Understanding the International Student Experience

It is rare that international education in the English-speaking countries becomes manifest as the "rich intercultural experience" that marketing brochures like to talk about. A persistent finding in the research on international education is that for many international students, a major disappointment is their failure to establish meaningful local friendships. Yet the research also shows that most international students are open to new experiences, and undergo significant personal transformations during their sojourn abroad.

If international students are open and flexible in the face of cultural encounters, and yet are persistently disappointed, then it is the other party to the encounters - the local staff and students who have daily dealings with international students - who can break the stalemate. But if we in the English-speaking nations are to open ourselves to the potentials that large-scale international education offers, we need to know more of these students and more of ourselves.

Catherine Montgomery has written a clear, small study of international students at one UK university, how they network and how they change. Its value lies in the depth of insight into student thinking. She has not drawn her conclusions from a one-off survey, which is the main research tool used to study international students. In surveys of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, the prior assumptions of the researcher define the issues and pre-set the potential for discovery, the voices of the students are muted and anything different or unexpected is screened out in advance. In contrast, after a tour through part of the literature, Montgomery uses participant observation of the daily lives of seven networked students from China, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Italy and the Netherlands over a period of six months.

The resulting picture challenges conventional thinking about international students. International students are often typecast as slow learners with poor English, limited class-participation skills, inability to think critically and a dodgy approach to referencing. In short, they are in learning deficit - if not social deficit. It is no wonder they are studying abroad, goes the thinking, because their home systems are of a poor standard. They badly need our help.

Montgomery turns all of this on its head. Her students are mature, curious and quick to respond and to learn. They are high achievers - and a couple are truly exceptional within their milieu. After an initial period of academic adjustment, they learn to intervene and they power past the locals. They are conspicuously better motivated, focused and more aware of the benefits of higher education.

These students are studying in an English-speaking country not because its culture is intrinsically superior but because English is the global language of business, professions and knowledge. They do not need to abandon the educational backgrounds and cultural identities that they brought to the UK, but they are eager to layer new learning and new identities on top.

The take on the students in Understanding the International Student Experience is generally consistent with the forthcoming book International Student Security (to be published by Cambridge University Press in June), prepared by four authors including myself - although our qualitative study was larger, entailing 200 students, and not all were coping as well as Montgomery's.

In the face of the indifference of local students, Montgomery's international students form close bonds with other international students from different cultural backgrounds. This creates what the author characterises as an education that prepares students to live and work anywhere in the world. There is a whiff of global citizen utopianism about Montgomery's argument here, and she should perhaps think more about the possible ways and means of drawing local students into the cosmopolitan learning she describes. But her book has advanced our understanding.

Understanding the International Student Experience

By Catherine Montgomery, Palgrave Macmillan, 184pp, £22.99. ISBN 9781403986191. Published 15 January 2010

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