The problem of assimilation is not new and can be linked to the first travels of folks and populations and their attempts to understand and live by the culture and established rules of the people in the area. However, the cultural assimilation that is also linked to education is another level and type of it. Debasish Mridha, a philosopher, poet, and author, has pointed out that “education is a change of mind, an acceptance, and an assimilation” (2013, p. 15). In these lines, he refers to the assimilation of international students and immigrants who go through different assimilation phases during their study at school, college, or university. Before the literature review is presented, a concise definition of assimilation needs to be provided. Assimilation is “the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another” (Brown & Bean, 2006, p. 4).
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Cultural assimilation is a process that normally lasts for years or even decades, it does not have a fixed timetable, and the process cannot be controlled strictly. Sharon L. Sassler, a sociologist, discusses specifics of assimilation and notes that in 1920, those whites who had been living in the United States for more than three generations, had better educational attainment compared to third-generation Irish and Germans (Brown & Bean, 2006, p. 4). Moreover, the assimilation process of some immigrants may not be completed at all, may fail, or proceed in a wrong way, because it has to face various antinomies, including language barriers, discrimination (racial, ethnic, gender, cultural, etc.), difference between individualistic and collectivistic societies, and, at last, their level of education that might not align with the education available in the area.
International students strive for education in another country for various reasons. Some of them seek better education, while others immigrate with their family to live in better conditions (Banks, 2015). The immigrants come from different countries, and, as Banks (2015) notices, between the years 2002 and 2011, 89 percent of the immigrants who were documented came from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America (p. 4). Banks (2015), as well as other authors, stresses that cultural diversity can be both advantageous and disadvantageous for the country. On the one hand, it can create inclusive multinational communities; on the other hand, it can also lead to ethnic and cultural separatism (Banks, 2015). Banks (2015) points out the importance of education in the acculturation of international students, indicating that students can experience fascination at first that is later followed by stress, anxiety, and cultural shock (p. 32). Therefore, it is also important for the education facility to create procedures that would allow students feel welcomed and help them avoid any prejudices, cope with stress, and feel equal (Banks, 2015).
This view is supported by Smith and Khawaja (2011) who discuss different consequences of acculturation and how they can affect students’ performance. However, in this article acculturation is seen as a bi-dimensional process, i.e. it influences not only the immigrant but also the host country and culture (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). Acculturation attitudes can be different and include “integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalisation” (Smith & Khawaja, 2011, p. 702). What is more, the authors also discuss acculturation models that include an explanation of factors that are able to affect the acculturation process (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). All these models focus on the specific processes that immigrants and international students have to experience during their acculturation.
These approaches are “the stress and coping framework, the cultural learning approach, and the social identification perspective” that address specific changes in the psychological domains of immigrants, i.e. affective, cognitive, or behavioral (Smith & Khawaja, 2011, p. 704). The acculturation itself can be perceived by the students as a positive or negative event, depending on the situations in real life, coping mechanisms, and other acculturation experiences. If the acculturation experience is seen as an opportunity, it does not trigger any stresses that will be connected to acculturation; however, if the experience provides difficulties, the international student will need to engage coping strategies and resources to overcome it. It does not mean, however, that this stress will be defeated – if not, the student is at risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety (Smith & Khawaja, 2011).
Brown and Bean (2006) provide a wider explanation of the challenges that immigrants can face during acculturation. Assimilation can be blocked or slowed down by certain factors; therefore, it is important to consider if convergence between the newcomers and the majority is present. If not, assimilation can be blocked or delayed (Brown & Bean, 2006). The reasons behind this block can vary: first, assimilation can be easily blocked due to racism and discrimination that can prevail in the society that immigrants contact with. Second, immigrants can share the resources they have with other people of their ethnicity or race, therefore slowing down the assimilation process, but not blocking it (Brown & Bean, 2006).
The process and phenomenon of assimilation are also addressed by Mio, Barker-Hackett, and Tumambing (2012) who link it to acculturation. Acculturation is, according to them, “experiences and changes that happen when we come in contact with another culture” (Mio et al., 2012, p. 158). One of the most common barriers that international students need to overcome is language. Depending on the language fluency, the immigrant can be seen as more or less intelligent by the host country residents. That is why it can be said that fluency in language also provides international students with particular privileges (Mio et al., 2012). It is also important if the immigrant has support systems similar to the local ones or understands the assimilation and acculturation processes (Mio et al., 2012).
In this case, the immigrant is more likely to succeed in the country than when they do not have any support. Lack of support can result in stress, anxieties, and problems with physical and mental health (Mio et al., 2012). The statuses that immigrants have during the process of assimilation are assimilationist (the person dissociates from the culture of origin), separationist (the person is unwilling to identify with any other culture), marginalist (the person does not adopt host culture, becomes an outcasts), and integrationist (the person holds original values and beliefs while learning and adopting those of host culture, learns to be flexible and is commonly most well-balanced and happiest) (Mio et al., 2012). International students, as well as other immigrants, go through these phases as well.
It seems reasonable to assume that international students experience stress, and this stress is capable of influencing their performance and study at school or college. The stress that they experience is of a particular type, also called “acculturative stress (i.e., stress resulting from life changes in the acculturation process)” (Smith & Khawaja, 2011, p. 705). If the person is experiencing major changes in life that are not often perceived as happy, it is possible to expect that this person will have to face stress linked to these experiences.
If stress can indeed affect international students at the Maryville University who are undergoing the process of assimilation, it is necessary to understand how this statement can be supported by the research study. The participants were from 18 to 23 years old freshman and sophomores, from lower to upper-class socioeconomic backgrounds, female and male international students from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America.
When the sample was selected, a survey was conducted to provide empirical evidence whether or not international students experience stress while they are advancing in their field of study. This approach was expected to be efficient, as it had been already used in another study, Testing Berry’s model of acculturation: A confirmatory latent class approach, conducted by Schwartz and Zamboanga in 2008. The authors used the four categories that were proposed by Berry: assimilation (acquires the host culture but abandons the heritage culture), separation (does not accept the receiving culture and retains the heritage culture), integration (acquires the host culture and preserves the heritage culture), and marginalization (rejects both cultures) (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008). The authors use the definition of acculturation to relate to value-based indices of cultural identity, ethnic identity exploration, and familism of heritage-culture retention (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008). This method was applied to the survey that was conducted among the international students at the Maryville University because it was possible to divide them into separate categories for the pretest experiment. This would help the researchers predict if the hypothesis could be supported or not.
It is also important to point out that those participants who were retaining heritage-culture practices (separated or bi-cultural) were expected to get higher scores on these indices than those who preferred to reject heritage-culture practices (assimilated and marginalized) (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008). It was anticipated that the students at the Maryville University would score lower in familial ethnic socialization if they preferred assimilation or marginalization to separation or becoming bi-cultural. In the study that was conducted in 2006, a take-home survey and an online survey were used. The participants were provided with a five-point Likert scale that ranged from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree) (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008).
Such approach was also used in the present study. The participants from the Maryville University were provided with a similar questionnaire. In their answers, the participants were asked to evaluate whether they could relate themselves to the USA, their family, neither or both. These answers were also linked to the four categories that were presented above: assimilation score = the participant relates to the USA; integration score = sum of the responses marked as “both”; separation score = sum of the responses marked as “the country my family comes from”; marginalization = the sum of responses marked as “neither” (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008). As Schwartz and Zamboanga (2008) point out, second-generation immigrants were more likely to be placed in the assimilation or integration groups, while first-generation immigrants were classified as partially bicultural or separated in relation to the USA.
Another reason why this method of data gathering was used is its ability to measure various variables and test multiple hypotheses at the same time; moreover, a survey is a “widely used data-gathering technique in the social sciences and other fields” (Bernard, 2012, p. 148). The survey was conducted online because web-surveys do not normally require serious financial expenditures and provide answers from the participants very quickly. The questionnaire was emailed to the Psychology Department of the University in order to create a sample group, corresponding to the research. The questionnaire included a series of questions about the possible difficulties of assimilation from the point of view of an international student at the Maryville University. The answers were distributed according to the four categories of acculturation and the Likert scale’s scores, similar to Berry’s model.
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The study was based on the hypothesis that international students experience stress during their assimilation at the local university that might affect them and their performance. The results have shown that the hypothesis was correct, and students frequently face this problem. One of the major stressors was language (and the language barrier) that is able to have an adverse impact on the students’ writing, understanding, outcomes of oral and written examinations (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). Moreover, language barriers do not only affect the academic performance but also create challenges in socializing (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). If an international student is fluent in English, it helps them to be less self-conscious. Fluency increases the number of social relations of the student as well (Smith & Khawaja, 2011).
Another reason why students may feel stressed is the fact that ethnicity can both present opportunities and challenges in the process of achievement of economic stability (Brown & Bean, 2006). Institutional barriers and language discrimination can not only linger assimilation but also result in unemployment or poor conditions at the working place (Brown & Bean, 2006). Students who often need to combine both working and studying can be even more overwhelmed as they face challenges in both dimensions of their lives. The hypothesis about the privileges that immigrants may have if they are fluent in English was also supported, as the results show that those proficient in English had fewer problems with studying, understanding the content of the lectures, and asking questions during the lectures.
The students experienced stress not only because of language barriers and ethnic and cultural differences but also because the expectations about their performance mismatched the outcomes during the actual study. In their home country, their performance could be equal or better compared to the natives of the host country. In the USA, their performance had lagged because they needed to adapt to content in a foreign language, societal, cultural, and economic differences at the university. Moreover, some of the students were often pressured by their family to have equal or even better results than they had had at home (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). When seeing the discrepancy between the desired and actual outcomes, students often experienced anxiety or even depression, fearing that they might not graduate successfully or would be ashamed to present their grades to the family.
