Institutions could do more to encourage connections between international and local students, Catherine Gomes suggests
Studying in another country can be rewarding and culturally enriching—but it can also be an alienating experience compounded by homesickness, the absence of support from family and friends, and loss of identity.
Between 2013 and 2016 I conducted research on the everyday lives of tertiary-going international students living in Australia in order to understand how they coped being away from their families and from the familiar surroundings of their home countries.
In-depth interviews with 60 international students in Melbourne and online survey data from 92 international students across Australia turned up some surprising results.
I found that students coped with living in a foreign country by being part of friendship groups based on their identities as international students. These groups provided them with the emotional and practical support that they felt local students—even those of ethnic similarities—could not provide.
Even though they were living in a foreign country—Australia—it was not their country of birth or ethnicity that determined their social networks, but rather the fact that they were international students.
While the students acknowledged that their nationality was significant to them and not easily hidden or erased, it was their distinctive identity as international students that created the strongest sense of identity for them while studying in Australia. Akbar*, who was in his late 20s and a postgraduate student from Pakistan, elaborated:
For me I preferred to be called as a student, like international student if we talk about it—especially in Australia or like a country there.
Akbar’s identifying as an international student was not surprising since it was the very reason for his presence in Australia. Likewise, being officially labelled as such allowed the international students I surveyed to be part of an identifiable collective. Their status as foreign students provided them with an almost immediate community which they could identify with and feel a sense of belonging to, because of the common shared experiences of living as foreigners in Australia.
Moreover, while international students made friends largely with co-nationals in the first instance and then to a lesser degree from their geographical region of birth, and less so from elsewhere, these friends were primarily international students. For instance, ethnic Chinese international students might make friends with other ethnic Chinese international students from China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; however, they would not do the same with ethnic Chinese who were not international students. Ethnicity, in other words, did not facilitate organic forms of social relations while in transience.
So why are international students drawn to one another?
International students are drawn to one another because of their status as foreigners living in a foreign nation. Most often they make friends with other international students whom they meet in their courses, workplaces, living areas and interest groups such as church groups.
The students I spoke to felt that only others in similar situations would be able to understand the issues they were going through while living overseas, such as the emotional factors of being away from home and the practical issues connected with living in Australia—e.g. finding suitable, affordable accommodation, safety and nearness to campus, opening a bank account and convenient places to shop for groceries and essentials.
While they still connected with friends living in their home country and kept in contact with them in various ways, having other international students as friends allowed them to fill the huge gap that had been left because of their separation not only from their homeland but, more significantly, from their family and friends.
These common experiences, however, did not necessary lead to international students connecting with local students who they recognised as being ‘different’ to them. Local students, they explained, did not go through the same experiences as them. Sharing common ground as students, in other words, was not as significant as the shared experience of being an international student navigating through off-campus everyday activities.
Surprisingly, this lack of connectivity to local students took place despite ethnic similarities.
Inability to connect
When I asked Asian international students if they had friends who were Asian Australians—that is, Asians who were either born or raised in Australia—their answers varied. The term ‘Asian Australian’ itself provoked diverse reactions. Some understood members of this group to be loosely grouped Australian-born-Chinese, while others thought it referred only to Asian-born permanent residents. Those who said they were friends with Asian-born permanent residents noted that these were recent migrants whom they considered more culturally similar to themselves since they too were ‘more Asian than Australian’.
The students explained they generally did not have Asian Australian friends, since they perceived them as wanting to be friends only with white Australians. They also felt they did not have much in common with Asian Australians because this group was ‘more Australian’.
While Asian international students may be ethnically and in some ways culturally similar to Asian Australians, both groups have evolved differently because of varied communal experiences based on time and place
They also felt Asian Australians had more in common with white Australians than with Asian international students. John*, a 32-year-old PhD student from India, for example, felt that Indian Australians who had grown up in Australia were out of touch with India and, culturally, more Australian than Indian:
I found that people of Indian origin who have been outside India for one generation or so, have lost their touch with India to such an extent that, for me seeing from this perspective, there’s not much of a difference between a person who is not a native Indian at all and a person who is settled out of India except for one generation or so. Even, for example, people settle in Australia for more than one generation, they can speak my language, understand me, facial expressions are similar and all, but for me they’re as good as local Australians.
For John, the Indian diaspora in Australia was so removed from him that he found it hard to identify with—least of all have interpersonal relationships with—its members.
So, as this case demonstrates, while Asian international students may be ethnically and in some ways culturally similar to Asian Australians, both groups have evolved differently because of varied communal experiences based on time and place.
The disconnections experienced by international students from those who are ethnically similar but who grew up in Australia were echoed in another study I conducted with colleagues on international students, their social networks and information-seeking behaviour.
In an online, Australia-wide survey of nearly 6,700 respondents, we found only 62, or 0.94 per cent, who stated that their social networks were dominated by Australians who were ethnically similar to them.
What we can read here is that international students are unable to identify with locals who are ethnically similar because they do not share similar experiences. The concerns of locals such as Asian Australians would be Australia-specific, with issues of belonging within the rubric of citizenship and nationhood dominating their discourse. International students, though, have very different concerns since they are temporary.
In light of these findings—that international students have very few, if any, local friends—how should institutions attempt to influence their social interactions?
Institution-based social programs can play an important role. Although institutions obviously can’t force locals and international students to intermingle, they can help bring them together, especially during orientation weeks.
Institutions often have excellent orientation programs for new international students. These specialised programs, however, typically take place before the institution-wide orientation day, preventing the opportunity for international students to socialise with local students, thus increasing the likelihood that they will make friends only with other international students. By the time new local students hit campus, international students will likely have established the friends they will be spending time with throughout the year.
Institutions therefore need to create inclusive orientation programs that foster interaction between local and international students. One way to do this would be to actively include interstate and country students in the international student orientation program. This would allow international students to meet Australians who are, in some ways, just as alien as they are. This would also offer Australian students who are new to the state or area a guided introduction as well as the chance of making new international friends.
Parts of this article can be found in C Gomes, ‘Connections and disconnections: forming parallel societies in transience’, Transient Mobility and Middle Class Identity: Media and Migration in Australia and Singapore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 149–184.
International students prefer to identify with other international students rather than locals who are ethnically similar. Photo: Catherine Gomes