Dely Lazarte Elliot, University of Glasgow
Although I am now settled in Scotland, a place I am proud to call home, in a job that I love and enjoy doing, seeing other international students serves as a constant reminder of my original reason for coming to the UK. Not only did it inspire me but it has also sustained my interest in exploring the fascinating psychology that underpins the multiple transitions (e.g. academic, societal, environmental) behind international postgraduate studies.
Consolidating personal interest, disciplinary background and my own experience led intuitively to what has become the primary focus of my research, i.e. the academic acculturation of international postgraduate researchers (PGRs). Successful academic acculturation, in this sense, is about maximising what is offered by the interplay of old and new learning cultures for the students’ benefit – towards a richer and more meaningful international educational experience. Although, this concept may give the impression that it is all about PGRs’ academic performance, it broadly encompasses both learning and psychological well-being dimensions, which makes this concept, in my view, even more crucial.
To elaborate, please allow me to share with you my story. long before I even thought of crossing the British ‘academic fence’, so to speak. It is my hope that by sharing my experience, it can help normalise the thoughts, feelings and reflections that many (but not all) international learners can relate to, probably more so from those who came from ‘my side’ of the world.
Just like a large number of international postgraduate students who come to British shores every year, my journey from the Far East to the UK started with the sole purpose of pursuing a dream, i.e. to undertake a PhD in the area of Educational Psychology (more aptly called Psychology of Education in the UK).
I can still clearly remember how excited I was as I started preparing for all the requirements to secure a PhD place at my chosen university. My thoughts about coming to the UK can only be described as pure excitement - with not even a hint of trepidation about the academic element of this new adventure. Probably because I believed that such an experience was not new to me. After all, I had already been an international student in Thailand, where I pursued an MSc in Counselling Psychology with well-respected scholars and psychologists from Italy, US, India, the Philippines and Thailand, among others. Also, since I had been living away from my family and friends in the Philippines at that time, I had thought that my international experience of being a postgraduate student in Thailand had prepared me quite well for becoming an international student once again – only this time, in the UK.
Ironically, what gave me greater fear then was the UK’s infamous weather. Having lived in the tropics all my life, where ‘cool’ means 25 degrees Celsius; it made me wonder if life in the UK meant wearing warm clothing (and/or a raincoat) all the time – what would it be like? And what about the food? I didn’t think I’d enjoy eating fish and chips every day as I didn’t think my stipend would stretch to eating out daily – something that is amazingly doable in Southeast Asia. Ah! Not to worry. There are things I would certainly need to learn but everything would fall into place, I thought, trying to alleviate my minor concerns.
And indeed, after I arrived to undertake my PhD at the University of Nottingham, it became apparent that those concerns did not bother me in the end. For example, to my delight, each of the four seasons in the UK has its own ‘magic’ and distinct attraction – greatly compensating for any inconvenience, at times caused by the UK’s seemingly incessant rain. What others might regard as ‘culture shock’ was for me ‘culture delight’ as I simply marvelled at the novel things that my new surroundings offered me.
By contrast, what hit me quite hard as an international PGR was the Imposter Syndrome (IS) – or the overall confusion that I felt about my perceived inability to operate at the doctoral level. Although IS might be common among PGRs, I felt that coming from another academic culture exacerbated the issue. Interestingly, this also strongly pointed out that my initial confidence about my second experience of international education was, in fact, ‘baseless’.
The use of critical thinking in academic writing is a case in point. My supervisors patiently impressed on me the importance of writing beyond being descriptive, being informative. I understood the meaning of the words, but initially I did not know how to incorporate it in my writing. This specific writing approach was different from my experience as a student in either the Philippines or Thailand. But please don’t get me wrong – I am not in any way saying that we are not capable of it. On the contrary, we are. Anyone is capable of it! I was merely highlighting that it was not typically part of the learning orientations I received.
We instead received a number of invaluable lessons, including emphasis on developing a ‘reverence’ for the value of learning often combined with perseverance. A former colleague offered an apt metaphor, i.e. different ‘learning orientations’ are like different games. Back home, students play cricket, so to speak. In the UK, students play another game, say football. And this implies that every international student who mastered how to play cricket and who then tried their utmost to apply cricket rules to win in a football game is bound to experience not only confusion but disappointment. They needed to learn how to play football as well as understand that the game had changed.
