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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

CHAPTER 10

PEER NETWORKS OF INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL STUDENTS IN AN AUSTRALIAN ACADEMIC COMMUNITY

This study explores the peer networks of four first-year international students enrolled in a faculty of medicine at an Australian university. The number of international students enrolling in medical faculties of Australian universities has been increasing significantly in recent years, thus resulting in the emergence of a student body that is characterised by diversity in cultural backgrounds and languages spoken.

While the formation of social networks seems to be an important factor in international students’ adjustment into new academic communities, one of the most frequently argued points is that they have fewer contacts with host national students because of differences in their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Given the globalisation of the host country as well as the home country of international students, however, it is necessary to further investigate the complexity of the peer networks of international students and their academic participation in new discourse communities.

On the basis of data that focused on students’ activities for a period of one week, this study investigates individual peer networks in conjunction with the kinds of support which the individuals receive through their peer networks. Furthermore, it attempts to examine the way in which such individual peer networks were formed by analysing various factors such as students’ educational history, their place of residence and their future goals.

A detailed examination of peer networks reveals considerable multiplicity of social interaction of international students. It is crucial to advance a model which allows us to investigate the complex situation of international as well as host national students, since the backgrounds of students within one country could vary to a great extent these days. This research also shows that, other than linguistic and cultural differences, various factors are interdependent and this affects the separation of international students and host national students.

INTRODUCTION

There has been a growing number of international students studying at Australian universities over the past decades, and this has led to a diversification in students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In addition, the number of international students in the medical education at universities has been increasing rapidly in recent years. One of the factors contributing to the increase is that some countries such as Malaysia offer scholarships for their students to undertake undergraduate education outside their home country. In some faculties of medicine, students coming with such scholarships comprise a significant portion of international students.1

Within the cross-cultural educational literature, many studies have been undertaken on the problems faced by Asian international students in English academic communities (Zamel 1995; Ballard and Clanchy 1997; Spack 1997). The social networks of international students have also been examined in order to investigate international students’ adjustment difficulties during their transitional period in a new academic community. With respect to social networks, it is argued that individuals create personal communities which provide them with meaningful support for solving the problems which they encounter on an everyday basis (Mitchell 1969), and it is also claimed that international students’ acquisition of academic literacy depend on the relationships with other members of the academic community (Braine 2002). Furthermore, others have argued that international students’ frequent contact with host national students increases their satisfaction with their academic experiences (Klineberg and Hull 1979; Perrucci and Hu 1995).

While the formation of social networks seems to be an important factor in international students’ adjustment into a new academic community, it is frequently claimed that such students have fewer contacts with host national students because of differences in their cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Bochner et al. 1977). Such an argument has been supported by various studies investigating the experiences of international students (Furnham and Bochner 1982; Furnham and Alibhai 1985; Ward and Kennedy 1993; Treloar et al. 2000). Focusing on international medical students, Treloar et al. (2000) indicate that most international students experience isolation in the process of group learning as a consequence of differences in their cultural backgrounds. The authors also show that international students feel anxious regarding socialisation with host national peers. It has also been argued that international students have difficulties in accessing host national peer groups, and the result is that they remain outsiders to the new academic community (Deem and Brehony 2000).

Although the above-mentioned studies provide a few insights into the problems which transitional students could encounter during the course of their study, there are few empirical studies with in-depth analysis of the complexity of peer networks and how such peer networks might influence students’ actual academic participation. Furthermore, an investigation of the peer networks of international students needs to be examined in conjunction with the situations surrounding them, including their cultural, historical, and socioeconomic contexts (Kudo 2003). Thompson (1996) also suggests that although individual personal networks could be illustrated in detail, they can only be understood when contextualised within a broader social framework. To the present day, although there is a considerable amount of studies on peer networks, these have insufficiently dealt with such factors in association with the peer networks of international students. Accordingly, little research has been conducted which explores the ways in which situational factors influence the peer networks of international students.

