Like all travelers, international students at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) struggle with problems like cultural adjustment and culture shock. Culture shock among international students is caused by a combination of visible aspects of culture, such as food and invisible aspects of culture like food, clothing, etc.
Here, international students will be defined as students who temporarily leave the country of their citizenship and attend an institution of higher education in another country. The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is among the institutions that welcome international students. In the spring semester of 2009 alone, the University counted 310 foreign students.
Because culture shock among these students is a negative response to a culturally different environment, it can hinder the process of cultural adjustment. In this paper, foreigners are considered to be fully culturally adapted when they are as fluent in unwritten social rules of a particular culture as natives of this culture are. Furthermore, foreigners should not consider things like language differences to be a barrier anymore and feel completely comfortable in the new culture. Therefore, cultural adjustment will not primarily be equated with students giving up their own cultural identity and considering themselves American .
In the spring semester of 2009 a survey was conducted to find out what the causes of culture shock among USM international students were and what therefore hindered their cultural adjustment. A survey and interviews show that one of the main problems international students at USM face is that they are not satisfied with the food on campus. Moreover, a large amount of students reported that they also struggle to do their own grocery shopping because they do not have a car. As it can be assumed that most international students at USM are not fully culturally adapted and that many are going through the culture shock phase, the problem of grocery shopping can be seen as one of the hurdles on the way to the students cultural adjustment. Even though culture shock among international students at USM has a wide variety of causes, the University could still help its international students to a certain degree in the adjustment process by assisting them with their grocery shopping.
International Students Contributions to U.S. Universities and the U.S. Economy International students studying at universities in English-speaking countries do not only make an important educational contribution but also a significant economical contribution at their host institution (Andrade 2006:131). The Institute of International Education (IIE) counted 600,000 international students studying in the United States in 2008 (IIE). The Vietnamese Center for International Education, Culture Exchange and Research (CIECER) identifie s the United States as the most popular destination for foreign students and researchers (Cromonini et al.). CIECER attributes this to promotional efforts of the United States Government as well as single institutions of higher education (Cremonini et al.)
These promotional efforts can be explained by the fact that American universities benefit greatly from international students. The American Institute of International Education calculated that these foreign students spent over $15.5 billion dollars at United States Universities in the form of living expenses as well as tuition in 2008 alone (IIE).
Chellaraj et al. also point to another positive impact of international students studying at American universities and argue that international graduate students have a positive impact on future patents awarded to a university. The researchers estimate that a ten percent increase of international students at a university leads to a six percent increase of university patent grants (Chellaraj et al. 2005:2). Chellaraj et al. explain that international graduate students can fill education gaps as they are present in every country. An example would be international students from South Korea whose native country is well-known for achievements in mathematics a weakness in the American educational system (Chelleraj et al. 2005:4). Lin et al. therefore argue that campus and community programs need to be developed to help international students adapt to their new environment (1997:473).
One of the problems that might hinder the successful adaptation of an international student is the phenomenon of culture shock. Ferraro describes culture shock as the psychological disorientation experienced by people who suddenly find themselves living and working in radically different cultural environments (2006:151).
Therefore, culture shock is closely connected to cultural differences. There are numerous definitions of culture, but one of the best known and widely used definitions stems from Edward Tylor. Tylor defined culture as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (qtd. in Ferraro 2005:19). Thus, when individuals live in cultures other than their own, they will encounter beliefs, morals, customs and many other components of culture that are different from those they are used to.
Because culture shock has a large variety of symptoms, it is hard to detect (Ferraro 2006:153). Craig Storti observed that the result of culture shock is often withdrawal. In consequence, foreigners are often disappointed with their own behavior. However, because individuals often cannot interpret negative responses of their host culture they often blame the host culture for their withdrawal (Storti 1990:32-34). Since many of the causes of culture shock occur on a subconscious level, travelers will have to focus their frustration on the visible aspects of the other culture. Those visible aspects can include clothing, food, and traditions. However, many culture shock causes are less visible. Daniel Hess describes that It is the differences in the way the society is organized and in the values, behaviors, styles of communication, and patterns of thinking that cause the problem, since so much what makes up these basic cultural characteristics is automatic and unconscious and is assumed to be universal (Hess 1997:4).
Hofstede s four dimensions of culture describe parts of culture that are not as visible as things like food and clothing and yet describe important cultural differences. Hofstede argues that cultural differences can be organized into the four broad categories of power distance, collectivism versus individualism, insecurity avoidance as well as masculinity and femininity. Power distance describes the degree to which individuals with little power accept inequalities in power. In collectivistic cultures, individuals are expected to keep the interest of a bigger group in mind. Individualistic societies, in contrast, emphasize that individuals should primarily consider their own interests. Describing another cultural dimension, Hofstede explains that masculine societies define very different cultural roles for men and women. Women are usually portrayed to be weak and are expected to play the role of the caretaker and servant. In feminine societies, the roles ascribed to both sexes tend to overlap (Hofstede 1984:390). The fourth cultural dimension, uncertainty avoidance, defines the extent to which people within a culture are made nervous by situations that they consider to be unstructured, unclear, or unpredictable, and the extent to which they try to avoid such situations by adopting strict codes of behavior and a belief in absolute truths (Hofstede 1984:390).
Moreover, intercultural communication itself can also be problematic and contribute to culture shock. In a survey among international students at USM 25% of the participants said they feel like they misinterpreted things their English speaking classmates said to them at some point. Furtermore, an additional 27% said they still misinterpreted remarks of their American classmates. Ward et al. summarize that, Although meetings between culturally disparate persons are, no different from other social encounters, they are often handicapped by an absence of information about communication conventions (Ward, et al. 2001:48). Therefore, one of the main problems international students face is communication with members of their host community. There are significant cultural differences in the way people phrase and process information. Edward T. Hall coined the terms low context culture and high context culture to describe the way messages are sent and interpreted in each culture (Hall and Hall 1990:6). Jakubovski et al. argue that members of low context cultures pay more attention to verbal content of a message (2002:126). In contrast, members of high context cultures pay more attention to the context of the message and not so much to specific words (Jakubovski et al. 2002:126). If, for example an, American asks Would you like to & , it is often a polite order, but might not be perceived as such by someone from a different culture (Ward, et al. 2001:54).
Unwritten social rules, as they are described above, usually exist on a subconscious level and will only surface if the rules are broken (Ward, et al. 2001:59). Therefore, if sojourners break a social rule, they will usually receive a signal that they did something wrong. Not knowing the rule, however, the individual can easily become confused. This confusion can lead to the phenomenon of culture shock.
The Timing of Culture Shock
Literature on culture shock largely describes sojourners as one of the groups of people affected by culture shock. A sojourn is commonly defined as a temporary stay. All international students, with a few exceptions, are required to leave the United States after completion of their studies and can therefore be categorized as sojourners.
The U-curve theory (UCT) is the most commonly used theory that explains cultural adjustment in sojourners (Black, Mendenhall 1991:225). The theory was introduced by Sverre Lysgaard in 1955, who worked with Norwegian Fulbright scholars in the U.S. The U- curve model describes that after an initial stage of excitement, sojourners slide into the phase of culture shock, go through a phase of recovery and eventually reach the stage of cultural adjustment (Black, Mendenhall 1991:226).