In academic terms, simply hearing that they needed to be critical in their writing was a very challenging concept to grasp. Where should international students start when what it entails may involve unlearning previous learning in order to re-learn new principles for learning? This, I realised, was what I had to undertake if I were to be successful in my studies in the UK. I had to make a conscious effort to understand in-depth what this required from me and how I could demonstrate this newly-acquired understanding through my writing. I remember reflecting hard how I could offer critical thoughts when I was discussing the cultural context in my research – something I found very challenging, but eventually quite liberating. It did not end there, however.
There was another psychological barrier, and perhaps, this one was one that most people tend not to pay attention to. Due to the very hierarchical society that Oriental students (like me) were exposed to, high respect is ordinarily given to teachers in general. In Thailand, for example, university teachers even have a special title, i.e. ‘Acharn’ (or Ajarn), which denotes high esteem for everyone with this title. Such respect, is conveyed in multiple ways, including not challenging or questioning their Acharns’ views as a way of demonstrating utmost respect.
Having this as the ‘norm’ in their home context meant that university students tended not to ask questions, especially in class. There is an implicit assumption that those who question their ‘Acharns’ were somehow disrespecting them. And although the hierarchical respect for our university professors in the Philippines was not as strong compared to Thailand, I knew that my few years in Thailand had strengthened this sense of respect for all my ‘teachers’.
Why is it then important to understand the impact of coming from a hierarchical society? How is this relevant to being successful when international students move to a new academic culture? From personal reflection, one of the issues why writing critically was a challenge was informed by this. An attempt to critique other authors or experts in the field creates a ‘cognitive dissonance’, or having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes that greatly impact our behaviour. Nobody could see it but it caused psychological turmoil within and, initially, powerfully prevented me from being an effective learner and a ‘critical writer’. As I disclosed in the first blog post that I wrote back in 2016:
My thoughts were constantly plagued by ‘Who am I to criticise the experts in the field? I am a “nobody”, a mere learner.’ Panic started to set in – how could I apply critical thinking? After a long struggle, I had to learn one very important lesson that contradicted the sum total of my previous learning experience – academics and theorists are not my superiors but my ‘equals’. Looking back, a large part of my PhD experience entailed open-mindedness, challenging and broadening my previous learning experience in order to calm the learning ‘storm’ and succeed in the UK’s academic culture.
My own experience unsurprisingly stimulated a desire to find ways that are supportive to a large number of international students, particularly for those who hail from the Far East. I still believe that irrespective of the research studies undertaken in this area, there are still uncharted waters to be explored. My own experience has pointed out at least two challenges of academic acculturation: a) at the academic level; and b) at the cultural level. At the moment, all learning support is geared towards addressing the first challenge. Should we also endeavour to alleviate the second challenge, i.e. what could be a shared experience for some groups of international students, say, those for whom a hierarchical tradition is the ‘norm’? This is a mere example of a culturally-informed type of challenge; there might be more. Should we strive to find out what they are and how they can be addressed?
Additionally, here is the third challenge – do we recognise the potential that these students bring? Coming from a different academic culture does not merely necessitate learning from their new environment. It can and does work reciprocally. Do we make an effort to find out how internationalisation experience can be enriched via harnessing what international students can offer? The more we understand and endeavour to address challenges embedded in international education, and equally to harness the potential richness inherent in it, the more international as well as local students are likely to experience an enriched, more meaningful, more satisfying, and, possibly more successful intercultural study experience for all.
In my experience in both England and Scotland, I felt welcomed as a student and subsequently as an academic. In general, the UK is good at doing that. My wish is that it does not stop there. Welcoming international students is one thing, supporting them adequately and appropriately is another – and harnessing their strengths for the benefit of the whole student community is what makes the international experience truly intercultural, and mutually beneficial.
Dr Dely L Elliot, CPsychol is a Senior Lecturer from the University of Glasgow. Dely actively researches on the academic acculturation experience of international postgraduate researchers and its impact on their psychological well-being. Dely is part of the UKCISA-funded project called ‘Are you Okay? Mental health and wellbeing of international doctoral students in the UK: An investigation of supervisors’ understanding and existing support provision’ which won the Paul Webley Award for Innovation in International Education 2019. Her recent publication includes a co-authored book: The Hidden Curriculum in Doctoral Education published in 2020. As Dely shared in this blog post, her overall interest in the psychology of acculturation has been inspired by her experience of being educated in the Philippines, Thailand, and England before becoming an academic in Scotland.