International Students' Perceptions of the Orientation Process
Elizabeth Margarita Hernández López
There is a lot of research that has shed light on the topic of internationalization, and inherently on international mobility programs; however, little is known in regards to the actual experiences and perceptions of the students involved in the process. Several authors (Van Hoof and Verbeeten, and Gargano) suggest that the voices of these learners play an essential role in the development of future policies for international programs. Moreover, institutions need to be aware of the quality of the services they offer. The researcher considers the orientation given on behalf of the host University prior and within the first two weeks of the students’ arrival to the new culture, is a determining factor on how promptly and effectively they would adjust to the new environment and consequently, on how successfully they would perform their academic endeavours.
Bearing that in mind, the broad aim of the research is to provide valuable information that might allow practitioners in the area, administrators, educators, advisers and staff, at this particular University realize about their performance in advising international students. A second general objective is to suggest alternative means of support for the orientation process based on the suggestions the students involved made. Finally, this paper specifically intends to explore and analyze the perceptions in regards to the orientation process, of a group of international students, coming from different geographical locations and attending the Social Sciences and Humanities Campus (CUCSH) of the University of Guadalajara.
The ongoing influx of international students as part of the globalization phenomenon has significantly grown within the last few decades. As international students continue impacting higher education, the need to understand this subpopulation as well as to assess and address their needs increase, Hanassan and Tidwell state. They indicate that “international students bring their cultural orientations with them: values, beliefs, patterns of behaviors, ways of learning and thinking” (2002,p.12) which according to Barnes (1991)“enrich the intellectual life of a campus”. Hanassan and Tidwell perceive a lot of gains from international students’ presence. They claim that host nationals benefit through social interactions with them, the learning environment is also enriched due to the experiences and perspectives of international students; moreover, long-term commercial, trade, and diplomatic links with other countries are established.
Van Hoof and Verbeeten (2005)point out that “ the study of international education has started to move from a purely theoretical and conceptual approach to a more analytical approach, a sign that international education has not only gained importance as a field of study but also has become an important part of many university curricula all over the world. As more and more institutions have begun to mandate an international experience in the degree programs of their students, be in the form of a semester of studies or an industry internship, more quantitative and qualitative research is needed to improve the quality of the programs offered and to test the validity of the assumptions on which those programs are built. It is no longer sufficient for educators to say that the international study experience is invaluable and necessary in the education of our students because they think it is so. These opinions need to be backed up with hard facts (…)”. These same authors indicate that “it is important for the study of international education to start analyzing the perceptions of the students involved in such programs, not only to corroborate predominant ideas about the benefits and challenges of international education but also for purely practical reasons. The practitioners on the field, those who administer international programs and maintain international relationships on behalf of their universities, need to know what students think about their product offerings”. Van Hoof and Verbeeten (2005) claim that the institutions “needs to be aware of costumer sentiments when they market and sell these programs to future respondents and in making modifications to existing programs, and those decisions need to be based on facts” (p.54).
Gargano in her work (Re)conceptualizing International Student Mobility claims that international students are very diverse and they all come (to the United States higher education system) with a variety of skills, worldviews, histories, and educational experiences that cannot be homogenized as international students’ experiences based on the assumption that they all went through a similar educational experience. This is instead “proliferating generalizations where great diversity at the intersection of cultures actually exists”. A point of paramount significance on her paper is the absence of international student voices and the complexity of their experiences from discourses on international student mobility. She believes little attention has been given to the populations or individuals involved in the learning process whereas the various forms of education have been greatly emphasized. Moreover, she states “ the limitations of scholarly literatures reverberate on campuses where policies and programs isolate, marginalize, and stereotype international students needs and interests” (Gargano,2008, p.9). and therefore, she proposes that “a personal level of analysis be included in the literatures that address cross-border education policies and practices to ensure that student voices are at the core of discourses on international student mobility” (p.12).
Hanassab and Tidwell argue that getting adapted to a new country and lifestyle can be difficult for international students. “When they arrive, new circumstances suddenly impose a variety of competing roles and demands. Students must learn how to meet these demands quickly at the same time they are attempting to settle into their new academic environments. If this is not addressed, there may be serious problems related to the achievement of the international students’ educational goals” (2002, p.15). According to them, the focus, of in workshops and orientation sessions on cultural adjustment for “new” and “continuing” international students, should be on career and vocational decisions as well as on immigration rules and regulations.