Furthermore, while the cultural and linguistic diversity of international students are often apparent, the students of the host country are also, in fact, diverse in the Australian context in recent times due to the growing number of overseas-born permanent residents in this country. Previous research on the peer networks of international students has identified a number of features which characterise such students. And yet, it appears that little attention has been paid to the fact that the notion of diversity can apply not only to international students but also to students of the host country.

This study therefore deals with the experiences of international students of Asian background at an Australian university, especially focusing on the peer networks of first-year medical students. The aim of this research is to explore the way in which these students interact with others and how they utilise peer networks in the new academic discourse community. Given the internationalisation within the host country as well as the home country of the international students, the dynamics of the peer networks of international students is an important topic for empirical research. This study specifically addresses two principal questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of the social networks of first year international medical students? And,
  2. How do the peer networks of international students facilitate their participation in their medical course?

THE FRAMEWORK FOR PEER NETWORK ANALYSIS

This study will draw on Bochner et al.’s (1977) functional model of friendship networks. According to Bochner et al., international students primarily belong to the following three different networks:

  1. Monocultural or co-national networks consisting of close friends with other sojourners;
  2. Bicultural networks, consisting of host nationals; and,
  3. Multicultural networks of friends.

In addition, Bochner et al. propose that the above three networks have distinct functions. Specifically, the main function of the first kind of network, co-national or mono-cultural networks, is to maintain cultural values. The second network, that is, bicultural networks, play a role in helping students solve academic problems. The third kind of network, multicultural networks, provides recreational activities. In their interpretation, recreational activities refer to ‘non-cultural’ and ‘non-task oriented’ activities.

Although Bochner et al.’s (1977) functional model is simple, it has been utilised for more than 25 years to examine the peer networks of international students in various countries without modification. However, Kudo’s (2003) recent study investigating Japanese international students at an Australian university points out some problematic features of such a simplified functional model. Kudo’s modified functional model includes four specific functions:

  1. Providing social needs, including shopping and eating;
  2. Helping to solve academic and everyday problems, including giving information about the host society;
  3. Learning the host culture; and,
  4. Adjusting their cultural identity.

Kudo (2003) also found that peer networks actually have multiple functions. He further argues that a difference in the peer networks could exist between students who aim to remain in Australia and those who plan to return to their home country after completing their academic course.

I will apply Kudo’s modified model together with Bochner et al.’s original functional model in considering the functions of peer networks. Although Kudo (2003) nominates four functions, due to the limited scope of this study, I will examine the first and second functions listed above, with a specific focus on academic support and activities which occur during the students’ lunch-break period. This period of time was chosen in order to examine whether the social networks of participants and their study networks overlap or whether they have different networks depending on types of activities. Furthermore, although Bochner et al.’s functional model does not distinguish co-national networks from mono-cultural networks and has used these terms interchangeably, this study employs the classification of ‘co-national networks’ rather than ‘mono-cultural networks’.

It should be also noted that while Bochner et al. as well as Kudo use the term friendship networks, this study utilises the term peer networks to indicate the social networks of international students with their peers. Social networks are defined by Milroy (1980) as ‘the informal social relationship contracted by an individual’ (p. 174). Peer networks are therefore employed in this study to examine international students’ networks with their peers in the academic community.

THE STUDY

PARTICIPANTS

This study deals with four first-year international students of Asian background enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine with the pseudonyms of Ling, Kate, Hassan and Kenyong, who were studying at the Australian university in August 2005. Their details are found in Table 1.

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Table 1 Profile of participants

All participants have continued on to further education after completing their secondary education. Ling undertook secondary education in Malaysia and then studied at a college for one and a half years. During her college education in Malaysia, she undertook the South Australian matriculation, which means that she studied half of the Year 11 and the entire course of Year 12 provided for Australian domestic students in South Australia. There, English was used as the language of instruction. Kate also graduated from a college in Malaysia to obtain the South Australian Matriculation. The language of instruction used in her college was also English.

