Being international

The international student experience is a complex one. What factors contribute to making it a meaningful one? Institutional policies and academic support are important, but so are personal attitudes and intercultural perceptions of both students and the host society.


My PhD research is on international tertiary students, focusing on students from non-Western backgrounds. In the case of New Zealand, most of these students would be Asian – Chinese, South Korean, Indian. My interest in international students stems from my previous study of English language learners. I was interested in their challenges in acquiring and using the English language, and their shifting identities in the process of language learning. In the course of preparing the research proposal in the past year, however, those research interests led to other concerns. My focus of my PhD research is on international students’ informal learning practices, investigating how they engage with their peers to help them in their academic learning.

In between having successfully defended my research proposal, and preparing for data collection, I’m now examining more closely the debates surrounding international students in higher education, or more commonly termed, the internationalisation of higher education, especially in New Zealand. The debates range from macro views of politics and policies, to micro issues of academic support, but are all interrelated. Three articles caught my attention for pointing out essential conditions for successful internationalisation – for both the university/country and the students.

Anderson’s (2015) overview of the higher education scene in Canada, which shares similarities with the scene in New Zealand, highlights the challenges of teaching and supporting increasing numbers of international students who use English as a second or additional language (I use the terminology EAL – English as an Additional Language). Anderson raises the tension between recruiting international students as a source of much needed income, and the university’s social and educational responsibilities to students. It is the latter issue that is often debated – should international students meet minimally acceptable standards of language proficiency (and really, culturally appropriate behaviours and attitudes in the classroom and beyond), or should universities provide ample opportunities and support for students to learn the ways of the academy and increase their chances of success? Or a third, and in my opinion, a rather radical option – “establish more flexible and additive relationships with foreign students coming from non-Western academic traditions instead of expecting them to unilaterally morph into the conventions and practices of their new academic communities and discourses” (Anderson, 2015, pp. 176-177). Citing various research and offering specific examples, Anderson calls for more comprehensive and targeted academic support for international students and concludes that positive student experiences ultimately translates into better reputations for universities.

While the Canadian approach appears to favour student-centred and culturally appropriate support, Jiang (2010) points out New Zealand’s “lack of intercultural policies and strategies” to respond to demographic changes in international student populations. This is not to say that universities do nothing to address international students’ academic needs, but the lack of a culture of internationalisation at the policy-making level affects funding and staffing for timely and specific support. Jiang talks about the importance of developing intercultural or international relationships. She does not discuss what it means to be intercultural, but highlights the various levels at which ‘international’ operates on (i.e. political and educational levels). In fact, none of the readings I discuss here probe deeply into what it means to be intercultural (see Byram’s (1997) Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) model for an in-depth exploration) – but all call for greater facilitation of students’ acculturation to the host environment.

While Anderson (2015) offers an academic perspective, and Jiang (2010) a policy one, Butcher (2010) seems to suggest that societal attitudes and genuine hospitality are key to ensuring positive experiences for international students. Butcher compares different cohorts of international students in New Zealand – those from the Colombo Plan era during the 1950s and 60s and international students today. The scholars from the past were Asia’s elites; they developed close ties with New Zealanders, and vast amounts of goodwill exist between New Zealand and the Asian countries. Today’s students, in contrast, are no longer “unique or rare, [rather], their dominance in New Zealand cities is starkly evident, to the extent they have been referred to as … a ‘cultural invasion'”(Butcher, 2010, p. 12). Noting emphatically that Asia is New Zealand’s future, Butcher concludes that it is in New Zealand’s interest to invest in and cultivate networks with Asian students. The nature of new intercultural relationships require initiative on the part of the host, as evidenced in the warm reception given by New Zealand communities to the Colombo Plan students. Will friendships blossom between today’s international students and their hosts?

I’m not sure if Butcher (2010) is optimistic of a change in attitude, that is, to view Asian students as important bridges to New Zealand’s future, rather than an economic resource for present needs. As an international student in New Zealand, I personally identify with Butcher’s vision for rich intercultural relationships. I also believe that these relationships are multifaceted, complex, and take time to develop and nurture.

I recognise and believe in the potential New Zealand has in terms of creating a unique and valuable international experience for students. While fresh air and beautiful landscapes have always been New Zealand’s selling points, a more important experience takes place between people – people who welcome each other into their lives. The reality of intercultural friendships is never straightforward but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. I hope my research will uncover some of the complexities of the international student experience and start new dialogues – intercultural ones.


Anderson, T. (2015). Seeking internationalization: The state of Canadian higher education. Canadian Journal of Higher Education45(4), 166–187.

Butcher, A. (2010). International students and New Zealand’s future. Journal of International Education in Business1(1), 9–26.

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Jiang, X. (2010). A probe into the internationalisation of higher education in the New Zealand context. Educational Philosophy and Theory42(8), 881–897. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2009.00547.x