The authors greatly value the application of an effective needs assessment to international students since its results can have consequences on the delivery of services from the institutions on higher education. Such results can prompt a reformulation or modification of the existing policies in a way that adequately respond the different groups of international students. Those changes in future policies are where students’ experiences have a lot to contribute with. Another essential aspect is to raise awareness and sensitivity to different cultures from top administration to faculty and staff members. Cultural differences should be valued and appreciated.
Entering the higher education system is per se a difficult experience that brings with it anxiety transition periods. In spite of it, international students have to cope with the need to get adapted to a set of cultural, social and educational changes (Schram&Lauver,1988). These issues can be overwhelming for international students, indicate Selvadurai. When colleges and universities desire to provide international students with quality assistance, “ all university personnel (faculty members, administrators, and staff members)need to increase their awareness of the particular needs and concerns of these students (Zhang and Dixon in Hanassab and Tidwell)
METHOD AND DATA COLLECTION
The design of the study follows the methodology of qualitative research, specifically a grounded study based on interviews. Eleven international students from various majors, partaking a semester, a year or the whole pre- graduate career at the Social Sciences and Humanities Campus (CUCSH) of the University of Guadalajara, were interviewed.
The questionnaire was designed to gain insights into the perceptions of students about the orientation process given by the host University. As stated earlier, the intent was twofold. First, take into consideration the students’ opinion; then, suggest alternative means of support in regards to the orientation process currently provided. For instance, questions such as: “Did you get any orientation, on behalf of the host University, regarding: immigration matters, administrative issues, academic processes, university life, Mexico’s cultural surrounding and accommodations? If so, do you consider such orientation useful?” “If your answer was negative, do you consider that providing an orientation to International students would be beneficial to students?” “How would you consider the orientation given by the host University to its International students? Why?” “Would you recommend another student to undergo this international program? Why?” and “What recommendations would you give to students coming from your University to this University campus?” (see Appendix1), were meant to directly tackle the objective.
The questionnaire was designed using a traditional method: hard copy. One of the conveniences of following this format was the allowance for clarification. Moreover the researcher was aware of students’ facial expressions and body language. Finally, it allotted the interview’s development in a more conversational way and therefore, be able to get substantial information from that.
The survey instrument consisted of 23 questions (see Appendix 1), administered by the researcher. However, for the purpose of this paper, the analysis will be based on six of those questions. The respondents took between 30 to 45 minutes to complete the questionnaire; most of the questions were open-ended.
In the first part, the questionnaire asked interviewees about demographic information (questions 1-9). They were asked to provide information about gender, nationality, age group, level of target language, mother tongue, major, duration of stay, subjects and departments attending at host institution and first contact at host University.
The second section (questions 10-14) aimed to find out the process students followed to get into the host University, and who advised them throughout that process as well as their previous general knowledge of Mexican culture. It also sought to discover students’ most difficult challenging areas in the target culture and at the University. This section will not be considered for the current study. It will be presented and discussed in a future paper.
Six questions out of nine from the survey’s third part (questions 15-23) will be used for the analysis of this paper. Question fifteen was divided into six subdivisions (A-F) which explored the orientation international students had received from the host university in terms of: A) immigration matters, B) administrative issues, C) academic processes, D) university life, E) Mexico’s cultural surrounding and F) accommodations. The following two questions examined students’ perceptions in regards to the orientation received, if any, and the usefulness of an orientation course in the case of having received none. There is a question (on a 10-point scale) in this section, which asked them to rate the support given by the host university and to state their reasons. The last two questions that will be taken into account for the analysis of this research, asked interviewees if they would recommend another student to undergo this international program and what advice they would give to students coming to this same campus.
There were three main limitations for the development of this study; the first two were linked. First of all, there was no accessibility to a database with international students’ personal information as a way to reach them. This brought as a consequence the second limitation; the interview could not be applied to the desired population (2 males and 2 females from each region; also students whose native language was or was not Spanish), but to a specific number of international students regardless nationality, gender and/or mother tongue. If access to that database, the survey could be Web-based designed and sent out to a bigger population augmenting the reliability of this research. Finally, language was another constraint since some of the interviewees were unable to properly complete the survey and some others could not be approached to answer it since they lacked Spanish or English linguistic knowledge and the questionnaire was only designed in those two languages.