The reason why Ling and Kate undertook Australian, rather than Malaysian education, is related to the fact that they are sponsored by the Malaysian government. The Public Service Department in Malaysia provides scholarships for students to further their studies overseas. Under this program, called JPA (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam in Malay language), students will be sponsored for further studies at universities overseas. However, before commencing their study overseas, they are required to undertake preparatory courses conducted at a local college for about one to two years. Moreover, students under this scholarship are required to carry out medical practice for 10 years in Malaysia after obtaining their medical degree, which means that Ling and Kate are required to go back to Malaysia upon completion of their medical course in Australia. In the Australian university in which this study was conducted, there were about 25 first-year medical students coming under this JPA program each year.

The third participant, Hassan, also came to this university under a scholarship program. However, his program is distinct from JPA and is referred to as MARA (Majlis Amanah Rakyat in Malay language), which means the Council of Trust for the Indigenous People. The objective of this program is to encourage Bumiputera students, that is, Malay-background students, to further their studies at institutions of higher learning locally or abroad. Upon being selected as a qualified student, Hassan undertook a two-year college course in Malaysia with other Malay background students who are under the MARA program. Furthermore, this program also requires students to carry out medical practice back in Malaysia, although the length of practice is limited to four years. Approximately 40 MARA students were studying first-year medicine at the university in the case study when the data was collected.

While the above three participants are from Malaysia, Kenyong is from Singapore. He also undertook college education for two years after completing secondary education in Singapore. The language used in his secondary and college education as the medium of instruction was English. Although all the Malaysian students came with a scholarship, Kenyong is the only participant in this study who is self-sponsored.

DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURES

Three data collection procedures were employed in this study: a semi-structured interview, diary entries by participants over a period of one week and a second interview based upon their diary entries. The first interview was conducted to gain participants’ background information. Subsequent to the first interview, each participant was asked to keep a diary for a period of one week about all their activities, including in-class and out-of-class activities, as well as a record of what they thought or felt about them. Soon after they completed their diary, they were asked to participate in the second interview to talk about their one-week activities, based on their diary entries. The second interview was conducted with the aim of providing a more detailed and clearer picture of the informants’ participation in the English academic community. Each of these interviews lasted 20 to 40 minutes and the language used in all interviews was English. In addition, all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed.

This second interview corresponds to an interaction interview. Neustupný (2002, 2003) argues that this kind of interview is one of the few methods for collecting data about actual behaviour which could be difficult to record or to observe. Additionally, Neustupný suggests that this method allows informants to report their feelings and thoughts on the topic of each activity. It was thus expected that informants’ accounts in the interaction interview would provide us with a closer picture of their everyday participation in the Australian academic community than would be possible using data from a general interview.

FINDINGS

CHARACTERISTICS OF PEER NETWORKS OF FIRST-YEAR INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL STUDENTS

CO-NATIONAL NETWORKS

Ling, Kate, and Hassan, had significantly strong co-national networks, and they interacted with co-national students studying medicine most frequently compared with other national peers, both in and outside the classroom. With regard to in-class interaction, Ling, for instance, often went to classes with her Malaysian friend and they sat next to each other in class, including lectures and tutorials. Kate also commented that she usually sat with her Malaysian friends in class. Another example of in-class interaction with co-national peers was found in Hassan’s participation. During the week under investigation, there was a class for self study in a museum where medical students were encouraged to study individually, without any explicit instruction from a tutor. In this class, Hassan discussed what they had learned so far in the week with his three Malaysian friends of Malay background and they conversed in the Malay language. With respect to interaction outside the classroom, Ling and Hassan had frequent contact with co-national students who belong to the same religious community. Ling was a member of a Christian church, which consisted mostly of international Chinese-background students coming from Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong. Some of the Malaysian students were undertaking medicine, while others were studying other disciplines, such as business and commerce. Hassan, on the contrary, belonged to the Muslim community in the university, which resulted in his significantly frequent contact with other Muslim students from Malaysia. Hassan, furthermore, played soccer with other MARA students living in the university halls three times or more per week after class.

Although the participants in this study, especially the three Malaysian students, had a strong tendency to interact with co-national peers, both in and outside the classroom, critical issues emerged regarding the classification of co-national networks. Explicitly, Malaysia is essentially composed of diverse cultural and linguistic populations, including Malay, Chinese and Indian background people, and even among co-national students, distinct separation could depend on their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In fact, the co-national peer networks of Kate and Ling were mainly oriented toward Chinese- and Indian-background students, and the result was that they had little interaction with Malay background students. In contrast, Hassan’s co-national peer network was oriented toward Malay-background peers.

