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Fitting-In: Sociocultural Adaptation of International Graduate Students

Georgette P Wilson, Johnson & Wales University


International students contribute nearly $19 billion, annually, to the U.S. economy (Fischer, 2011) and they increase cultural diversity and improve international relations (Sandhu & Asrabadi, 1994). Thus, it is important, both for the U.S. economy and globalization efforts, to attract and retain international graduate students. Sociocultural adaptation, or the ability to fit-in, involves social skills and cultural learning (Ward & Kennedy, 1999). Lack of sociocultural adaptation can lead to physical and psychological problems (Shupe, 2007), and attending to student needs is important for student retention (Tinto, 1993). The purpose of this study was to determine if there is a relationship between sociocultural adaptation of international graduate students and selected demographic characteristics, and to explore the students’ perceptions of institutional support with regard to their adaptation. A three-phased, mixed methods, sequential approach was used to study international graduate students at a private, urban, mid-sized, Northeastern university. Preliminary discussion groups were conducted with newly arrived international students (N = 42). Questions stemming from these discussions and demographic questions were appended to a modified version of the Sociocultural Adaptation Scale (SCAS) (Ward & Kennedy, 1999). On the resulting questionnaire, international graduate students (N = 129) rated their levels of difficulty in performing common tasks. Follow-up focus groups with students ( N = 11) nearing completion of their studies further explored how the university helped them adapt. Significant findings (6 at p < .05, 8 at p < .01, 14 at p < .002) showed relationships between gender, age, region and country of origin, English language ability, having family or friends already in the U.S., and having an international friendship family, with respect to adaptation. Key recommendations: (1) Improve Communication – Prior to arrival, on arrival, and on-going. (2) Expand Orientation – More structured and expanded orientation to include using local buses, visiting public services, and long-term planning. (3) Making American Friends – Coordinate more American student mentors and friendship families. (4) Improve English Skills – Promote debates, conversational groups, more English tutors, and classroom projects. The findings will be useful to the site university, and to similar universities, in assisting international students socioculturally adapt to their new environment.

Subject Area

Educational sociology|Multicultural Education|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Wilson, Georgette P, "Fitting-In: Sociocultural Adaptation of International Graduate Students" (2011). Dissertation & Theses Collection. AAI3457225.