This interpretive interview study presents the language experiences of three international graduate students at a rural southern university. In the era of globalization, language is a critical component of success in business, schooling, and everyday life. All of the participants underlined the importance of English. The three questions that guided this work dealt with compensatory language strategies, the importance of English proficiency in daily school lives, and language accommodations. Inductive analysis revealed that language proficiency shaped and influenced the students’ experiences. Struggles with the American accent, knowledge of vocabulary, and language conventions came to the forefront in the participants’ conversations. Coping strategies such as technology use or seeking teacher’s help were discussed. My findings can help university administrators to build better-suited programs that fit the needs of international populations.
Key words: English acquisition, international students, ELL, coping skills, inductive analysis, post-secondary education
Quest for Success: How International Students’ College School Experiences Are Being Shaped by Their English Language Proficiency
This qualitative study explored the experiences of international students at a university in a southern, rural town of the United States and the relation of those experiences to English language proficiency. The goals of the study were to: present the language compensatory mechanisms that international students used, show the world of a student in a foreign country, and to inquire about how experiences of using a non-native language influence academic life.
The paper consists of several sections. In the purpose statement I discuss the importance of my study. Also, I situate my study’s problem in a bigger context. In the next section, I list the research questions that guided my work. Moreover, I reflect on my biases in the personal rationale part of this paper. In the literature review I discuss the scholarly literature relevant to my study. Then, the theoretical framework, methods and analytical procedures are presented. The paper is concluded with the presentation of findings, discussion, and implications for future research.
This study explored language experiences of international students at a university in a small, rural southern town in the United States (U.S.). In this particular area of the U.S., the demographics were not diverse and there had been recent growth of the international population, specifically within the last 5 years. I was interested in inquiring about what language support the university provided for the non-native speakers and if those accommodations were seen as helpful.
The experiences of international students have become increasingly important for researchers due to the ongoing growth of international students populations at universities across the United States. In the Open Doors survey (U.S. Cultural Affairs Department of State & Institute of International Education, 2013) data indicated a growth of 7.2% of international students’ population in the U.S. The process of globalization perpetuates learners seeking education outside of their native countries. The Open Doors survey indicated international students added $24 billion yearly to the U.S. economy. Popadiuk and Arthur (2014) saw strong connections between school relationships and the future work success for out-of-country populations. Their research highlighted key factors that could ease the school-to-work transition and future work for international students. They emphasized the importance of establishing support by faculty members and alumni with English Language Learners (ELLs). My study helped to identify other factors that international students considered helpful in order to face college challenges.
My findings may help administrators of the university, or even, the state administrators to build future language programs based on the international learners’ feedback. Halic, Greenberg, and Paulus (2009) stated, “there is a dearth of research in the higher education literature that looks in-depth at how international students join the academic community of practice and adjust to the host society through the lens of language experience” (p. 74).
Policymaking and creating support systems for international students in the United States are timely issues on the agendas of many school systems, agencies, and universities. Procedures for international student exchange shape daily lives of millions of learners. However, researchers emphasize that there are still many questions that need to be answered: “How do international students make meaning of their experiences with the English language? How do they construct their identities in a new environment using English as a new language? These are questions that require further attention and can inform higher education policy” (Halic et al., 2009, p. 74). It was my goal to seek answers to some of those questions and explore factors enabling this foreign population to be successful at U.S. universities.
As Moores and Popadiuk (2011) stated, “learning more about how international students negotiate transitions successfully, what type of support is helpful, and what kinds of strengths these students draw upon would greatly add to our current understanding” (p. 291). Other scholars also underlined the importance of this topic. Halic, et al. (2009) asserted, “as American universities continue to attract international students as well as expand into global markets, this growing community deserves attention as its members are legitimate contributors to the academic communities of practice in the U.S.” (pp. 73–74).
The three questions that guided this work dealt with compensatory language strategies, the importance of English proficiency in daily school lives, and language accommodations. Specifically, I asked:
• What compensatory strategies have ELL college students developed in order to negotiate their daily school routines at a university in a rural southern town?
• What are ELL college students’ understandings of the way English language proficiency constructs or influences their identities as college students?
• What are ELL college students’ perceptions of the way their university in a rural southern town accommodates their language deficiencies?
Qualitative research, as any type of research, is challenging and time consuming. For this study I knew I had to take on a subject that would be close to my heart. I am interested in language and how words affect or even create us. That is why my study was centered on the importance of language. In qualitative research it is the researcher who is the instrument in data collection and interpretation. That is why it is essential to know what influences someone’s judgment. This journey required revelation of my subjectivities. Peshkin (1988) stated that subjectivity “is like a garment that cannot be removed. It is insistently present both in research and non-research aspects of our life” (p. 17). Peshkin asserted that the process of seeking and reflecting on subjectivity during qualitative inquiry should be ongoing. He stated that, “the purpose of doing so is to enable the researcher to be aware of how their subjectivity may be shaping their inquiry and its outcomes” (p. 17).
I was born in Wroclaw, Poland, a large European city, which was not culturally diverse. I come from a middle class family and both of my parents were well-educated. My high school concentration was Germanic languages. I chose to study Roman philology for post-secondary education. Languages have always played a big role in who I am and how I perceive the world around me. During my research I had to be aware that my participants may not have valued language, as I did, in shaping their daily lives. I studied the experiences of international students and how English language proficiency influenced students’ school routines and shaped their academic identities. I was an international student and I am an ELL. In my study, I learned how other people succeed at studying in a language other than their native tongue.
In my literature review I focused on peer reviewed qualitative studies. To make sure that studies were relevant to my study’s subject, I looked for key words and phrases such as: international students, language experiences of ELL, and language coping skills. I used the university library’s search engine. When making choices about what to include and what to exclude, I focused on the most recent studies, as those seemed more relevant to my research.
English Is A Factor
Language acquisition can be the greatest challenge for ELLs particularly ELLs enrolled in U.S. universities, as academics are inseparably connected to vocabulary understanding. Chang (2011) described how Arizona State University provided language support in an effective way. In her work, the researcher gave a few examples of effective language acquisition. She described Arizona State University’s successful American English and Culture program, which consisted of introducing international students to content specific jargon, cultural events participation, class observation, and conversational club attendance. All of those actions, according to Chang (2013), built language skills and international students’ sense of belonging to the new learning community. My study explored language experiences that international students had in college and how those experiences shaped their academic identity.
Halic et al. (2009) indicated English greatly influenced identities and experiences of the participants. The participants in the study were all classified as international students at a southern U.S. university, and they were ELLs. One reason I included this research in my literature review was the similarity of the location to my study. I conducted my research in a southern state of the U.S. Halic et al. stated that international students had trouble understanding the southern U.S. accent. The participants saw English language as hindering their academic success. The researchers asserted, “in the academic setting [the participants] felt that they were not able to fully participate in class discussions, finding it difficult to select appropriate words in order to address questions. As a consequence they were initially perceived by instructors and peers as unknowledgeable and non-legitimate contributors to the learning community” (Halic et al., 2009, p. 82). Accent was an important disabling factor in ELL communication. However, “English was also seen as a channel of access to other cultures, American and those of other international students. Accessing other cultures by speaking English was seen as a source of learning and self-development” (Halic et al., 2009, p. 83). The researchers indicated that participants constructed their new identities within U.S. culture. Those identities ranged from feeling as an international student who belongs to the learning community, to feeling as a stranger in a host country. In my study, I also explored identities that were created by English language proficiency. The researchers stated that English confidence was reshaped as graduate students — the participants were given teaching responsibilities. Public speaking and the new position improved their confidence and self-esteem. In their conclusion, researchers underlined the need for effective and understanding instructors that will work closely with the international population.
Another study that focused on English being a factor in shaping identities of international students was a participatory action research conducted by Stevens, Emil and Yamashita (2010). Two graduate assistants and a mentor professor explored journal writing as means to help international students develop their English and social skills. Journal writing became a coping mechanism that helped the participants. Through reflective journal writing and mentoring the international students developed their English skills, and improved academically. Focus groups also helped students become more confident in a use of English as discussions were relevant to students needs. Furthermore, they became more confident in their graduate university work. Stevens et al. (2010) called for more research that involved international student populations.
Khawaja and Stallman (2011) also explored coping skills of an international population. They discovered that international students develop coping mechanisms that aided them while living in a foreign country. The coping mechanisms also helped students while studying in the non-native language. In order to improve their English, the international students, made it a priority to interact with native students. The ELLs joined clubs and other organizations to help their language proficiency. Khawaja and Stallman reported other coping skills that helped raise the English proficiency of international students. They asserted, “participants considered being organized and systematic as important to cope with the academic pressure. Time management and prioritizing assessments according to the assessment’s weight, also emerged as an important skill” (Khawaja & Stallman, 2011, p. 17).
Moore and Papadiuk (2011) conducted a study that investigated factors that positively shaped experiences of out-of-country students’ population. Those researchers emphasized the necessity of more research that would explore the positive aspects of building international students’ satisfaction, aiding academic success. Moore and Papadiuk emphasized that peer relationships, academic support, an aid of a cultural guide, involvement in enjoyable extracurricular activities, and faculty support shaped experiences of international students in a positive way.
Research Design And Method
In the next section, I describe the theoretical framework, methods and analytical procedures, and professional rationale that informed this research project. I concluded my work with the presentation of findings, discussion, and implications for future research.
I worked within the paradigm of interpretivism. It is a qualitative theoretical framework that arose to oppose the impersonal and almost clinical outlook of positivism. Interpretivism “attempts to understand and explain human and social reality” (Crotty, 1997, p. 67). The roots of this philosophical stance are connected to Max Weber’s Verstehen understanding. Human experiences have to be interpreted not by “value-free, detached observation” (Crotty, 1997, p. 67) but by culturally and socially driven interpretations (Crotty, 1997). This study interpreted the international students’ language experiences through the lens of social and cultural relationships. That lens is a critical one. That is why even if my study is an interpretivist one, it borderlines with critical theory paradigm. Through showing and pointing out the struggles of the international population, I tried to raise awareness of the problems that adult ELL college students experience and encounter in a foreign land. Also, I wanted to call for help and guidance that faculty and staff of universities can provide for that population.
Before I started looking for participants, I wrote a letter to the university representative to allow me to conduct the interviews with the international student volunteers in the Curriculum and Instruction department. After a positive answer and the IRB approval I started to look for the participants that would meet the requirements of my study. All of the interviews were performed on the college campus. I met my participants in a university office. This setting was very appropriate for my study, as I wanted to talk to my participants about their college experiences.
During the research process, I spent sufficient time in the field. I saw the international student population interacting with each other and their native-born peers.
In my research I was looking at how English language proficiency shaped the experiences and identities of three international students at a college in a southern, rural U.S. town. According to U.S. Census (2012) data, the town had a little over 30,000 inhabitants and over 80% of the population was predominantly white. The foreign-born persons’ rate was a little over 5%. The Open Doors (2013) survey mentioned only 5% of U.S. colleges host 69% of out-of-country populations. The setting of my study, among universities in the Open Doors data, had a lower number of international students’ influx. However, in recent years the university had experienced an increase of the international student population.
Description of the Participants and Context
All of the participants were international students at a southern university in the U.S. The students were volunteers from the Curriculum and Instruction department. The participants were selected using purposeful sampling as recommended by Patton (2002). There was no race or gender preference. However, the students had to be classified as international by the university and be ELLs. Also, the participants had to feel comfortable communicating in English with the researcher.
The university was located in a small, southern town of around 30,000 habitants. The website for the city claimed that it offered the best of rural and urban qualities. The town could be seen as being located in the heart of the U.S. The university offered around 40 undergraduate and 20 graduate degrees. The university consisted of red brick buildings spread along greenery. The main campus where the interviews took place was clean and well maintained. The grass was neatly cut and the plants gave an impression of being in a park. All of the interviews took place in an academic office. The office was located on the third floor. It was a small room with light, pastel colored walls. The door of the office was wooden and had no window, which gave the place a feeling of intimacy and coziness. There was a big window in the office with a beautiful view of the main university tower.
Participant C was a 29 year old male from an African country. He first learned to speak in his native tongue Shawna, and he considered himself very proficient in English. His disposition was always positive, enthusiastic, and very excited about his U.S. studies. He came to the university just four weeks prior to the interview. In his native country he finished both undergraduate and graduate studies. He came to the U.S. to pursue his Ph. D. degree. He stated he could not secure that kind of education in his country. The participant was very open about sharing his experiences and his background. He was one of 6 children and already had an extended family in the U.S. connected with the university. That fact made the choice of moving to the U.S. and the small town easier and more accessible. He saw studying in the U.S. as a step forward in his academic career. He also considered English proficiency an enabling factor in not only his studies but also in global affairs.
The second participant T was a Saudi Arabian graduate student. She was around 30 years old and pregnant at the time of the interview. T came from a large city. She repeatedly mentioned she wanted to go back to her country and could not see herself living outside of her native land. She stated she periodically went back to her country because she missed her home a lot. She came to the U.S. to pursue her biology degree. She started her American adventure almost three years ago, in 2012 when she, her husband, and baby-son came together. T seemed very confident, she mentioned that she did not cover her face anymore. However, outside she covered her eyes/face with very large sunglasses. She seemed energetic, talkative, and sure of herself. She mentioned that her English improved not only by being at school but also by interaction with her son and daughter’s teachers. Moreover, her children who spoke both Arabic and English helped her in becoming more proficient. T stated she drove (not all of the Saudi women do) and tried to make connections with local people. She saw value in that interaction. In the interview, T told me she was not able to study biology because of the lack of available spaces. Hence, she started to study chemistry. Due to her lower (in the beginning) English proficiency and lack of help and support from faculty, she made a decision to switch and continue her graduate degree in the field of education. She considered the change as a failure because of her ambitious personality. However, her studies in the Curriculum and Instruction department seemed to go well. She was happy about the quality of the academic support and the quality of life in the little town.
Participant A was another Saudi Arabian female. She was 28 years old at the time of the interview. Her calm demeanor and quiet voice complemented her petite frame. She also chose not to cover her face and also wore big sunglasses outside. She informed me that she came to this country with her brother. They looked for the university that would meet both of their educational needs. Before she ended up in the small rural town, she studied in a language school in Delaware. She obtained an undergraduate degree in her home country in the field of education and was pursuing her Masters degree in special education.
The validity of the study, or as Maxwell (2012) referred to “the correctness or credibility of a description, conclusion, explanation, interpretation” (p. 122), is an essential component in qualitative research design. Maxwell presented two threads to validity: bias and reactivity. I made sure to be reflective regarding my subjectivities and monitor reactivity throughout the duration of my study. I also reflected upon my biases in the personal rationale section of this paper. Maxwell (2012) referred to reactivity as the “influence researcher has on setting or individuals studied” (p. 124). That is why I met with my participants in the familiar university setting. During my research, I kept Maxwell’s (2012) validity checklist in mind. In order for my work to represent the studied population of the international students, I spent sufficient time at the research site.
My study explored language experiences of international students at a university in a small, rural southern town in the U.S. I was interested in inquiring about what language support the university provided for the non-native speakers and if those accommodations were seen as helpful, what language coping strategies the international students developed, and how English proficiency shaped their academic identities.
My research can be classified as an interview study. Data analysis is an elaborate process that has to be based on scholarly work. I chose scholars such as LeCompte and Preissle (1993), LeCompte (2000), Glaser and Strauss (as cited in Dey, 1999), and Charmaz (2002) to base my work upon. Consequently, I followed the grounded theory model and an inductive analysis approach to data. As LeCompte (2000) stated,
analysis of data reduces them to a more manageable form that permits ethnographers to tell a story about the people or a group that is the focus of the research; interpretation of that story permits ethnographers to describe to a reader what the story means. (p. 2)
Another qualitative researcher Wolcott noted that the “goal of the analysis is to create less data, not more” (as cited in LeCompte, 2000, p. 3).
Producing meanings from the collected data by the use of inductive analysis is an elaborate work process. As LeCompte and Preissle (1993) stated, “It is only after an ethnographer stops collecting data and the romance of fieldwork ends that the real work of data analysis and interpretation begins” (p. 235). LeCompte and Preissle recommend asking questions of the collected data and seeking answers in the data. Also, those researchers advocated for seeking patterns that would then be morphed into categories. The researchers stated, “patterns and regularities then are transformed into categories into which subsequent items are sorted” (p. 237). LeCompte and Preissle emphasized that inductive researchers look for the theory in the data. What LeCompte and Preissle, called patterns, LeCompte and Schensul (1999) called codes. They explained, “codes are names or symbols used to stand for a group of similar items, ideas, or phenomena that the researcher has noticed in her data set” (p. 55).
My work followed the grounded theory model for coding, which was firstly formulated by Glaser and Strauss (as cited in Dey, 1999), morphed by Strauss and Corbin (1990), and later reformulated by Charmaz (2002). The researcher seeks answers to the research questions within the collected data by the use of systematic analytical procedures of emerging codes and categories to the point of saturation — when no new groupings can be created. As the scholars indicated in order to follow grounded theory procedures, open coding (Glaser and Strauss as cited in day, 1999), axial coding (Strauss and Corbin, 1990), and then categories must be derived through constant comparison which forces the researcher to create theoretical concepts for each choice of the category.
Nevertheless, Glaser and Strauss (as cited in Dey, 1999) saw the derived categories as objectively discovered facts that emerged from data. The researcher, in the original model of this approach, is a more passive and objective examiner of data, which produces facts. However, Charmaz (2002) formulated a constructivist approach to this qualitative framework. As Charmaz stated, “a) multiple realities exist, b) data reflect the researcher’s and participants’ mutual constructions, and c) the researcher, however completely enters and is affected by participants’ worlds. This approach explicitly provides an interpretive portrayal of the studied world, not an exact picture of it” (p. 678). Charmaz, as Glaser and Strauss, emphasized the process of comparison in order to establish categories. However, the interpretation in the constructivist model was seen as a negotiation among the participants’ words and worlds and the researcher’s explanation for each.
As some of the scholars highlighted, the analysis starts as soon as the researcher begins her study. LeCompte (2000) stated, “ ethnographers begin analysis of qualitative data almost as soon as they enter the field site: they continue the process of the analysis, hypothesis creation and testing, and interpretation throughout the process” (p. 6). That is what happened to me as well. I was drawn to my field site, into my field site, always conceptualizing my research questions and my experiences in the field. After I finished collecting data, I could not stop thinking about the words of my participants and how they related to my research questions.
As some scholars (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993) recommended, the researcher should review the plans and review the research questions. As LeCompte and Schensul (1999) stated, “ the second stage of the analysis involves some serious housekeeping and occurs as soon as the ethnographer has left the field. Various methodologies have called it data cleaning, data management, and cataloging” (p. 37). I thought I obtained enough information to answer my original questions. Reflecting back on my interview questions I thought that they were the reasons I managed to collected data relevant to my study. My questions were very concise. Also, some of them were restated, which gave the participant a chance to exhaust some of the topics.
I used an inductive analysis approach to qualitative data. I read each of the transcripts of the interview twice in order to obtain thorough knowledge of the collected information. As recommended by LeCompte (1999), I looked for words and phrases that stood out to me. Also, I tried to come up with labels for my participant’s words. Moreover, LeCompte emphasized, “researchers look for things that are exactly alike, things that differ slightly … or things that differ a great deal … so that clear-cut distinction can be made between different kinds of items “ (p. 149). Hence, when I was reading the transcripts the third time I started to code each line with a heading that became a title for the information conveyed by the text. That was what Strauss and Corbin (1990) called open coding. Those researchers stated that coding of qualitative analysis was designed to organize data into groups of similar items. Hence, from many original “discovered concepts” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 102), now I will refer to them as codes, I started to create categories.