MULTICULTURAL NETWORKS

Multicultural networks also could be observed, although these networks seem to be less strong compared with co-national networks. Hassan, for instance, had occasional interaction with Kenyong, a Singaporean student with Chinese background living in the halls of residence. Kenyong, additionally, had frequent contact with another Malaysian peer studying first-year medicine and living in the same hall. Kate’s peer networks also demonstrated that she had rather frequent interaction with other national students, such as Singaporean medical students living in the halls of residence. In contrast, while interactions with other national students of the above three participants occurred mainly in the context of the halls, Ling interacted with other national students in her religious community outside the campus. However, it should be noted that although the nationalities of these church members are different from Ling, they are, in fact, Chinese background students. Furthermore, although there are many other international students coming from other counties such as Botswana in the Faculty of Medicine, the participants’ interactions with them were considerably limited and there was no interaction observed outside the classroom.

BI-CULTURAL NETWORKS

Minimal contact of the participants with host national students clearly emerged in this study. Based on the surveyed period of one week for the four students, there was only one interaction involving Kate. Kate had lunch once with a first-year medical local student and other JPA peers. However, although the student with whom Kate had lunch was regarded as a local student by the classification employed by this particular university, she was in fact a Malaysian-born-Australian student who had migrated to Australia six years earlier. This example indicates that the background of host national students is also diverse in the Australian university context, which results in a complex relationship between international students and host national students.

An awareness on the part of the students regarding limited social contact between international students and host national students emerged through the interviews. Kenyong commented on the lack of interaction with host national students, as shown in the excerpt below:

Excerpt 1

I realised that people here, they like to drink, and partying is a part of life, but, back in Singapore, group of friends which I have, it is not so much drinking, but we do other things, we will watch movies, probably engaged in sports, but people here, I think, they like to go drinking and go to pub, which is a part of their culture, their form of relaxation, their form of making friends, cultivating friendship, which I think sometimes, once in a while is alright, but if you do it too many times, it is a bit meaningless. Because, what’s the point of going to pub and drink, and get drunk? (Kenyong)

Hassan also commented about his awareness regarding cultural differences when fostering a good relationship with host national peers. Both Hassan and Kenyong reasoned that the lack of interaction with host national peers was due to cultural differences, especially the way of socialising with others. Interestingly, however, both Hassan and Kenyong did not refer to the fact that the local students have diverse cultural backgrounds. It may be that such an over-generalised account on cultural difference could emerge as a way of shifting responsibility from one factor to another. That is, putting too much emphasis or importance on cultural differences might cover a wide range of problems (Miller and Glassner 2004). Given this, it could be assumed that while cultural differences could be one explanation, there might be other factors contributing to the lack of interaction in this type of network. Further investigation is needed on this issue.

Based on the analysis of the data, a salient aspect that emerged concerning the classification of peer networks of international students is that the classification of peer networks made by Bochner et al. (1977) includes a significant limitation when applied to the current Australian context. As mentioned above, students coming from Malaysia have diverse backgrounds. Moreover, it was not just the international students whose background was diverse, but such a characteristic was also apparent among the some host national students. Consequently, even co-national students could share a different language as well as cultural background. On the other hand, even in bi-cultural networks, students could share the same linguistic as well as cultural background. Given this, an extra dimension is needed in the classification of Bochner et al. when examining international students in the context of Australian universities.