This article first discusses the demographic data and the descriptive results of the analyses. After that, it describes the relevant outcomes observed from the students’ opinions. Finally, it summarizes some of the leading opinions in regards to the received orientation on behalf of the host university and states some suggestions for further research.
Of the 11 students interviewed, eight were female and three male. These students’ age range from 18-25 years old, except for one of them who was 26-29 years old. They came from 8 different countries with no significant representation of a specific country. There were Canadian-Swedish (1), Korean (2), Spanish (1), British (2), Vincentian (2), Saint Lucian (1), German (1) and Polish (1). Most of them said to have an intermediate level of Spanish, there was a native speaker, and few of them with a basic level of the language. All of the respondents were pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree at their home institution and a large majority was attending the host university for an academic year whereas the few others for the whole career. The Departments they were taking classes from, were mainly 5: History, Literature, Modern Languages, Anthropology and Geography. A large majority of the students identified as their first contact, in the host university, a professor of the Department they were to attend. Secondly, the remainder referred to personnel from the General Coordination of Cooperation and Internationalization (CGCI) of the University and finally, to staff from the Scholarships and Exchanges Section.
Orientation received on behalf of the host university.
The results of this paper, as stated before, were based on six questions from the third section. The first question asked interviewees if they had received any orientation on behalf of the host university in terms of: A) immigration matters, B) administrative issues, C) academic processes, D) university life, E) Mexico’s cultural surrounding and F) accommodations.
A) Immigration matters.
This referred to the advising they received in order to do the needed paper work and obtain their student’s visa. Moreover, to the information they have been given concerning their duties and responsibilities, and their legal status as international students.
A majority of the respondents felt they had received orientation from the host university. Two different sources of help were identified. First of all, information received from the General Coordination of Cooperation and Internationalization (CGCI) from that particular university and secondly from professors of the Departments they attended. One of the students felt that although a guide was given, her home institution had supported her more. The rest of the interviewees considered they had not been given any orientation in this regard.
This aimed to find out the guidance offered on how to perform different administrative processes (e.g. registration, payment of tuition and fees, getting student’s ID, requesting a scholarship, etc.)
Most of the interviewees considered having received no help from the host institution. Nevertheless, they did not express any difficulties when carrying out any of these activities. A couple of them said orientation had been given at their home institution before departure.
Each university has its own and unique structure. This particular institution works with a credits system. Students’ knowledge of how this process works was the aim of this section.
For the most part, students’ felt they have been given counseling in this matter. Their professors from the Department they attended and personnel from the Scholarships and Exchanges Section were identified as their main advising source. In this matter, the home institution was also recognized as counselor for a couple of respondents.
It is worthwhile to point out that after conducting the students’ interview, two of the professors most mentioned by the students as their aid and resource, were informally interviewed and asked why they helped these students. Although there was some reluctance on behalf of one of them, it was found out that she holds a contract with the University to run and teach the courses for a specific group of international students, based on the geographical region they come from. However, it is uncertain if helping them with all the aspects of the orientation is part of her job or personal willingness. The other professor expressed to help them out of her own will, having had the experience of being an international student.
D) University life.
Commonly, there are a series of cultural and scholar events organized for and by students at each institution. How familiar international students are with the events usually programmed was the objective sought for this section.
Although, a couple of students pointed out the welcoming session as the place where they got acquainted with this information, most of the respondents expressed having received no information in this regard.
E) Mexico’s cultural surrounding.
Even though, there is no better or worse, having some basic knowledge, of the new culture, as the kind of weather, food, costs of living, and security, would be beneficial for the adaptation process of the involved students.
A majority of the interviewees expressed to have gained some knowledge about Mexican culture through professors, classmates and from the welcoming session given on behalf of the CGCI. The remainder considered no information was given to them.
“Housing is always a major concern for students when they go abroad”, expressed Van Hoof and Verbeeten (2005). For instance, finding out the thoughts of this group of interviewees, related to the support received in terms of housing, reception at the airport, effectuating banking transactions and meals’ accessibility, was the focus at this point.
In this case, there was a slight indication tendency to having received no orientation. Those who felt had been oriented expressed support from personnel of the CGCI, the welcoming session and professors.
Was the orientation useful?
The following question was intended for those students who said had received an orientation on behalf of the host university. It aimed to discover how useful it had been.
There were some students who felt the orientation had been of no help whereas the respondents, who considered it helpful, mentioned it had been useful enough because they were supported by somebody else (a friend). A couple of respondents said it had been useful, but would have liked to receive that information earlier (e.g. via e-mail), so they do not have to wait for it until the day of the “presentation” (such presentation was said to take place a few days before classes at the institution started).
Would you benefit from an orientation course?
This inquiry was addressed for those respondents who indicated had received no orientation.
The overall answer was positive. All of them believed they could have benefited from an orientation course. The words and ideas that came up to support their answer were comments such as: Yes, “so that we do not feel alone and know what to expect,” “to understand what the university offers,” “because some classmates have limited knowledge understanding differences,” “everything would be easier,” and “ yes, but not necessarily a long one”.
Interviewees were asked to rate on a 10-point scale, with 1 being insufficient to 10 being excellent, the support provided by the host institution to its international students. The results did not display any consistencies and extreme responses were not given. When taking a look to the results, one student decided not to answer this question and the rest gave an appreciation that went from 2 to 9 on the given scale. Although, respondents were not prompted to compare the service provided by the host university in regards to the one from their home institution, one of them used that as a referent. This student commented: “compared to my home university where they provide help with housing, give them a tour around campus and offer a “twin” from there, the service is not excellent”. The student who gave the highest grade mentioned he had faced no problems at all. It might be reasonable to assume that in spite of the help provided by the institution, this student encountered less difficulties to adapt to the new environment due to the fact that he shares the same language as the new-second culture. However, another student, whose mother tongue was not Spanish, expressed as well experiencing no difficulties at all. One of the respondents considered that the service would be perfect if the institution had a person in charge of the orientation, in regards to cultural events in and outside the university. This person clarifies “a person who leads international students”.
The justifications from the students giving the lowest rates provide valuable insights for the institution as to what areas need to be reinforced in order to improve the quality of the services offered. The students giving the lowest rates, considered such because they felt there was little advising provided on behalf of the institution. The respondents consider the university could implement more services for international students. Besides, they believe the quality of the help already offered to foreigners could be improved by providing more information concerning academic plans of study, culture, etc. Moreover, they felt its programs are designed for local students and therefore, solutions are regularly for them.
Would you recommend it?
Under the heading “would you recommend another student to undergo this international program?” the students’ opinions and sentiments about this experience abroad were analyzed. They were asked to specify the reason of their answer.
Two thirds of the students indicated that they would recommend it. Some samples of the reasons why they would endorse this experience include comments such as “it is an enriching cultural experience, it helps you to value different things and to change the way you perceive life. Moreover, it helps you to improve your language skills and to develop your capacity to adapt,” “it is an unforgettable experience, you learn not only the language, but about the culture,” “It is fun and enriching,” “professors are good, “and “classes are interesting.”
The remainder expressed they would not recommend it since they felt the institution needed to apply more services and activities for international students.
What advice would you give?
In agreement with Gargano’s belief that student voices need to be included at the core of discourses on international student mobility, this group of students were asked what advice they would give to students coming to this University campus.
Comments varied, but to get adjusted to the new culture and to successfully cope with it, a majority of the respondents suggested making connections and hanging around with local friends since they could help to solve issues international students are not aware of. By the same token, some other students suggested: “to come with an open mind” and “not to be afraid of anything because students are treated well here”.
Some students felt the information given by the institution and the one found on the website, was not clear nor enough. They suggested to approach the personnel of the Scholarships and Exchanges Section, to ask on-campus students and to attend the welcoming ceremony.
A couple of respondents expressed their sentiments in regards to housing arrangements. Yet their opinions are opposite. One of them considered finding housing was difficult whereas the other interviewee advised not to worry about housing since it could be found once being here.
In agreement with the literature consulted, international students’ perceptions were found to have been little explored. Taking into account those sentiments can help the administrators of international programs a great deal to tackle specific aspects of the services they offer.
