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  • Chinese International Students' Advice to Incoming First-Year Students:Involving Students in Conversations With Them, Not About Them
  • Tang T. Heng (bio)

International students studying in US higher education institutions have reached a historic peak of 974,926 students, or 4.8% of US higher education enrollment, with 31.0% of these from China (Institute of International Education, 2015). International students (herein called internationals) from countries where there is a wider cultural distance from host countries tend to have a harder time adjusting (Marginson, Nyland, Sawir, & Forbes-Mewett, 2010). Asian internationals, in particular, tend to encounter more adjustment strain and acculturative stress compared to those from Europe (Marginson et al., 2010). Diverging expectations around the purpose and process of education between their home country and the United States, on top of linguistic differences, form barriers to Asian internationals' engagement in argumentative writing, classroom participation, group work, formative assessments, and academic conventions, to name a few (Heng, 2018b; Henze & Zhu, 2012; Parris-Kidd & Barnett, 2011; Zhang & Goodson, 2011). Furthermore, Asian internationals have trouble befriending host peers (Rose-Redwood & Rose-Redwood, 2013; Yao, 2016), experience discrimination (Heng, 2017), and report higher levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety (Sawir, Marginson, Deumert, Nyland, & Ramia, 2008).

In this study I aimed to find out—through qualitative methods—what advice existing Chinese internationals would give to incoming Chinese international first-year students to aid [End Page 232] in their transition to US higher education. Given that 1 in 3 internationals is from China, US media have paid keen attention to Chinese internationals, with some portraying them unflatteringly as dishonest, academically weak, and unsocial and others declaring that institutions need to be more inclusive of and responsive to them (Abelmann & Kang, 2014). Acknowledging the need to better support Chinese internationals, I privileged peer advice as a method to help them, since research has found that college students, averse to authority and formality, prefer guidance from peers (Kim, 2009; Seymour & Hewitt, 1994). Furthermore, minority and international students from more collectivistic cultures prefer to access social relationships and networks around them to overcome college barriers because of in-built trust (Kim, 2009; Ra, 2016), particularly by seeking advice from compatriots whom they deem to be more cognizant of internationals' constraints (Heng, 2018a). Thus, peer advice provides an authentic, naturalistic, and efficacious way of gaining insights on how to support Chinese internationals

Rather than presuming that internationals are passive and problematic, I leveraged a conceptual framework that assumes that they possess agency—that is, the capacity to act independently upon their own choices (Heng, 2018a). Willis (1981) asserted that humans are not passive but constantly improvising or contesting values and beliefs within their contexts even as they reproduce existing structures and ideology. College students, in particular, are "highly agentic—highly conducive to action and interaction" (Klemenčič, 2015, p. 12) since the interaction of newfound freedom, novel experiences, and roles and expectations of young adulthood provokes reflection and action in their college selfformation process. Chinese internationals are not excluded from this highly agentic self-formation process. To illustrate, they develop strategies—like managing self-expectations and differentiating social support accessed by the kind of help needed—to cope with challenges they face in US colleges (Heng, 2018a). Given internationals' preference for peer advice and their highly agentic characteristics, I sought existing Chinese internationals' recommendations on how to ease US college transition for incoming first-year students in the hope of supporting students from similar contexts.


A qualitative research approach was adopted as it values participants' active meaning construction around peer advice and allows for their perspectives and voices to be interpreted within their sociocultural settings (Hatch, 2002). As this study was part of a larger research agenda examining Chinese undergraduates' experiences and responses to US colleges, data collection extended beyond the purpose of this study. A total of 18 participants—9 first-year and 9 secondyear students—were recruited. Approximately one third responded directly to research flyers disseminated through international student offices, international student organizations, friends, and bulletin board posts, with the other two thirds recruited via snowballing from initial respondents. Participants were selected based on criteria typical of Chinese students in the United States: pursuing business, mathematics, or...


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