SITUATIONAL FACTORS REGARDING THE PEER NETWORKS OF INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL STUDENTS

INTERACTION HISTORY

It seems that interaction history could have a significant influence on participant’s peer networks. Ling, Kate, and Hassan came to this university under a scholarship program offered by the Malaysian government, and before commencing their medical study in Australia, they undertook college education for one to two years, as mentioned above. Each of them went to a different college, but in this Australian university, they all had peers who had attended the same college in Malaysia. This means that a potential peer network has already been established before their arrival in the new academic community, and this college network emerges as significant among the Malaysian students in this study. In fact, Kate had the most frequent interaction with the friend who also came to the university under the JPA program, as did Kate. Ling also had her most frequent contact with her peers who studied in the same college under the JPA program. Similarly, Hassan also had the most frequent contact with the group of MARA students who studied at the same college in Malaysia. He further commented positively about coming to this university with the group of MARA students. Thus, interaction history established through the government scholarship program seems to affect participants’ interaction in the new academic community in a significant way.

PLACE OF RESIDENCE

Another central factor influencing the peer networks of first-year medical students is their place of residence. All the participants in this study live in the halls of residence on campus, and they interact most frequently with peers living in these halls rather than with peers who live outside the campus. The following is an excerpt from the first interview with Kate, where she was asked about her friends living in the halls:

Excerpt 2

Some Malaysian, some Singaporean. Because most of my local students, they stay in their own house, and they go back everyday. They do not stay here (halls). So, most of my friends here are Malaysian and Singaporean. (Kate)

Although she made mention that she had local friends in the first interview, the second interview based on her diary records of one week’s interactions clearly revealed that her interactions with local friends were limited to a great extent. Her actual interactions with peers were limited to Malaysian or Singaporean peers living in the halls.

Ling and Hassan also interacted most frequently with peers residing in the halls. In this place of residence there were actually some Australian students as well as international students coming from America. It should be noted, however, that Ling and Kate interacted more with JPA students living in the halls. Hassan also interacted mostly with MARA students who resided in the same place. As such, it seems that their coming together as a group and also living in the halls together could be a plausible explanation for their frequent contact with co-national students.

LANGUAGE

Except for Hassan, all participants used English when interacting with their peers, regardless of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Kate and Ling used English, even when interacting with peers from Malaysia. This was because there were some Indian background students and others among the Malaysian students, and their home languages varied greatly. Furthermore, although the Malaysian government acknowledges that Malay language is the only official language, in reality, a significant number of individuals use English as their everyday language in Malaysia (Ishida 2004). The fact that Kate’s home language was English confirms the complexity of language use in Malaysia.

Hassan, in contrast, used Malay language when interacting with the other Malay students, with whom he interacted most frequently. For instance, he formed a group of all Malay-background students for a group assignment. He reported that the reason for forming a group consisting of all Malay background students was that they could communicate in Malay, which was more comfortable for him as the language of communication and for the discussion of academic subjects.

It should be noted, however, that Australian English is different from Singaporean or Malaysian English. In spite of this, given that the three participants used English regardless of the linguistic background of their peers, explaining the separation between international students and host national students from the perspective of linguistic distance appears to be rather simplistic. Although it is reasonable to assume that the linguistic difference could influence interaction with others, as can be seen from Hassan’s interaction, it also seems reasonable to suppose that there might be other factors influencing international students’ interaction with host national students.

STUDENTS’ FUTURE GOALS

As outlined above, all the Malaysian students in this study were required to serve the Malaysian government after graduating from this university for four to 10 years, depending on the program under which they came. The awareness that they were going back to Malaysia seemed to influence their interaction with peers. During the particular week in which participants wrote their diary entries, they were engaged in a group assignment. Ling, for instance, formed a group of six students for the group assignment, which consisted of only Malaysian students. When asked about the group, she commented:

Excerpt 3 (R = researcher; L = Ling)

R:   are they all from Malaysia?

L:   yeah, because basically, we are probably going back to Malaysia.

Just as Duff (this volume) notes the significance of taking into consideration international students’ current academic participation in relation to their future purposes, Ling’s awareness of returning to Malaysia seems to affect her selection of members for the group assignment. A detailed examination of participants’ experiences while accomplishing this group assignment will be presented in the next section.

ACADEMIC SUPPORT GAINED THROUGH THE PEER NETWORKS

When the data was collected, students were engaged in various types of academic activities. In this section, I will focus on group assignments and individual study, and discuss the kinds of academic support which international medical students gained through their peer networks.

