by: Dr. Rod Gillett, EduCo, Group Education Director
“International students tend to ‘ghetto-ise’ themselves.” (University World News, 29 August 2014)
The above quote comes from a piece written by acclaimed international higher education researcher Phillip Altbach of Boston College’s Center for Higher Education, and it reveals much about the lack of academic, cultural, and social integration on university campuses around the world. Altbach refers specifically to the way that Chinese students at US universities “ghetto-ise” themselves, meaning that they do not extensively integrate with the domestic student body or campus culture. To address this issue, Altbach calls for a more effective integration of international students, arguing that success in this regard requires programs that draw on the participation of domestic students and campus staff who are trained in cross-cultural communication.
These challenges may not be so pronounced here in Canada, but given the strategic importance of this issue for both the nation and individual institutions, it might be helpful for our internationalization professionals to keep an eye on the insights we can gain from those who have been conducting research in these areas for some time.
Strategies for International Student Retention & Success
The latest research indicates that international students encounter a unique set of challenges related to academic and social integration when they arrive at campuses outside their home countries. They often experience a mismatch between their pre-arrival expectations and the realities of school life once they begin their studies. According to Lee (2010), these factors can negatively affect international student retention if not addressed. Further research by Smith & Khawaja (2011) shows that institutions play an important role in the acculturation and integration process, which highlights the need to create positive environments that are intentionally designed to boost student fulfillment and retention.
Proactive Language Practice
An Australian study reports that international students share an overwhelming desire to be accepted and to succeed, but they tend to be so sensitive about their language abilities that they may not seek help when they need it. The researchers contend that the issues international students encounter are most often addressed through counseling after the fact. Further, these researchers argue that institutions should focus on proactive programming that can assist students on day one as part of their initial integration into the campus community.
For international students in Canada, the issue of English language proficiency is the most significant barrier against integrating with other students on campus, and the solution to this problem appears to be both social and academic in nature. Buddy systems, mandatory attendance at campus community events run by domestic students, and a robust tutoring program (including a study skills course and staged language testing) are just a few of many techniques that can help address this issue.
Recent research by Glass and Westmont shows that a sense of belonging can increase students’ levels of intercultural interaction and academic achievement. The research defined “sense of belonging” as a sense of connection with the university, along with a strong support network and a balance of academic challenge and assistance. Glass and Westmount administered the Global Perspective Inventory (GPI) to over 18,500 students at campuses across the US and found the following:
- A high sense of belonging had a strong positive effect on intercultural interaction;
- A high sense of belonging had a strong positive effect on academic success;
- These effects occurred for both international and domestic students, but were particularly strong for international students.
Glass and Westmont were also interested in finding out whether engagement in ‘extracurricular activities’ could increase students’ levels of intercultural interaction and sense of belonging. Using the GPI, they found through a structural equation model that engagement in extracurricular activities had a strong positive effect on sense of belonging and thereby affected academic success in a similarly positive way.
Recent studies conducted in the US by EduCo for its pathway program have employed and tested the abovementioned strategies against critical Key Performance Indicators: attendance, academic results, and student satisfaction surveys. The research found that the average attendance rate for students rose from 89% to 92% after completion of a Foundation Year Program (FYP). The average GPA for those enrolled in an FYP was 3.2 at the completion of the program. The student satisfaction survey results were overwhelmingly positive, showing that 100% of participants were satisfied with the course and the faculty, 100% were satisfied with the college and its facilities, and 100% felt someone on campus cared for them as an individual. It is worth noting that 90% of students attended the six co-curricular events offered to the cohort.
While these findings may be considered by some experts to be “common sense,” the key to their success lies in the use of intentional program design with built-in modes of measurement and evaluation. Establishing and maintaining personal contact with students, actively monitoring their progress, and providing a set of programmatic activities and services will result in a greater likelihood of FYP completion and subsequent success in undergraduate studies.