UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Religious communities may provide an important social support community for international college students in the United States, according to researchers at Penn State. Specifically, the team found that religious communities also may help to provide culturally sensitive counseling to international students. The team focused its investigation on Chinese international students.
“Church activities are often carefully and purposefully designed to nurture relationships among students from different backgrounds,” said Chi Nguyen, doctoral candidate in education policy studies and data analyst at the Schreyer Honors College, “and many international students respond positively to this.”
For example, one student participant in the study said of her first day in town, “I still remember my feeling after arriving at (the local) airport, I felt lost and unfamiliar. Everything was new to me. I thought that no one would pick me up at the airport. I didn’t know how to take a bus or a taxi to my dorm. Suddenly, I saw Jiahe, … It was my first time to see him. He stood right beside the exit door and held a flag that read ‘Chinese Home Church welcomes new students.’ I still remember my feeling at that moment. I knew that I was home. I had a sense of belonging here.”
According to the study, students from Mainland China comprise more than a third of international students in the United States.
“These students are important contributors to higher education institutions academically, financially and culturally,” she said. “Overall, international students contribute some $40 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.”
However, these students often lack access to adequate support issues related to culture shock, language barriers and academic challenges caused by unfamiliar teaching styles and learning environments, she added.
“A recent study found that nearly half of Chinese international students interviewed reported depression symptoms and slightly fewer reported anxiety symptoms,” said Nguyen. “Many on-campus counseling centers lack culturally knowledgeable staff to cater their services to a diverse international student population.”
Nguyen and her colleagues Anke Li, doctoral candidate in education policy studies, and Jinhee Choi, doctoral candidate in learning and performance systems, conducted an ethnographic study — in which they observed the subjects directly — of the effects of participation in a Christian church community on Chinese international undergraduate students’ social experiences.
Li came up with the idea of doing research on Christian international students after conducting interviews with Christian and non-Christian Chinese undergraduate students for a prior research project.
“It seemed that students who participated in Christian communities were more peaceful and satisfied with their experiences of studying abroad,” Li recalled. “This intrigued me to explore the reasons behind their different experiences.”
Soon after, Nguyen and Choi joined Li in her investigation.
Together, the team spent approximately six hours per week for 13 months observing students’ interactions and conversations within the worship services, bible studies, weekly dinners and informal gatherings of the “Chinese Home Church,” a Chinese Christian church in a university town in the Northeast.
Additionally, the team interviewed Chinese international undergraduate students who participated in this church and its fellowship. Specifically, the researchers asked the students to share their stories and experiences of participating in the church community and how these experiences have shaped their lives in the United States. They also asked participants to reflect on how the church has helped them develop their social networks and academic skills. Finally, they asked for the students’ opinions about friendship inside and outside of the church. They report their results in the Aug. 7 issue of Social Sciences.
“From both our observations and interviews, it is clear that the ‘Chinese Home Church’ provided a welcoming and caring environment for Chinese international students, helping them to enrich their lives socially and, to some extent, academically,” said Choi. “For some Chinese students, most of whom grew up in the Chinese one-child policy era, this is their first time living away from their parents. Therefore, our participants often rely on the church community in times of difficulty. The church’s pastor and senior mentors, whose cumulative knowledge and experience in the ministry well equips them for this role, often serve as parental figures to Chinese students and offer them trustworthy judgments and advice.”
According to Choi, the church also functioned as an informal counseling center, where students could share their emotional and mental distress and receive practical and culturally relevant advice.
Li added that the church provided this environment without proselytizing.
“The focus was more on building community than on teaching Christianity,” said Li. “It was about offering care for the feelings and experiences of new students.”
The authors conclude that higher education institutions should aim to understand the struggles that international students face during their process of adaptation and use this knowledge to design counseling services. For example, they could hire counselors with international and/or multicultural personal and professional backgrounds who may have more in common with international students. Likewise, universities could also consider creating other supportive communities or organizations for their international students.
“Most international students do not have access to family-like communities such as those provided by religious organizations,” said Li. “It is important for higher education institutions to learn from this model.”