GROUP ASSIGNMENTS

Within the medical course, students were required to undertake different kinds of group assignments. The use of group work in medical education seems to be linked to the function of developing teamwork skills, which is necessary when they actually practise as doctors in the future. Furthermore, group work is commonly employed as a means of promoting student-centred learning as well as collaborative learning.

All the students were engaged in writing reports on the topic of a rural health attachment, a one-week program in which they had participated during the previous week. This program was designed to develop students’ awareness of rural health, rural practice and rural communication through their participation in rural towns for a period of one week. During the week, all first-year students were placed in different rural towns by the faculty, which resulted in about 18 students per town. To complete the written work about this rural placement, students were required to form a group with six students of their own choice.

For this group assignment, Ling and Hassan formed a group with all Malaysian students whereas Kate formed a group with Malaysian and Singaporean students. The reasons for Ling’s and Hassan’s preference for a group of only Malaysian peers appear to be different. As mentioned before, Ling’s preference for forming such a group resulted from the fact that they would all go back to Malaysia in the future (see Excerpt 3). In contrast, Hassan formed a group of Malay-background students because of language-related issues. He thought that sharing a common language, that is, the Malay language, facilitated group members’ communication, which he believed would result in more effective management of the group assignment.

In contrast, Kenyong formed a group with four local students and one Botswanan student. This came about because there was no other student with whom he was familiar. Accordingly, he asked his Singaporean friend who was actually at a different rural placement for advice about this group participation. This friend advised him to form a group with a particular local Anglo-Saxon background student whom he knows to be a hardworking student. Accordingly, Kenyong formed a group with the local student and with others. Kenyong thus utilised his co-national network for advice when selecting members for the group assignment. Through his participation in this group, Kenyong reached a positive evaluation regarding the approach taken by the other members in accomplishing their group assignment. In his group, the work was divided up so that each member could work individually, and Kenyong seemed to be satisfied with this approach.

Although it is often argued that an individual approach is usually employed by local students, especially Caucasian students (Volet and Ang 1998; Wright and Lander 2003), dividing up each part of the assignment as a means of accomplishing this group work was also employed by the three other participants in this study. Ling’s group divided each writing part rather than work in close collaboration so that they also worked individually, as did Kenyong’s group. Consequently, Ling’s group members did not spend much time actually cooperating with each other in order to complete this assignment. Ling, in fact, commented on the difficulties of working collaboratively. Hassan’s group also divided up each part so that they could minimise the time to collaborate, as did Kate’s group which consisted of Malaysian and Singaporean students. Hassan, for example, skipped two classes and stayed in his room in order to finish his part before his group members met to consolidate their individual parts into one complete report. The positive consequences of collaborative learning have been often stressed and group work is regarded as an effective way for realising collaborative learning (Wright and Lander 2003). However, it seems that regardless of the background of their group members, participants in this study tended to work individually in the context of the group assignment rather than in close collaboration.

Moreover, while he did not seem to receive much academic support from them, Kenyong reported that working with local students changed his perceptions. The following quote illustrates how such experiences changed his stereotypical notion:

Excerpt 4

Before I went there, I did not know anybody there. It was quite scared. But the thing is, after the placement, I get to know more people, and widen my social circle, which is good. I used to have impression that locals are less hardworking, but I realised that it is not true. Actually I found locals are more hardworking than me, and I was really surprised. (Kenyong)

It seems that working with local students could contribute to international students re-examining the perceptions they held about local students, as shown in Kenyong’s example above. Although my findings are limited, they seem to support the recommendation of Volet and Ang that culturally mixed group experiences can contribute to the students’ realisation that their perception about peers from other groups are stereotypical and may need to be modified (Volet and Ang 1998). Although I first intended to investigate the academic support which participants received through particular peer networks while accomplishing group assignments, it was found that close collaboration was hard to be achieved, regardless of the peer networks to which participants belonged. Yet, another interesting finding emerged. Engaging in group assignments could contribute to students’ modification of stereotypical notions towards host national peers. Further investigation could be undertaken to determine whether such international students’ experiences with host national peers could contribute to their developing close relationships with each other.

