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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

Vivere, studium, ludo

Striving for a healthy work/life/study balance as an international student

Naureen Khamisa

Monash University

The number of international students who seek an education in a country other than their own has risen considerably over the past several decades (Lee 2010, 66). This trend has continued, despite the global economic recession, as modes of international delivery and access are ever increasing, especially as some institutions, such as Monash University, have multiple campuses worldwide, often offering attractive and affordable alternatives to studying overseas (Verbik and Lasanowski 2007). The incentive to expand the number of international students is strong, as international enrolment acts as a critical marker of a higher education institution’s prestige.

However, aside from the positive aspects of a study-abroad experience, successful international recruitment does not ensure an equally positive educational experience. If improving levels of satisfaction among international students is the goal, understanding their experiences is critically important. In light of the current focus on international enrolments at universities worldwide, this chapter explores one of the problems experienced by foreign students enrolled at universities in countries other than their own: maintaining a healthy work/life/study balance.

Constructing a ‘social identity’

Karen Nairn and her co-authors (Nairn et al. 2010, 287) argue that people desire to have a recognisable identity and a sense of belonging; when this is the aspiration, there are powerful motivations to conform to social norms. In the case of international students, conformity becomes essential if their identity is to be intelligible to others. In a similar way, Plumridge, Fitzgerald and Abel (2002, 291) note that identity ‘is something that we do rather than something that we acquire’. If this is indeed the case, what happens to international students’ identity when they go to study and live in another country for the first time?

University is a new experience for all students. It involves meeting new peers, engaging with new ways of learning and adapting to significant changes in routine and lifestyle (Fumiko 2008). In attempting to become accustomed to these changes, international students may experience changes in their identity, because identity is shaped through socialisation and social experience (Robinson et al. 2009). In this section I explore the ways in which international students negotiate and maintain their identities in response to their lifestyle, coping mechanisms and the goals they wish to achieve. Through an examination of their social lives, I suggest a platform for understanding international students’ motives as they engage in their personal and academic endeavours. Such understanding is important to explain why achieving a healthy study/life/work balance can be a difficult process.

Socialisation is an important factor in determining the quality of individuals’ life experience. In the same way as it applies to native students, a healthy social life is important in ensuring international students’ academic and personal success. In transitioning from high school to university, students’ experiences change as their environment changes. The new aspects of a changed environment include different physical and financial experiences, new forms of social interaction, different emotional experiences and changes in goals and aspirations. In addition, new freedom is acquired in living away from parents and in taking responsibility for their own lives (Fumiko 2008). As a result, international students usually experience a variety of emotions – excitement and confusion in facing new challenges and concerns.

Forming new relationships and friendships with other students can be a difficult process for international students, as the social environment is different from their previous one. As a result, their interactions may lead to experiences that alter their ideas of who they are. Alongside this battle with identity negotiation, international students are more likely to suffer other challenges such as language problems and cultural issues. However, in focusing on the social processes that shape international students’ lifestyle, interactions with others are important for psychological and physical wellbeing, as well as for academic success (Fumiko 2008; Robinson et al. 2009).

Given that language is the principal means through which people interact with each other, it is difficult to separate language from the way in which individuals socialise. However, language proficiency is not entirely necessary for effective socialisation. In fact, the frequency of interaction with teachers and peers is regarded as more important in the quality of international students’ university experience (Fumiko 2008).

Given that identity is the image of the self, defined by a socio-cultural demographic background, including gender, age, religion and personality, people often align themselves with various social and personal classifications in order to ‘fit in’ (Meltzer 1997, 18). In other words, the way in which individual students view themselves or their social position influences how they socialise. Further, socialisation is a cyclical process where interaction with the environment in which individuals are located includes other people, which in itself involves identity construction, maintenance and modification (Fumiko 2008).

However, while acknowledging that socialisation and forming an identity are important processes in ensuring personal and academic success for international students, sometimes these processes become a priority at the expense of other equally vital aspects of their lives. In attempting to ‘fit into’ a social setting that is different from their own, socialisation and the excitement associated with experiencing a new way of life can also become a problem. This explains why it is important to maintain a work/life balance whereby individuals are able to achieve a balance between their time and energy in ways that satisfy their needs for wellbeing, while simultaneously ensuring that their goals are accomplished (Clutterbuck 2003).

Striving for balance

The main challenge for international students is to become accustomed to a new academic and cultural community. International students, in particular, feel intense pressure to succeed because many of them have scholarships and/or jobs in their native countries to which they will eventually return. In addition to the difficulties with language and comprehension (which may impede effective communication), international students also face personal challenges such as managing their finances, coping without family support, and psycho-social challenges (such as making new friends), isolation, loss of social status and understanding different rules that apply to varying social situations. Moreover, they may also experience academic challenges, such as balancing their work loads with their social lives, and having sufficient knowledge and skill in their areas of study (Myles and Cheng 2003).