There seems to be no consistency on the type of orientation they received. While some seemed to have been advised in some areas, others did not. They also feel that receiving some information related to the academic programs, general information as well as accommodation prior to their arrival would be helpful.
From this study we can say this group of international students believes it would be of great benefit to implement more services to international students on behalf of this institution. Based on the findings of this paper, there are some additional services that could be proposed. International students could be offered a twin. By that it is meant to pair each international student with a local student, so there is empathy and familiarity, and therefore they would not feel alone, as expressed. International students would benefit from more help with housing. An updated database of recommendable places they could safely live in could be sent to them via e-mail prior to their arrival or consulted on the University’s website. This recommendation leads to the following suggestion: to offer more information for international students on the institution’s webpage. Moreover, having an international students’ e-mail list could foster the integration of these students into Campus Life and activities. A database with international students’ information might facilitate communication between international students and faculty. Professors appeared to be a powerful support for them; therefore, assigning a tutor to each international student and having them be in touch prior to their arrival would release some tension and promote confidence.
Although, students’ mobility has largely augmented recently, it cannot be assumed local and international students are ready to face and cope with cultural differences and the effects of culture shock. Bearing that idea in mind a course based on cultural differences could be implemented as an elective for local students and mandatory, during their first semester, to international students. Finally, the city and campus itself could offer lots of extracurricular activities to be done and it is with that idea that students could be given a planned tour of both the city and campus to familiarize themselves with campus facilities and get a whole sense of the city.
The development of this paper showed there is a myriad of information that can be explored. Analyzing the perceptions of international students in regards to the orientation process was only a tiny piece. For instance, some of the respondents referred to the welcoming reception as the place where they had been acquainted with some information. However, not everybody seemed to have known this event took place, and international students who acknowledged this reception had different perceptions towards it. While some consider it useful, others felt it had been of no help. Bearing this in mind, there are two research areas which have unfolded. First of all, some efforts could be devoted to explore the processes international students go through to enrol in this university. This is based on the hypothesis that international students from this campus do not undergo the same process to be admitted. In appearance some of them are better prepared than others for this international experience. Why is it so? Who is better prepared? Second, a study to find out the specifications of the welcoming reception in an attempt to become aware of areas of improvement could be as well conducted.
Even though this research gave a wealth of information to conduct further studies and build up a more general schema, there is, at this point, the recognition of one question that could have been included as part of the questionnaire and it is: How would you have liked your first two weeks to have been? Inquiring about this would have allowed to know what the respondents’ expectations were and the most difficult challenges they faced.
Although the results of this paper could be of special interest to the personnel in charge of the General Coordination of Cooperation and Internationalization (CGCI) and to the Scholarships and Exchanges Section of the University of Guadalajara, they can also be of some benefit to practitioners on the same area at other institutions.
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Objetivo: descubrir el tipo de orientación recibida como estudiante internacional dentro de este centro universitario previo a tu arribo y durante las primeras dos semanas de tu estadía en esta Universidad.
Nota: la información proporcionada aquí será totalmente confidencial y no se utilizaran los nombres reales.
Instrucciones: por favor da respuesta a las siguientes preguntas de la manera más clara posible.
1. Nombre (opcional)_________________________e-mail (opcional)______________
2. Género: Femenino_____ Masculino______
3. Nacionalidad: _______________
Edad: 18-25____ 26-29_____ 30-40______ 41-50_____ 51 +_____
4. ¿Cómo calificarías tu nivel de español antes de venir a esta Universidad?
Básico_____ Intermedio______ Avanzado_____ Nativo______
5. ¿Cuál es tu lengua materna?
6. ¿Qué grado académico de estudios cursas en esta Universidad?
Licenciatura_______ Maestría_________ Doctorado_______ Otro_______
7. ¿Cuál es la duración de tu programa aquí?
8. ¿Qué materias llevas en esta Universidad? ¿A qué Departamento pertenecen?
9. ¿Quién fue tu primer contacto en esta Universidad?
10. ¿Podrías brevemente describir el proceso para ingresar a esta Universidad?
11. ¿Alguien te asesoró en este proceso de intercambio? ¿Quién? ¿Qué puesto tiene?
12. ¿Conocías acerca de la cultura mexicana antes de venir? Si tu respuesta es afirmativa, ¿qué conocías?
13. En el ámbito universitario, ¿cuál es el área en la que has tenido más dificultades para adaptarte? ¿Por qué?
14. Fuera de la Universidad, en el entorno social, ¿cuál es el área en la que has tenido más dificultades para adaptarte? Explica por qué.
15. ¿Recibiste alguna orientación, por parte de esta Universidad, acerca de los siguientes aspectos? Proporciona tantos detalles o ejemplos como te sea posible:
A) Trámites migratorios (visa: derechos y responsabilidades, estatus legal)
B) Procesos administrativos (matrícula, cuotas, becas, credencial, etc.)
D) Vida universitaria
E) Cultura mexicana
F) Hospedaje, recibimiento en el aeropuerto, transacciones bancarias, alimentación, etc.
16. Si tu respuesta anterior fue positiva, ¿Consideras que ha sido de apoyo dicha orientación? Da detalles.
17. En caso de que tu respuesta 15, haya sido negativa, ¿consideras que los estudiantes internacionales se beneficiarían de un seminario de orientación? Da detalles.
18. ¿Alguien te guió en el proceso de adaptación cultural dentro de la Universidad? Si fue así, ¿quién?
19. ¿Alguien te familiarizó con los servicios y actividades disponibles en este centro universitario? Si fue así, ¿quién?
20. En una escala del 1 al 10 (siendo 1 insuficiente y 10 excelente) ¿Cómo consideras el tipo de apoyo brindado por este Centro Universitario para sus estudiantes internacionales? ¿Por qué?
21. ¿Sabes con quién dirigirte si tuvieras algún problema en el ámbito universitario? Si es así, ¿con quién?
22. ¿Recomendarías a otro estudiante a participar en este programa de intercambio? Explica por qué.
23. ¿Qué recomendaciones darías a estudiantes de tu universidad que vienen a este centro universitario?
Objective: to find out the kind of orientation received as an International student of this University before your arrival and within the first two weeks in this University.
Note: any information given here would be kept confidential and no names would be used.
Instructions: please give an answer to the following questions being as clear as possible.
1. Name: (optional)____________________________________________________
2. Gender: Female_____ Male______
Age group: 18-25 ____ 26-30_____ 30-40______ 40-50_____ 50 +_____
4. ¿How would you grade your level of Spanish before you came to this University?
Basic_____ Intermediate______ Advanced_____ Native______
5. ¿What is your mother tongue?
6. ¿What level of academic studies are you pursuing in this University?
B.A._______ M.A._________ Ph.D._______ Other________
7. ¿How long are you going to be here?
8. ¿What studies are you pursuing in this University?
9. ¿Who was your first contact in this University?
10 ¿What procedures did you have to follow to get into this University?
11. ¿Did anybody guide you in this exchange process? If so, who? What position does s/he hold?
12. ¿Did you know anything about Mexican culture before coming here? If yes, what did you know?
13. Regarding the University environment, what has been the most difficult area to get adapted to? Why?
14. And outside the University, in the social environment? Why?
15. Please answer yes or no, and provide as many details and examples as possible.
Did you get any orientation, on behalf of this University, regarding
A) Immigration matters (visa: rights and responsibilities, legal status)
B) Administrative issues (tuition, fees, scholarships)
C) Academic processes (credits system)
D) University life.
E) Mexico’s cultural surrounding (weather, food, costs of living, security, etc.)
F) Accommodations (housing, reception at the airport, banking, meals, etc.)
16. If your previous answer was positive, did you consider such orientation useful? Provide details.
17. If your answer to question 15 was negative, do you consider that providing an orientation to International students would be beneficial to students? Provide details.
18. Did anybody guide you through this cultural adjustment process? If so, who?
19. Did anybody familiarize you with the services and activities available on this campus? If so, who?
20. On a scale from 1 to 10 (being 1 terrible and 10 excellent) How would you grade the advising given by this University to its International students? Why?
21. ¿Do you know who would advise you in the case of an academic problem? If so, who?
22 ¿Would you recommend another student to undergo this exchange program? Why?
23. ¿What recommendations would you give to students coming from your University to this University campus?