INDIVIDUAL STUDY

In addition to the academic support observed in the particular week, regular patterns of academic-related functions of peer networks became apparent from the interviews. It was found that participants sought academic support from co-national or multicultural peers living in the halls rather than from bi-cultural peers in terms of their individual study. Since neither Bochner et al. (1977) nor Kudo (2003) has specified functions relating to academic support gained through peer networks, I sought to explore the functions of academic support in detail in conjunction with three types of peer networks, as shown in Table 2.

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Table 2 Types of Function of Peer Networks of International Medical Students

With respect to co-national networks, Kate often studied with her Malaysian friend who lives in the same hall of residence. Kate also commented on the advantages of discussions with her Malaysian peers in order to clarify her understanding. Ling, for example, formed a study group with her two Malaysian JPA friends living in the same hall, and she regularly met with them once or twice a week. In this particular week, they took turns asking questions and answering them during their group study in order to clarify their understanding. This example of Ling illustrates that studying as a group with co-national peers facilitates her medical study. Hassan also commented on the advantages of studying together with Malay-background students with regards to clarifying unclear subject matter.

Interestingly, however, Ling originally participated in the Study Buddy System offered by the medical faculty. This system was established to enable first-year medical students to receive assistance from second-year students. In spite of this, the system did not work adequately for Ling because of the time conflict among students and their inability to arrange a mutually suitable time to meet. As a result, she quit the scheme. Such an experience indicates that medical students sometimes have difficulties arranging meeting times during their course of medical education. In fact, none of the participants in this study participated in the Study Buddy System. Instead of the normal six-year medical course at other Australian universities, a five-year curriculum was implemented at this particular university a few years ago. Due to this significant change in terms of curriculum, Ling and Hassan commented on the difficulties with time management in their academic participation. As a result, Ling, for instance, chose to form a group of co-national peers living in the same hall so that they could meet more easily. This experience of Ling seems to indicate that her co-national networks provide her with study opportunities which were not achieved through the formal Study Buddy System offered by the faculty.

However, such co-national peer support was not always satisfactory. While Ling commented that her study group helped with her medical study to a certain extent, contrary to her expectation, it did not help her all the time. More specifically, although her group planned to meet twice during the week under investigation, one of the meetings was cancelled due to her group mates’ inadequate preparation for the meeting. Ling reported a considerable disappointment about the cancellation, which suggests that even among co-national peers, regular mutual commitments among participants is necessary in order for such academic support to function effectively.

With regard to multicultural networks, it was observed that participants, especially Hassan, utilised this type of network in order to clarify uncertain subject content. He sought academic support from Kenyong. Another interesting finding is that peer networks were utilised depending on the study area as follows:

Excerpt 5

I cannot study with my friends, especially, when you have to understand content, I prefer to study alone, because if I study with friends, you tend to, for me personally, tend to talk to my friends. If my friends were not sure, they would ask me. And this is kind of interrupting my reading. Because I need concentration, I do not want to be interrupted... For something that you have to memorise, and you have to study, I prefer to have enclosed environment where I can do everything for myself. (Kenyong)

Kenyong’s account indicates that although he regards group study as a hindrance to his own study (regardless of the member’s background), he did prefer to study with peers, including co-national peers as well as multicultural peers, when practising practical skills, such as interviewing skills. This shows that Kenyong’s use of peer networks depended on the area of study. Kenyong further commented on his utilisation of peer networks as the first source of obtaining academic information when he needed support.

PROVISION OF SOCIAL NEEDS DURING LUNCH BREAK

In order to investigate the linkage between study networks and social networks, the participants’ activities during the lunch break were examined. Lunch-time rather than dinner time was chosen to minimise the factor of residential proximity to others. Nevertheless, the analysis reveals that the participants’ study networks and social networks overlapped to a large extent. Kate had the most frequent contact with JPA students during lunch time. These same students also lived in the halls of residence with her and were those from whom she received academic support. Moreover, she mentioned that she had little contact with Malay-background students because of their religious restrictions on food. As mentioned earlier, Kate actually had little contact with Malay-background students, either at meals or on other occasions. Likewise, Hassan had little interaction with other peers, except for MARA students, during lunch time. He usually went to the library with his MARA friend and studied there while eating lunch, unless he went back to the halls of residence for a meal.