As a result of these factors, maintaining a healthy balance between academic progress, paid work and socialising becomes vital to ensure progress and success. In other words, the interplay between academic and non-academic demands plays a crucial role in defining the cultural, social, intellectual and personal experience of international students. To illustrate, some studies show that maintaining this balance can be difficult, in that many international students focus more on the process of socialisation to ‘fit in’. Myles and Cheng (2003) note that many international students attempt to spend more time with host nationals so that they may have fewer problems with social adjustment at the university. Although this may be advantageous, it can also result in a loss of focus and direction, as social activities are deemed to be of higher importance. If international students want to feel accepted, they need to participate in a host cultural milieu to acquire new cultural knowledge, cultivate better emotional and aesthetic sensitivity and expand the range of their behavioural repertoire – even if this means engaging in practices such as binge drinking (Kim 1994).

On the other hand, there may be certain instances in which the academic aspect of students’ university lives is given more value and focus. This is not entirely healthy either (Raina and Vats 1990; Yang 2010). For example, it is important to recognise that although goals and ambitions are initially set by perceptions, emotional reactions and evaluations may also play a role in the goal-setting process. For international students, the goal-setting process is often determined by the social system to which they belong or the cultural ideology they endorse. As explained by empirical research in social psychology, within certain subcultural groups, values and belief patterns, passed on from one generation to the next, can affect the goal-setting process. The question is how this process of goal setting affects international students who may have different norms, beliefs and value systems from those of local students.

To answer this question, in most non-western cultures, practices such as making sacrifices for the happiness of others, participating in the development of communities and nations, as well as working hard to ensure financial stability (to support family/community) are highly valued (Raina and Vats 1990). Thus although most international students from developing nations move to westernised states to acquire an education and a different cultural experience, a certain degree of responsibility is involved. For instance, many international students feel responsible for bettering their families and communities or else they are disappointed with themselves (Raina and Vats 1990). This responsibility makes it difficult for some international students to maintain a health study/work/life balance, as higher value is placed on the academic aspect of their lives in other countries.

Steps towards achieving a work/life/study balance

Achieving a healthy work/life/study balance is possible. One of the ways to do this is through effective time management. Study time needs to be defined and kept to a manageable level, leaving time for other social activities or paid work. As Filipovi?-Carter (2010) notes, the manageable level should be decided by the student, as each person learns at a different pace. Below are guidelines that Filipovi?-Carter provides as examples of effective practices in time management:

  • Conduct a daily audit: students should make a daily note of what they have learned in class. It allows them the sense of closing the day having achieved something and acts as a full stop to the work itself. In addition, this practice reduces stress during tests, exams or writing of assignments and also saves time as most of the material is already familiar.
  • Establish a working space: a place should be located whereby the student can read, write up essays, study or discuss work-related material. Making this physical (and therefore psychological) divide provides a space for working, easily differentiated from a space for relaxing. For instance, have the laptop on a desk to work and on the dining table to check Facebook or chat with friends.
  • Plan for tomorrow: setting a task for the next day enables the student to maintain focus and direction. This way, time is saved for other activities such as work and socialisation.

Alternatively, Landsberger (2010) notes that developing time-management skills is a practice that takes time. However, the important part involves organisation and prioritisation in a way that makes students successful in their studies, but also have time for work, friends and family.

Landsberger (2010) provides guidelines and strategies for using time effectively:

  • Divide study time into blocks with breaks: setting aside a particular time slot every day (or weekly) for studying saves time in the long run. Taking frequent but short breaks ensures that the concentration span of 45 minutes is still respected.
  • Use free time wisely: while walking or waiting for the bus, it is a good idea to review or study using flash cards. This way, time is used effectively and students are able to enjoy more time in recreation.
  • Plan how to spend each day or week: planning how to spend the day or week saves time, as a certain period is set aside for different activities. Developing a schedule that is visible each day is even more effective, as it acts as a constant reminder of what needs to be accomplished.

In addition, since university life is challenging, students’ energy can be focused on one particular aspect – work, study or socialisation. However, this can make it easy for university students to be off balance – particularly international students who are transitioning into a different social/academic/cultural environment. In turn, being off balance can lead to stress, poor health and a general dissatisfaction with life (Eliopoulos 2009). It is thus important for students to identify and acknowledge how balanced their life is, so that changes can be made if required.

The wheel of balance is a tool used to assess how balanced individual students’ lives may be, through a vivid visual representation of how their lives are currently (in comparison to what they might want them to be). This is an effective tool, as it can provide students with a picture of what is important in their lives; this process is a step towards finding and maintaining a healthy study/work/life balance (Mind Tools 2010).


Sometimes it may seem easy to think of people’s personal and professional lives as separable. However, we have only one life to live. This is why the balance between work and life is important: it is a reflection of the balance within the individual. For international students, maintaining a healthy study/work/life balance is often harder due to the range of different reasons discussed in this chapter. These include the pressure to conform, as well as difficulty in communicating due to language barriers (Robinson et al. 2009). Maintaining a healthy work/life/balance is essential for international students to enjoy a fulfilling and happy university experience. In Robert Fulghum’s words: ‘Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some’ (cited in Dawson 2007, 69).


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A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen