Cul­tural bar­ri­ers must fall

The ex­clu­sion­ary ob­sta­cles that in­ter­na­tional stu­dents face af­fect their aca­demic per­for­mance

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Pe­dro Mzileni

About 4.5-mil­lion stu­dents glob­ally were study­ing out­side their home coun­try, the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) said in 2013.

Jenny Lee and Charles Rice, writ­ing in 2007 in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled Wel­come to Amer­ica? In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent Per­cep­tions of Dis­crim­i­na­tion, recog­nised that in­ter­na­tional stu­dents study­ing in the United States pro­vide the coun­try with a di­verse stu­dent pop­u­la­tion and cre­ate an aware­ness of other cul­tures and coun­tries. Fur­ther­more, they also share knowl­edge and skills in a va­ri­ety of fields, such as tech­nol­ogy, health and en­gi­neer­ing. Those who stay on in the US also add to the coun­try’s in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

Nev­er­the­less, the en­rol­ment of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents (those who study out­side their home coun­try), although com­mend­able, is not with­out its prob­lems. The de­mo­graphic dif­fer­ences of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, such as their gen­der, lan­guage, age, re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, norms, so­cioe­co­nomic back­ground and psy­cho­log­i­cal di­men­sions, such as the way they in­ter­act and con­nect with others, can have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on their so­cial ac­cul­tur­a­tion. In ad­di­tion, the host­ing coun­try and its uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­ment, its in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture and lan­guage can be un­wel­com­ing to some in­ter­na­tional stu­dents and leave them feel­ing un­ful­filled.

Cul­ture and iden­tity play an im­por­tant role in ed­u­ca­tional mod­els. Aca­demic out­comes do not de­pend ex­clu­sively on teach­ing and as­sess­ments. An ed­u­ca­tional model is based in a par­tic­u­lar so­cio­cul­tural con­text, and ed­u­ca­tion is a so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, which in­cludes dif­fer­ent forms of in­ter­ac­tion. There­fore, in a mul­ti­cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment such as a uni­ver­sity, ed­u­ca­tion must be sen­si­tive to the cul­tural back­grounds of the stu­dents and teach­ers and aware of the cul­tural re­la­tion­ships be­tween them.

But the re­al­ity is that stu­dents and uni­ver­si­ties are of­ten not pre­pared for the chal­lenges that such cross-cul­tural en­vi­ron­ments present. Stu­dents from dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­grounds face sev­eral ob­sta­cles when adapt­ing to so­cial life in English-speak­ing uni­ver­si­ties. Con­se­quently, these af­fect their aca­demic per­for­mance and achieve­ment.

So­cial class is a cru­cial in­di­ca­tor and as­pect of cul­tural mem­ber­ship and iden­tity, and stu­dents from mid­dle-class back­grounds have a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage in an ed­u­ca­tional en­vi­ron­ment be­cause schools are based on mid­dle-class val­ues and so­cio­cul­tural prac­tices.

Billy Long, in his pa­per ti­tled Sen­si­tis­ing Un­der­grad­u­ate Stu­dents to the Na­ture of White Priv­i­lege, states that the cri­te­ria for suc­cess im­posed on the uni­ver­sity school­ing sys­tem in­cludes am­bi­tion, in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity, man­ners and cour­tesy, neat­ness, de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion, the ac­qui­si­tion of skills and achieve­ment, ra­tion­al­ity and plan­ning, re­frain­ing from vi­o­lence and re­spect for author­ity. Mid­dle-class stu­dents learn these val­ues from an early age, which gives them a head start in life.

But chil­dren from work­ing-class back­grounds see the uni­ver­sity as an alien­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment. They feel small and in­vis­i­ble or “other” in a space that does not fea­ture, ac­knowl­edge or recog­nise their own cul­tural heritage and so­cial iden­tity. Work­ing-class chil­dren are dis­ad­van­taged be­cause their so­cio­cul­tural norms dif­fer from the uni­ver­sity’s code and in­sti­tu­tional prac­tices.

Lee and Rice fur­ther submit that, in the US, Latino stu­dents strug­gle to ad­just to and adapt Euro­pean aca­demic and so­cial iden­ti­ties. As with other mi­nor­ity groups, they share a sense that speak­ing in their eth­nic lan­guages and their ac­cents also lead to in­sti­tu­tional and so­cial ex­clu­sion.

This is the same case in South Africa where for many stu­dents higher ed­u­ca­tion in­volves adapt­ing to mid­dle-class lin­guis­tic and so­cio­cul­tural val­ues. Savo Heleta, writ­ing in De­coloni­sa­tion of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion: Dis­man­tling Epis­temic Vi­o­lence and Euro­cen­trism in South Africa, ar­gues that the key chal­lenges fac­ing such stu­dents have less to do with the cog­ni­tive as­pects of learn­ing than with the so­cio­cul­tural is­sues of iden­tity, lan­guage and cul­ture, which are the high­est form of aca­demic and so­cial ex­clu­sion.

Be­cause work­ing-class stu­dents feel alien­ated in the mid­dle-class en­vi­ron­ment, they change their be­hav­iour and mould it to what is ac­cept­able in terms of the uni­ver­sity’s code and in­sti­tu­tional prac­tices. In­ter­na­tional stu­dents en­counter the same kind of silent vi­o­lence in South African uni­ver­si­ties.

The five key prob­lems that in­ter­na­tional stu­dents face and the con­di­tions that need to be sat­is­fied for their so­cial ac­cul­tur­a­tion at English­s­peak­ing uni­ver­si­ties are:

O Lan­guage — not be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate with the same ef­fi­cacy or nu­ance as in their eth­nic first lan­guage;

O Ed­u­ca­tional — not un­der­stand­ing the ed­u­ca­tional val­ues or pro­ce­dures of the uni­ver­sity;

O So­cial — not know­ing peo­ple and not un­der­stand­ing the cul­ture;

O Dis­crim­i­na­tion — alien­ation and be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against, ei­ther ac­tively or pas­sively, or even both; and

O Prac­ti­cal — things such as money, cloth­ing, time, trans­port sys­tem, weather and food.

But a short-term semester abroad and cul­tural ex­change pro­grammes in English-speak­ing en­vi­ron­ments and else­where can be ben­e­fi­cial. They are of­ten so­ci­olin­guis­tic in na­ture, with spe­cial fo­cus be­ing paid to per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions and sec­ond-lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion.

An in­te­gra­tionist ap­proach by the host­ing uni­ver­sity to en­cour­age stu­dents to avoid be­ing so­cially and lin­guis­ti­cally sep­a­rate would also help and would en­cour­age stu­dents to in­ter­act with the cul­tural prac­tices of the coun­tries they find them­selves in. So uni­ver­si­ties should set up an in­ter­na­tional of­fice that is re­spon­sive, proac­tive and com­pre­hen­sive. It must fa­cil­i­tate a process for all uni­ver­sity stake­hold­ers to learn more about in­ter­na­tional stu­dents’ back­grounds and needs so they can adapt and de­velop what they of­fer to them.

When in­ter­na­tional stu­dents and host uni­ver­si­ties con­sciously ex­change lan­guage, cul­ture, food and val­ues, the long term ben­e­fits are po­lit­i­cally, so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally worth­while. Ac­cord­ing to the OECD, when these stu­dents be­come lead­ers in gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and civil so­ci­ety, they will boost the re­la­tion­ships be­tween coun­tries.

One re­calls what Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe said at the Uni­ver­sity of Fort Hare cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions in 2016, where he stud­ied. “Here I was aca­dem­i­cally born, here I was trans­formed and here is where I truly dis­cov­ered my African iden­tity.”

The re­al­ity is that stu­dents and uni­ver­si­ties are of­ten not pre­pared for the chal­lenges that such cross-cul­tural en­vi­ron­ments present

In­te­grate: Uni­ver­si­ties need to con­cen­trate on help­ing stu­dents from dif­fer­ent back­grounds – class, cul­ture, coun­try – feel a part of the in­sti­tu­tion to help them aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially. Photo: Ja­son Reed/Reuters

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