The findings also support the assumption that international students are often challenged by the services that their educational facility provides, comparing them to the home-country universities and colleges and finding a big gap that eventually influences their adaption and performance (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). The results have also supported the idea that immigrants (and international students as well) experience different stages of culture shock, among them the so-called honeymoon or tourist stage and the hostility stage. If the honeymoon stage is perceived as a positive event because the country is new and the experience is diverse, the next stage normally evokes fears, stress, difficulties, and doubts (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). International students, especially those who have difficulties in advancing in the language of the host country, might experience frustration and anger. Although these reactions are normal, they often lead to poor performance at college or university.
Therefore, the stages of culture shock that students face can have an adverse impact on their grades and study. What is more, communication is not only used at university, but it is also needed to build relationships, friendships, and acquaintances. If a person is limited in their language expression, it will also lead to isolation and prolonged assimilation. The results show that mastering the language of the host country can help reduce the impact of failed or poor communication and present the student with new opportunities and relationships at work and university. Other than language, race and ethnicity are also among the factors that can lead to different encounters, including stressful ones. As Brown and Bean (2006) notice, discrimination and racism are the factors that can influence the process of assimilation, making the immigrant separated or even marginalized. Nevertheless, successful acculturation and assimilation, as well as biculturalism, are also possible even if they have been impacted by discrimination.
Although this study has provided new data about the process of cultural assimilation of international students, it also had particular limitations. First, the sample size was small and only included international students of a particular age. International students who are younger or older than the participants could have provided different data that could also influence the outcomes. Moreover, the research was conducted at one university, suggesting that these results apply to the Maryville University only. However, the data provided by the participants aligns with the data published in other studies; therefore, it is possible to assume that the results can be generalized. However, the specifics of the Maryville University were naturally reflected in the answers that concerned the stress caused by the study. It seems reasonable to assume that other universities would provide different data. However, it remains questionable whether this data would be distinct from the research’s results or not.
Other limitations are linked to the language barrier that has been discussed above. As the participants came from different countries and had different backgrounds, it was decided to provide questionnaires in English. However, it is impossible to evaluate the impact of the language barrier on the accuracy of the responses. It is possible that participants misinterpreted a question or expressed the opinion in an unclear manner due to language limitations. Therefore, the language barrier also had an impact on the study and its outcomes. It is important to remember that some of the participants were new not only to this type of surveys but the general environment of the university as well. As Smith and Khawaja (2011) state, the context in which participants are assessed is often not optimal for such psychological researches (p. 52).
The last limitation is the choice of the model that was used in the research. As Berry’s model is not the only one that is utilized when assessing assimilation of immigrants, it is necessary to point out that the use of mixed methods could provide other results than it was expected by the author.
Recommendations for Future Research
The study has addressed the problem of cultural assimilation that is widely discussed not only by the academic public but also by the media and society. The recommendations for future research would be to evaluate how the assimilation process is perceived by female and male participants to understand what gender differences might arise during it. As it is important to understand how different issues affect the participants of different genders, it seems reasonable to address the body image, discrimination, expectations that concern gender, sex, and sexual orientation, interpersonal and political violence, and employment.
It is also advisable to conduct a similar study in other universities and compare the results to evaluate the similarities and differences between them. A study that will cover several universities and, possibly, states, will ensure that the results are less homogenous than in the present case. Moreover, international students from other states might experience state-specific problems and stresses that were not covered in this study.
The future research can also become a mixed method study (qualitative and quantitative) that will use different methods and models to address the issue. This approach will ensure that the results are not caused by the model or method chosen by the authors. Thus, future research is recommended to have a bigger scope, a bigger sample size, a more diverse use of methods and models, and a more detailed view on the issues that immigrants face, and how these issues impact their study and assimilation.
The following study has examined how the process of assimilation is experienced by international students, what stressors they face, and how these stressors can influence their study and acculturation. Language barriers and the inability to express oneself can result in anxiety and depression. Depending on particular conditions, immigrant students can assimilate, separate, integrate, or marginalize in the host country. The results of the study have shown that stress linked to assimilation can have a negative impact on international students’ performance.
Banks, J. A. (2015). Cultural diversity and education. London, UK: Routledge.
Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. New York, NY: Sage.
Brown, S. K., & Bean, F. D. (2006). Assimilation models, old and new: Explaining a long-term process. Migration Information Source, 1(2), 3-41.
Debasish, M. (2013). Sweet rhymes from sweet hearts. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris.
Mio, J. S., Barker-Hackett, L., & Tumambing, J. (2012). Multicultural psychology: Understanding our diverse communities. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Schwartz, S. J., & Zamboanga, B. L. (2008). Testing Berry’s model of acculturation: A confirmatory latent class approach. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 14(4), 275-284.
Smith, R. A., & Khawaja, N. G. (2011). A review of the acculturation experiences of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(6), 699-713.