life experiences. Consequently, people with no religious background or beliefs can develop experiences that are spiritual and meaningful. Spirituality can assist international students attach meaning to their stressful situations and be more adaptive to stressful conditions.
People who have high religious salience and spirituality are known to engage in health promoting activities such as exercising regularly, taking of a healthy diet and responsible healthy habits and practices. It is argued that such individuals can feel better self worth, God’s love and have better chance of realizing their full potential. However, some reports indicate that college students who were having high levels of spirituality were also said to having high levels of stress and anger. It is assumed that students would likely turn to spirituality to cope with high levels of anger and stress. Although the findings about spirituality that have been tabled have been inconsistent, questioning the issue of spirituality itself, it has of late begun to be given attention by researchers (Madonna & Sumie, 2004).
In conclusion, acculturation can be said to be a very difficult process for foreign students studying in the United States. The process leads to considerable stress in the students. In many instances, somatic symptoms have been observed and diagnonized. Sometimes, the level of stress can be so high to the extent of luring the foreign students into drugs. During the acculturation process certain aspects of the new culture an individual comes in contact with are taken up and assimilated by the individual. However the individual also has the option of totally declining to assimilate any aspect of the new culture. Stress levels are likely to be very high for those international students who resist assimilating most of the aspects of the American culture. There is a tendency for such students to withdraw into themselves and become angry to the new world a round them. There social life becomes greatly affected due the very limited number of people the students are willing to interact with.
All in all, when international students come to America to study, they initially undergo the usual culture shock after which they adapt to their new environment together with the foreign culture. This adaptation brings with it changes in the individual student both in character and behavior. When such a student returns to his/her home country they are also faced with culture shock again. This is also known as ‘reentry culture shock.’ It is therefore upon the student to appreciate that he/she has changed to some degree. The parents and relatives of such a student should try to show the student support and understanding.