Cultural barriers must fall

About 4.5-million students globally were studying outside their home country, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in 2013.

Jenny Lee and Charles Rice, writing in 2007 in an article titled Welcome to America? International Student Perceptions of Discrimination, recognised that international students studying in the United States provide the country with a diverse student population and create an awareness of other cultures and countries. Furthermore, they also share know-ledge and skills in a variety of fields, such as technology, health and engineering. Those who stay on in the US also add to the country’s intellectual property.

Nevertheless, the enrolment of international students (those who study outside their home country), although commendable, is not without its problems. The demographic differences of international students, such as their gender, language, age, religious affiliation, norms, socioeconomic background and psychological dimensions, such as the way they interact and connect with others, can have a significant effect on their social acculturation. In addition, the hosting country and its university environment, its institutional culture and language can be unwelcoming to some international students and leave them feeling unfulfilled.

Culture and identity play an important role in educational models. Academic outcomes do not depend exclusively on teaching and assessments. An educational model is based in a particular sociocultural context, and education is a social experience, which includes different forms of interaction. Therefore, in a multicultural environment such as a university, education must be sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of the students and teachers and aware of the cultural relationships between them.

But the reality is that students and universities are often not prepared for the challenges that such cross-cultural environments present. Students from different cultural backgrounds face several obstacles when adapting to social life in English-speaking universities. Consequently, these affect their academic performance and achievement.

Social class is a crucial indicator and aspect of cultural membership and identity, and students from middle-class backgrounds have a comparative advantage in an educational environment because schools are based on middle-class values and sociocultural practices.

Billy Long, in his paper titled Sensitising Undergraduate Students to the Nature of White Privilege, states that the criteria for success imposed on the university schooling system includes ambition, individual responsibility, manners and courtesy, neatness, delayed gratification, the acquisition of skills and achievement, rationality and planning, refraining from violence and respect for authority. Middle-class students learn these values from an early age, which gives them a head start in life.

But children from working-class backgrounds see the university as an alienating environment. They feel small and invisible or “other” in a space that does not feature, acknowledge or recognise their own cultural heritage and social identity. Working-class children are disadvantaged because their sociocultural norms differ from the university’s code and institutional practices.

Lee and Rice further submit that, in the US, Latino students struggle to adjust to and adapt European academic and social identities. As with other minority groups, they share a sense that speaking in their ethnic languages and their accents also lead to institutional and social exclusion.

This is the same case in South Africa where for many students higher education involves adapting to middle-class linguistic and sociocultural values. Savo Heleta, writing in Decolonisation of Higher Education: Dismantling Epistemic Violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa, argues that the key challenges facing such students have less to do with the cognitive aspects of learning than with the sociocultural issues of identity, language and culture, which are the highest form of academic and social exclusion.


Because working-class students feel alienated in the middle-class environment, they change their behaviour and mould it to what is acceptable in terms of the university’s code and institutional practices. International students encounter the same kind of silent violence in South African universities.

The five key problems that international students face and the conditions that need to be satisfied for their social acculturation at English-speaking universities are:

  • Language — not being able to communicate with the same efficacy or nuance as in their ethnic first language;
  • Educational — not understanding the educational values or procedures of the university;
  • Social — not knowing people and not understanding the culture;
  •  Discrimination — alienation and being discriminated against, either actively or passively, or even both; and
  • Practical — things such as money, clothing, time, transport system, weather and food.

But a short-term semester abroad and cultural exchange programmes in English-speaking environments and elsewhere can be beneficial. They are often sociolinguistic in nature, with special focus being paid to personal interactions and second-language acquisition.

An integrationist approach by the hosting university to encourage students to avoid being socially and linguistically separate would also help and would encourage students to interact with the cultural practices of the countries they find themselves in. So universities should set up an international office that is responsive, proactive and comprehensive. It must facilitate a process for all university stakeholders to learn more about international students’ backgrounds and needs so they can adapt and develop what they offer to them.

When international students and host universities consciously exchange language, culture, food and values, the long term benefits are politically, socially and economically worthwhile. According to the OECD, when these students become leaders in government, business and civil society, they will boost the relationships between countries.

One recalls what Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said at the University of Fort Hare centenary celebrations in 2016, where he studied. “Here I was academically born, here I was transformed and here is where I truly discovered my African identity.”

Pedro Mzileni is a master’s sociology student and Student Representative Council president at Nelson Mandela University

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Pedro Mzileni
Pedro Mzileni works from Johannesburg, South Africa. Researcher @ Nelson Mandela University Columnist @ The Herald, PE PhD Sociology Pedro Mzileni has over 889 followers on Twitter.
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