However, Kate had lunch once with a Malaysian-born local student, who was studying first-year medicine together with other JPA students. Other than having lunch with Malaysian medical peers, Ling also had lunch with Malaysian peers studying at other faculties once in the week under investigation. This seems to be because she had established these networks through the church community. Such examples imply that students’ study networks and social networks are not always the same. However, given that Ling’s interaction with non-medical peers was limited in comparison with her interaction with Malaysian medical peers, similar to Kate, it seems that participants’ study networks and social networks share some commonalities.

Bochner et al. (1977) suggest that peer networks have specific functions depending on their orientation. Conversely, as Kudo (2003) contends, it was observed that the peer networks of international students have multiple functions, and it was particularly found that co-national peer networks play various roles, including providing academic support and meeting the social needs of students.

CONCLUSION

This study has explored the peer networks of international first-year medical students in an Australian university, especially focusing on the characteristics and specific functions of the peer networks. Drawing on Bochner et al.’s (1977) functional model as well as Kudo’s (2003) modified functional model, the ways in which peer networks facilitate students’ participation were investigated. As previous studies indicated, it was found that international students have little interaction with host national students. However, it was also found that Bochner et al.’s (1977) functional model is insufficient when dealing with international students in the context of an Australian university. This study has demonstrated that even within co-national peer networks, students’ cultural background as well as shared language could vary. Furthermore, it was also found that even local students and international students sometimes shared cultural background because of the increasing number of local students who have migrated from the same country as the international students. This study also highlighted some situational factors relating to the separation between international students and host national students. It had been often argued that the distance between international students and host national students was caused by cultural and linguistic distance. However, this study showed that although such explanation did have certain merit, other factors could affect their participation in the new discourse community, such as students’ interaction history or future goals. This, in turn, was affected by their given condition which was that they were recipients of a government scholarship.

In terms of the functions that the peer networks possessed, it became apparent that co-national as well as multicultural peer networks played a significant role in facilitating participants’ medical study. Although such peer networks did not always support international students’ study, participants had positive perceptions towards the academic support gained through co-national and multicultural networks. Another finding was that close co-national peer networks had multiple functions, which included providing academic support as well as meeting students’ social needs. It should be emphasised that when international students have strong academic support from co-national and multicultural peers, they seem to perceive that they do not need to rely on host national peers.

Although the small sampling of data used in this research limits the generalisability of the results, the analysis of peer networks of four international medical students enables us to appreciate the complexity of the academic interaction in which international students engage during their transitional process of beginning to study at an overseas institution. The findings in this study have several important implications. First, extra dimensions should be added to Bochner et al.’s (1977) functional model when investigating the peer networks of international students in Australian universities. It is crucial to advance a model which allows us to investigate the complex situation of international as well as host national students, since the backgrounds of students within one country could vary to a great extent these days. Second, this study which deals with university-degree students suggests that, other than linguistic and cultural differences, various factors are interdependent and this affects the separation between international students and host national students. Interactional history and students’ future goals could be fundamental factors. One must thus be aware of such complex situational factors when examining the peer networks of international students.

Given that the learning for international students actually is taking place in the context of co-national as well as multicultural networks, further research needs to be conducted on such aspects of their participation in the new academic domain. Research on the way in which peer networks are utilised by international students and how the newly established peer networks develop would also offer us valuable insights regarding international participation in a new discourse community. In order to provide effective support for international students, it is also important to further investigate the kinds of academic support which international students find hard to gain through peer networks. Furthermore, taking into account that a range of factors influence international students’ participation in the English academic community, further research will need to explore the complex set of interdependent factors influencing their participation.

ENDNOTE

1     Ayako Wakimoto was a postgraduate student at Monash University at the time of writing this chapter.

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Cite this chapter as: Wakimoto, A. 2007. ‘Peer networks of international medical students in an Australian academic community’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 10.1 to 10.16.

© Copyright 2007 Ayako Wakimoto
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown