Cultural clues to student guidance

June 7, 1996

The presence of international students in higher education is becoming a significant economic force in the United Kingdom, especially as the battle for them intensifies with other western universities.

International students are people in transition. They have come to accomplish an educational goal with a view to returning home. Like most individuals who have moved to a different culture they experience adjustment difficulties. My research among international students from 52 countries at ten universities in Britain this academic year shows that the most common are: coming to terms with a new academic system and communication style; culture and status shock; isolation; loneliness; and homesickness.

Unresolved, these difficulties often militate against maximum academic output and general well-being. Many students, especially those from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, have no family, friends or community here to act as a social support system. Although universities may provide counselling and advisory services, international students tend to turn first to their friends - often fellow foreign students. The few who reported they saw a counsellor after being referred by their personal tutor or supervisor indicated an unsuccessful outcome. Cultural differences, language and some counsellors' strict adherence to and use of western counselling models for non-western clients were blamed.

Western-trained counsellors helping international students need to be aware of these barriers. Both verbal and non-verbal communication pose problems of possible misinterpretations, for example, of speech, facial expression, or body language. For example, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect in most African and Asian cultures but this can indicate insincerity in western cultures. For some cultures it is important to stand close to someone during a conversation and to touch when making a point or when the conversation becomes very interesting, but elsewhere this is intimidating or uncomfortable.

Some students say they expect guidance to be given in counselling. In some African and Asian cultures authority figures give advice and guidance based on experience. This conflicts with the western counselling style, which emphasises self-help and independence. Counsellors need to appreciate the collectivist and family approach to problem solving and realise that encouraging students to be individualistic, self-assertive and to take sole responsibility for their own decisions may not assist them. Western counselling also presupposes that clients will talk about their feelings and express their emotions. But for many there is a stigma attached to seeing a stranger or a professional counsellor. There is also the cultural inhibition of not expressing one's emotions to a non-family member. This is compounded by the handicap of expressing one's feelings adequately in a foreign language.

Many counsellors reported that their initial training did not include cross-cultural counselling skills. The implication is that if mismatch and alienation between counsellors and their international clients are to be reduced, sensitivity to a range of cultures will need to be part of training.

Based on my findings, I believe there are a number of ways counselling international students can be made more effective. These include an awareness of other cultures. Counsellors must broaden their knowledge through reading books, workshops and in-service programmes. They should also be aware of the values, attitudes and behaviour of their own culture as this will help in the appreciation of the values of other cultures.

Specific cultural issues can be learned from the client students. It may be important to ask who would help with the problem in the student's culture and how help would be given.

International students are not a homogeneous group and stereotypes can be destructive to counselling relationships. While some students may prefer a problem-solving/directive approach, others who have had a longer interaction with the western culture may prefer a client-centred/non-directive approach. There is a need to modify clients' expectations of the counselling process, and assist them to develop their social skills to cope better with the cultural adjustment process.

Counsellors need to modify their own communicative style to accommodate clients for whom English is a second or third language. It is important to clarify verbal and non verbal issues to avoid misinterpretations and to be explicit about cultural differences. No matter how broad any counsellor's knowledge, he/she will be limited by his/her world view, but by showing sensitivity and flexibility a counsellor can help the international student faced with problems.

Eunice Okorocha is a research student in the department of educational studies at the University of Surrey.

Studies in the United States show that although it is crucial for western counsellors to have a basic understanding of counselling characteristics of non-western life values, there is the ever-present danger of over-generalisation and stereotyping. Generalisations are useful if held creatively as guidelines but not allowed to degenerate to stereotypes.

A delicate balance of awareness, sensitivity, knowledge of a range of cultures and the use of flexible approaches will increase a counsellor's effectiveness in assisting international students.

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